When Juneau residents Eric and Janet Madsen learned in February family was coming for a summer visit, they looked for a special excursion to lock in ahead of the tourist rush.
They decided on longtime local tour boat operator Adventure Bound Alaska and booked a July 7 trip for $1,383.
On the eve of the tour, however, the company canceled and, when it became clear they would not refund the money, the Madsens turned to the credit card issuer to reverse the charges.
Bank of America initially told them they were outside the 90-day window and hence charges could not be reversed. Last Wednesday the Madsens found the sum restored to their card without any other communication from the credit card issuer.
It’s a whipsaw happy ending to what has been an unhappy experience for the Madsens, who diligently sought help over several months from various authorities and organizations they thought existed, at least in part, to protect consumers from dishonest businesses.
The actions, or inactions, of the U.S. Coast Guard are also perplexing. Unbeknownst to the Madsens, the agency rescued the Adventure Bound on Oct. 18 and subsequently issued citations that grounded the vessel from taking out paying passengers. Yet the operator continued to take customers out, according to a Coast Guard report about the incident and its aftermath.
The report shields the name of the operator, but the longtime owner and operator of the Adventure Bound, and sister ship Captain Cook, is Steven Weber. In August, a fuel company sued the company and the Webers for nonpayment.
Exactly what happened behind the scenes of the once popular and respected tour boat operator remains unclear. Numerous attempts to reach them have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, it’s been a bumpy ride for the Madsens.
“We understand that organizations like the Better Business Bureau are largely membership agencies, so if a business isn’t a member, they can’t do anything,” said Eric Madsen. “But we were surprised by the response from the Department of Law.”
The Madsens aren’t the only ones asking questions.
In April, Juneau resident Joseph Biagini used his debit card to pay $540 for tickets for a June 20 trip, which also was canceled at the last minute. Like the Madsens, he reached out to numerous agencies, and in late July put in a claim with his bank. His bank emailed him on Monday, Sept. 11, that they were honoring the claim. The funds have been returned to his account.
Biagini said he is glad he was compensated for the loss and hopes tourists from outside the area will be so lucky. But it doesn’t stop him from wondering about the lack of transparency.
“It seems like when something like this happens, it’s no single agency’s responsibility,” said Biagini. “Every organization I tried to reach kind of shrugged and said, ‘Oh that’s too bad. We can’t do anything to help.’”
The other layer is the Coast Guard, which for years issued certificates of inspection, known as COIs, for the 56-foot Adventure Bound and the 65-foot Captain Cook. The company operated for more than 32 years, according to the BBB, which tracks information about local companies regardless of whether they are members.
The Coast Guard has a separate investigation underway about the handling of the Oct. 18 incident, in which a ranking officer allowed Adventure Bound to continue as a private vessel, apparently overruling another officer.
“If the Coast Guard knew the regulations weren’t being followed, it’s a bit of a puzzle that they didn’t follow up with the public,” said Eric Madsen.
Seeking consumer protection
The Madsens said the first inkling there was a problem came in late June, when they heard from Adventure Bound that their trip was canceled. But the operator had canceled the trip on a different date than the one they booked. They called the office, and a woman re-booked them for the original July 7 date, apologizing for her confusion.
They were sent a reminder on July 6 regarding their trip the next day. With the visitors in tow — six adults and three minors — they headed happily to the dock, only to find no one at the boat. It turned out they had been sent another email the day before — after the reminder — that the trip was canceled. It stated the money had been refunded, which it hadn’t.
After time passed and it became clear the company wasn’t going to return the money, the Madsens sought redress. They contacted the Better Business Bureau, Travel Juneau, and the Alaska Department of Law at the Attorney General’s Office, which oversees consumer complaints.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to locate a valid address for the business, and the phone numbers have also not been working,” read the Aug. 25 response from the Department of Law. It was signed by Ginger Bozeman, an investigator in the Consumer Protection Unit. “For those reasons, we are unable to mediate your dispute and are closing your complaint.”
Ian Engelbeck, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Consumer Protection Unit, said he understood that responses like the one they received could be frustrating and offered some insight into how the system works.
Engelbeck said he is one of two attorneys within the Consumer Protection Unit, which has two investigators and support staff.
The office has two functions. One is to act as an unofficial mediator between a consumer and a company, and the other is to take enforcement actions. It can sometimes help to successfully resolve a situation like this, but only if the company participates. If the company can’t be found, that’s the end of the road for unofficial mediation efforts.
But that doesn’t mean complaints don’t matter, Engelbeck continued. All complaints go into a database, and one of the first things that happens with a new investigation is to check the database for complaints against the same company.
“People should know we keep track of consumer complaints — they’re our most important tool for finding out what enforcement priorities should be,” Engelbeck said.
