BALTIMORE — A cruise travel agent will serve more than three years in federal prison and pay nearly $433,000 in restitution for committing fraud.
News WMAR-2 Mallory Sofastaii first reported this program in 2019. Many Marylanders thought they were buying discount travel packages from Diana Hopkins of Florida-based Hopkins Travel Services, instead their payments were used to finance travel for other customers.
RELATED: Federal authorities are investigating a cruise travel agency
Hopkins’ lawyer shared his remorse for causing his clients harm and said greed didn’t fuel his actions, it was his gambling addiction.
“I believe in my heart, and I have represented many people charged with white collar criminal fraud, that Ms. Hopkins committed this crime solely as a result of a gambling addiction,” said Mark O’Brien, who represented Hopkins and spoke with WFTS Tampa after his sentencing hearing on Monday.
O’Brien asked for a lesser sentence saying she accepted responsibility by pleading guilty, needed further treatment for her addiction and was caring for 12 foster children.
“She knows that individuals trusted her as a travel agent and she breached that trust,” O’Brien said.
Judge stayed within sentencing guidelines ordering 37 months in federal prison and $432,939 in restitution.
And last week, O’Brien said the state of Florida had decided to remove the children in his care.
READ MORE: Travel agency accused of fraud agrees to pay $500,000 in restitution
“I want to see everyone who’s out of money get their money back,” said Karen Regan, who bought a cruise package from Hopkins in 2019.
She thought she had booked a bucket list cruise at a bargain price.
“I had heard about it through a friend of mine who had gone to high school with Diana Hopkins and a group of their friends had traveled with her before, no problem, so I trusted her,” said Regan said.
So she recruited 60 of her friends from the Dundalk, Essex and Pasadena areas to go with her in May 2021.
“We couldn’t pass it up, it was cheap,” Regan said.
But the “buy one, get one free” offer didn’t exist. Federal prosecutors found that Hopkins was using customers’ credit cards to make Ponzi-like payments on other customers’ reservations.
“She used people’s cards everywhere,” Regan added.
WMAR-2 News revealed the operation in 2019 when customers sent Norwegian Cruise Line invoices to Sofastaii. Their trips had been canceled after Hopkins was suspected of committing credit card fraud.
In one example, Hopkins sold a trip for $2,300, but it actually totaled $7,000. Of the 12 payment cards used to make the reservation, only three belonged to the customer.
“She was robbing Peter to pay Paul and unfortunately it caught up with her,” O’Brien said.
Regan and her friends got refunds from Norwegian Cruise Line.
And according to O’Brien, Hopkins has already refunded a number of customers. Of the 320 customers and 7 legal entities defrauded, 91 are still liable.
Hopkins has two weeks to file a notice of appeal.
In Maryland, no license or certification is required to be a travel agent, which is why it is important for consumers to research who they are working with.
Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel Ltd. in Davidsonville, Md., has provided these tips for finding a travel agent you can trust.
READ MORE: Find a travel agent who can offer you the vacation of your dreams