- More than 2 000 people have accused travel agency Hello Darlings of defrauding them of thousands of rands after booking their dream holidays.
- The group is on a mission to do whatever it takes to get their hard-earned money back.
- The CEO of Hello Darlings has since deactivated all her social media accounts and is believed to have fled the country.
Expensive flights and classy five-star hotels at luxurious destinations across the world – it sounded like the perfect holiday for thousands of clients in South Africa, but none got what they paid for.
Now a group of disgruntled clients is on a mission to do whatever it takes to get their hard-earned money back from a travel agency called Hello Darlings, after the company never delivered on the agreements.
By Tuesday afternoon, the group, which was formed on Telegram, had more than 2 500 members.
Hundreds of messages have been shared about their grievances and the difficulty of not being able to get hold of the company’s CEO.
The group alleged she might have fled the country.
Several clients in the group indicated they have opened cases with the police, but were waiting for their case numbers.
The clients provided News24 with the numbers they last used to communicate with the CEO, but it all went to voicemail.
The number for the company also went unanswered.
But this was not always the case.
In the past, clients had gone on “amazing holidays”, a woman, who previously worked for the CEO, told News24.
“I was assisting her with admin for six months but as an influencer I was advertising for her for few years now and there haven’t been any issues all the years. All the trips in the past have gone on as planned,” the woman, who asked not to be named, said.
“People have gone on amazing trips and now suddenly refunds aren’t being paid and she just disappeared. There are people in Maldives right now with accommodation not paid.”
The woman added she resigned from the company in January after several clients were not refunded.
“I was being harassed for people’s money when we are not responsible for their money because all the money went into a private account. People have been harassing us for their money and refunds and we are not liable for that.”
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She said her family was also allegedly scammed out of their holidays by the CEO.
“My parents, she owes them R68 000 for an America trip in December last year and my aunt was booked for a Dubai trip and she is owed R60 000. My cousin is currently booked for a trip in March and she doesn’t know what is going on with the trip.
The woman added she was unable to reach the CEO as she had gone missing.
“She has a Dubai cellphone number and it was active but it seemed like she blocked us all. Today, it says ‘no longer on WhatsApp’.
“We don’t know what the situation is right now and all we know is that she is unreachable. Her Instagram account is deleted and she can’t be reached.”
One of the members of the Telegram group, Michael Rentzke from Cape Town, told News24 his family had been saving 10 years for an overseas holiday.
Rentzke said he saw an advertisement of a “buy one get one special” to Mauritius for 18 to 25 March. The package was for two adults and two children at a five-star resort.
He added he paid Hello Darlings R42 000 through First National Bank in January 2022.
This sounded like the perfect holiday for the family.
“My family was very excited for this trip. My son, who is turning four in March, has been counting off on a calendar. And then this morning, we had to tell him that we can no longer go because a lady stole our money and now, we can’t fly.
“His response was, don’t worry, he has more money in his blue piggy bank. My heart broke,” Rentzke told News24.
He said they only received a trickle of information from staff since booking their holiday.
Since March, Rentzke added, they had been following up with the CEO “more intensively” and she responded to most messages with voice notes and assured them her bookers were working on issuing the tickets.
“Last night, the time bomb finally exploded and my wife told me that another woman, who was booked for the same trip as ours, sent a message to say that [the CEO] had deleted all her social media accounts from all platforms.
“We were both in complete and utter shock from it all and barely slept. Ten years of savings is basically gone overnight.
I keep on asking myself, how could I be so stupid? I work in the hospitality industry, and I know what to look out for. Before booking and paying, I checked if Hello Darlings had a website because I only knew it from Instagram. It indeed has a website.
“So, in my mind, we received an invoice for the holiday, we reference checked with other parties, we checked if it is a registered company.
“So, I feel that we tried to ensure that this was legitimate. Up until yesterday, my wife was seeing post of normal families like ours that were booked via Hello Darlings and who are currently in Mauritius.
“I just wish I could get my money back to take my family on the vacation they have been dreaming of,” Rentzke said.
Mahdiyyah Patel added her family decided early in January to book a trip to Turkey after seeing positive reviews of Hello Darlings from two influencers.
“They raved about her packages, and it looked really good. We decided in early January to book Turkey this year with the intention that we would go to celebrate my husband’s 30th birthday.
“We tried booking on our own and then we saw her special which was all inclusive for R30 000. I immediately contacted her, and she even agreed to swap out hot air ballooning in Cappadocia for a tour as we could not go on the balloon with our daughter,” Patel told News24.
She provided proof of their invoice of R29 995.
Patel added after they received the invoice, the CEO requested payment, but they had an issue with their bank.
She kept badgering her for payment. They eventually made a payment and requested a receipt and airline tickets.
Patel said the CEO told them she could only give them the receipt and tickets at the end of April. She then added them to a WhatsApp group.
“Last night, when we heard what happened, we tried contacting her to no avail. Her admin team is rude and takes no responsibility and has failed to provide info.
We are upset, angry and disheartened. Covid has been tough financially and emotionally, now this on top of it all. We used all our savings to finance this trip and we are now left high and dry.
“What’s more, we all work hard for our money and have been through a tough time, we all want downtime. No one has the right to judge us or make snide remarks which helps no one,” she added.
Another disheartened client, who asked to remain anonymous, also provided News24 with proof of paying R33 000 for a trip to Turkey.
“We were supposed to leave on Thursday, 10 March. The flights were booked, and we were issued our visas.
“The tickets were then refunded to [the CEO]. I called Emirates, and they had told me it’s been refunded. I have lost R33 000 hard-earned money which I have saved.
“I don’t understand why go through the hassle of making the bookings if she was planning on disappearing? Why go through that effort? She scammed us by refunding the ticket. But why book the ticket in the first place? I am very disappointed.”
A couple, who also spoke to News24 on condition of anonymity, said they stumbled upon the CEO’s Instagram page through the advertisement of many South African influencers, all claiming she was a “legitimate business”.
“Of course her page seemed too good to be true with such reduced package rates. I spoke to several people who were also following her page, everyone confirmed with me that they are really as good as they are selling it to be, many of my friends and family had successful experiences with her travel packages.
“My husband and I took our time to decide if we should go for it or not, we felt like we would miss out on a good opportunity as the advertisements kept urging people to book ‘whilst there was still space and availability’.
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“On 7 October 2021, we unfortunately committed to the Maldives package that was to travel on the 10 to 17 of January 2022. This was supposed to be our dream honeymoon destination.”
The couple also paid R12 500 for a room upgrade and was informed the tickets would be issued a month before departure. But when South Africa was put on the travelling red list in December, their trip was cancelled.
The couple rescheduled their trip for 10 to 17 March, but a few weeks before they were supposed to leave, their message to Hello Darlings’ admin team went unanswered.
“The entire weekend before the March trip, my husband was speaking to [the CEO] directly on her number, she was insisting that tickets will be issued but the date for the issuing of tickets kept changing.
“We contacted the resort, they said she had booked the rooms, but they have not received any payment for it. My husband and I are still students, we have been saving up for our honeymoon for 6 years and are absolutely shattered that [the CEO of] Hello Darlings could pull such a stunt.
“She swindled us and we are left disheartened by the money we lost, the trip we were so desperately looking forward to and saving towards. This woman needs to be caught. Her admin team needs to be held responsible. The influencers who backed up her legitimacy need to be held accountable.”
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