In 2021, my husband, sister, and I signed up for the five-day Tremendous Tawas Lake Huron tour operated by Pardson, the Ohio company that publishes Bird Watcher’s Digest. We paid close to $4,800 in total. The tour was canceled due to Covid that year, but we were so eager to see the rare Kirtland tweeter that we accepted credit. Shortly before the rescheduled flight was due to depart in May 2022, the company emailed to let us know they were going out of business, and someone would contact us about a refund. Nobody did, but through my own efforts I contacted Jack Harris, the receiver responsible for Pardson’s solution. He told me the only way to get my money back would be through my credit card. But American Express said I was too late. Can you help? Page, Atlanta
My inbox is full of messages from people who, like you, didn’t consider whether the company they booked a flight with would still be solvent until the date they left.
However, most of these complaints are about missed flights and cruises, not the missed opportunity to see a Yellow-breasted songbird So rare that it breeds almost exclusively in the shade of young pines in Michigan and Wisconsin.
What this bird cutie has against the shade of more mature trees is beyond the scope of this column. But I can tell you the frustrating reason why your money’s gone forever—although many others, in similar situations, can get their money back relatively easily.
We are basically talking about bankruptcy. But I don’t use that term here because, technically, it only applies to cases filed in the federal court system—often using the infamous Chapters 7 and 11. Pardson, the company that has published Bird Magazine since 1978 and conducts its rounds, has filed in the Ohio court system.
But for our purposes, the federal and state processes, like crows and ravens, are more alike than different. And in both systems, there is one very obvious way for travelers to get their money back, and another – with much longer odds – if the first method fails.
The easiest way is through a credit card, although there are only certain conditions. To get started, the traveler must have used a credit card – debit cards and other payment methods will not work. This is because credit card issuers must follow the Fair Credit Billing Act, which President Gerald Ford signed into law in 1974. Under one provision of this law, credit card issuers are required to refund cardholders who have been victims of billing errors.
The law’s definitions of a “billing error” include the company’s subsequent failure to provide a good or service. How does bankruptcy retroactively turn what was a legitimate purchase into an invoice error? I don’t know, but I’m not complaining.
I actually used an Amex credit card with an annual fee of $500. But it turns out the magazine gave you bad advice when they canceled the tour in 2022 and told you to wait until someone contacted you about a refund. If instead they recommend that you contact your credit card company immediately, chances are you’ve got your money back.
This is true even though the Fair Credit Billing Act technically requires you to contact your card issuer within 60 days of the purchase. In an email, American Express spokeswoman Jessica Defilipo wrote: “In general, the 60-day limit can be extended to give Cardmembers up to 120 days from the time of purchase, or in the case of pre-booked travel, from the date on which travel was scheduled to take place.”
That last part is key, because so many people book travel well in advance. Spokespeople for Bank of America and Chase tell me their credit cards have similar policies.
This is great for everyone but you. You mentioned that Mr. Harris, the recipient with Pardson, advised you to try American Express and explained to them that you had just found out about the company’s collapse.
It was nearly 11 months after your travel date, and yet, as you know, American Express denied your claim, likely because it was too long. (Ms. Devilippo writes that “each case is evaluated uniquely,” but she can’t comment on your specific case.)
That leaves you with a second, and more insidious, route to recovery: filing a claim on the liquidated assets of the company, which is now controlled by Mr. Harris and subject to approval by the Court of Common Pleas in Washington County, Ohio.
Marvin Sicherman, a veteran bankruptcy attorney who also teaches law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, sought to temper any expectations. His opinion, having described your condition:
I would say to creditor people, close your eyes. what do you see? nothing? Well, that’s what you’re going to recover from.”
Mr Harris declined to comment. I knew the court documents would contain the information, but had a hard time accessing them until I had the skillful help of Brenda Wolf, clerk of Washington County courts since 1979. (She answered my cold calls in the first episode.)
Documents showed that when Pardson failed, he had very few assets other than a truck and computer equipment. When I sent the documents to Mr. Sicherman, he said that those assets would probably cover a little more than Mr. Harris’ fee. Anything beyond that, he said, would go to employees or secured creditors, such as a bank that could get its property back from a mortgage or car loan. For you, as an unsecured creditor, filing a claim is unlikely to be worth the time.
Court documents revealed that Mr Harris had commissioned the judge to approve the sale of the same magazine to a new owner. But that owner who renamed the magazine BWDonly take responsibility for fulfilling approximately $200,000 in unrealized subscriptions for subscribers, and no obligations with the tours.
The new publisher also didn’t reply to my emails, but to a local NBC affiliate a report As of March 2022, the new publisher has indicated that the new publisher has taken on some old staff, and – frustratingly for you – that one of the reasons the magazine has been put on notice is “having to issue refunds for bird tours due to the pandemic”.
This leads us to a two-part lesson. Part One: When a flight is canceled and you’re given the choice between getting your money back or accepting credit, take the money. Part Two: When you have no choice, stand up for the money anyway, because if the company fails or you never run the round, you’re out of luck.
Here’s a small piece of the good news for everyone: The above scenario usually applies When a company is dissolved, it can never be seen again. There is greater hope for consumers when a company reorganizes through bankruptcy, as companies may strive not to alienate loyal customers.
Then there’s the lesson that Jane from Brooklyn, another Tripped Up reader, learned earlier this year. Her family’s flight from New York to Sicily is disrupted when the flight of Flyer, a two-year-old Norwegian airline, crashes. Filed bankruptcy In January, she thwarted her husband and sons’ plans to fly a major airline to Oslo and then hop the Flyer from Oslo to Palermo. When Flyr went down, they were stuck with round-trip tickets to Oslo and no easy way to get from there to Italy. After messaging me, but within 60 days of purchase, Jane requested and received a refund on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card. But the cost and inconvenience of assembling new and indirect flights made her cringe the day she tried to save money with an untested airline.
When I suggested to Mr. Sicherman that travelers might want to avoid new, untested companies, he told me it wasn’t so simple. He said, “The average consumer has no way of determining the creditworthiness of any business entity with which he deals.”
But thanks to Ford-era law, you can reduce your risk with the best credit card you have.
If you need advice on the best travel plan laid out awry, Email [email protected].