Online caveat emptor
Let the buyer beware, a common law doctrine that dates to the 1500s, places responsibility for assessing the quality of a purchase on the buyer. That’s become much more complicated in the present day, where online marketing companies interact little, if at all, with the companies they present.
Over the years Adventure Bound collected a lot of positive reviews, which as of Sunday still appeared at the top of marketing sites Yelp and Tripadvisor.
Users of those sites know to change search fields to learn more about the companies. That enables them to see that more recent reviews — the past months — consistently reflect experiences like those of the Madsens and Biagini.
Anyone new to those sites might not see anything amiss.
On Sunday, Tripadvisor was still displaying Adventure Bound, not just as a company in operation, but one deserving of its owl-logoed “Travelers Choice’ 2023” distinction.
Tripadvisor has a 4.5-star rating based on 667 reviews on Tripadvisor. The first written review that appears is 5 stars, with a glowing review from July 2020.
Yelp reflects 3.6 stars for Adventure Bound Alaska, with 45 reviews, while featuring a glowing written recommendation from June 2019.
Local organizations, like Travel Juneau, are more proactive. The mission of the nonprofit, administrative home for Tourism Best Management Practices, is to market Juneau to independent travelers and groups.
“The program takes concern calls and emails from residents regarding operator issues, like commercial tours operating in non-commercial areas, poor operator behavior, and so on,” said Liz Perry, president and CEO.
“Travel Juneau has no authority or jurisdiction within the industry.”
Over the course of the summer, Travel Juneau received about 40 complaints about Adventure Bound. “We have been referring callers to the Better Business Bureau, JPD and to the Alaska Consumer Hotline,” said Perry. “It’s my understanding that a case of this size would be brought through Small Claims Court.”
Alexandria O’Brien, a spokesperson for the Juneau office of the Coast Guard, said it was the policy of the agency not to talk about ongoing investigations. She was able to provide general information about ways the public can protect itself.
One of the questions posed to her office was whether, and if, the Coast Guard alerts the public when an operator — someone the agency has licensed — has flagrantly violated regulations and safety is in question.
The Coast Guard report about the October grounding states the “side-effects of prescription drug use could not be ruled out as a causal factor.” Willfully disregarding agency citations to repair the vessel — CG-835s — while continuing to operate “endangered the lives of passengers onboard both vessels,” according to the report.
The online report, last updated Sept. 11, states the party name has been “removed for privacy.”
The “actions or recommendations” section of the online report, 11 months after the incident, shows “no reported data.”
The Coast Guard issues two kinds of alerts. One is a safety alert, which covers urgent threats to safety. The other is a safety advisory which provides “brief, concise, and timely information regarding safety issues and topics affecting people within the maritime transportation system.”
O’Brien said neither Adventure Bound, nor the other vessel owned by the company, the Captain Cook, have current COIs. Those are required for vessels up to 100 gross tons carrying more than six paying passengers.
O’Brien declined to answer whether Steven Weber still had a USCG license, or to provide any information on the status of the investigation.
“Information from closed investigations, such as case narratives, are available to the public from the Coast Guard under the Freedom of Information Act,” she said.
All FOIAs are funneled through an email address connected to agency headquarters, regardless of where the incident occurs.
The Juneau Empire filed the first of two FOIA requests with the Coast Guard on July 14. That prompted a brief exchange and then a July 27 email that the request was being sent to a different office within the agency and the one email address.
When no response had been received by Aug. 21, the Empire filed a second FOIA. This one generated a reply on Aug. 25 that the “appropriate component of the USCG” had been queried.
Inquiries as to the status of that request, or even a timeline for when a response could be expected, were submitted Sept. 2 and Sept. 15. Each prompted the same response that an analyst from the USCG had been assigned, but that the agency was experiencing delays.
O’Brien said that part of the Coast Guard mission is to ensure the safety and security of passengers on commercial vessels, “including the tour boats in Juneau.”
She provided ways that the public can protect themselves from errant operators.
A public-facing vessel database can be checked to verify the status of an operator, like Adventure Bound.
“If multiple vessels of the same name are found, look for the vessel’s service, which will be “Passenger (Inspected),” wrote O’Brien. In the event there isn’t a valid COI, “the service status will be ‘Inactive.’”
Passengers also can look for indicators that the vessel meets Coast Guard standards. There should be a valid COI on display and a decal prominently posted that shows the expiration date of the COI.
“The expiration date on the decal will match the expiration date on the Certificate of Inspection,” wrote O’Brien. “Without a valid Certificate of Inspection aboard, a small passenger vessel may not operate.”
It’s a lot, way too late for Madsen and Biagini. Both stated that they had empathy for a business that has problems.
“But carrying paying passengers on vessels without Coast Guard approval and continuing to accept reservation money from customers while knowing the business was unlikely to deliver the services – that’s something different,” said Madsen.
• Contact Meredith Jordan at email@example.com.