A Queens woman accused of cheating clients out of nearly $1 million in a Chinatown travel agency scam pleaded guilty to grand larceny charges Wednesday but avoided prison after agreeing to pay back her customers, officials said.
Vivian Cheng, 46, admitted that between February 2014 and last May, she defrauded customers of Bestway Travel, 12 Pell St., by failing to purchase them tickets for vacation travel to China, said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
In some cases, Cheng purchased one-way tickets for travelers who paid her for round-trip fares, leaving many victims stranded abroad in Asia with no way to return to the United States, Vance said in a prepared statement.
“In other cases, she charged her victims for round-trip fare but did not purchase tickets at all, instead providing her victims with receipts and itineraries designed to deceive them into believing that they possessed necessary documentation to travel,” Vance said.
The plea relates to counts covering customer losses of $45,000, officials said. In Manhattan Supreme Court Wednesday, Cheng admitted that the losses covered 350 victims and she made unauthorized charges on credit cards.
Cheng’s business unraveled last May when families found her Pell Street office shuttered and a notice of a federal bankruptcy filing posted on the door.
At the time, customers and Chinatown organizations claimed that hundreds of customers had lost over $1 million. In a bankruptcy hearing last year, Cheng and her brother, who wasn’t charged, said they ran into cash flow problems and used money from new customers to pay for the tickets of earlier customers, as well as to cover expenses.
Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said the plea deal in the case was a good result because it keeps his client out of jail if she pays back the victims in six months.
“As painful as it is for her, it is a good result,” Lichtman said, adding that Cheng was a music school graduate.
Some $500,000 earmarked to repay the victims will come from the sale of a family home on Staten Island purchased by her brother and mother 15 years ago, Lichtman said.
Under the plea bargain, Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree grand larceny and three counts of first-degree scheme to defraud, prosecutors said.
Cheng’s Chinatown business was in the same historic building where more than a century ago, noted song writer Irving Berlin got his start in an old gangster haven known as the Pelham Café.