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Cruisers' excitement turns into refund wait

Days ago they anticipated cruise vacations. With Regal's demise, money is months away.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 30, 2003

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Ten Girl Scouts from Troop 1410 in Gulfport earned $1,170 selling cookies to pay for their annual outing: an overnight cruise with their moms for Mother's Day.

But their trip turned into a real cruise to nowhere Monday, when Regal Cruises closed its doors and canceled all future voyages.

"They're all upset," said Ralph Ostrovskis, whose 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, sold 400 boxes of Girl Scout cookies in February and March. "At least we're trying to get their money back."

Thousands of Regal customers found themselves in the same boat. Those calling Regal's office got only a recorded message saying the company posted a bond for refunds and that details would follow.

An official at the Federal Maritime Commission confirmed Tuesday that Regal has a performance bond underwritten by Westchester Fire Insurance Co. The bond is "more than sufficient to cover any outstanding claims," said Curt Ohlsson, a maritime insurance analyst with the agency.

Regal will announce how to apply for refunds within a week or two, he said. The refunds will cover cruise fares and required incidental charges, such as port fees, but not payments for airline travel sold as part of a cruise package, Ohlsson said.

But the process takes a few months, he said, and customers who charged their trips could get faster refunds by filing claims with their credit card companies.

Under federal law, consumers are not obligated to pay credit card charges for goods or services they never received. The Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers 60 days to dispute - in writing - an item that appears on a billing statement.

Consumers can check their statement for the address to use or call the customer service number on the back of the credit card. A charge for goods or services never delivered is treated as a billing error.

But the credit card user does have to pay other charges that appear on the same bill. While the credit card issuer is investigating, the consumer's credit limit may be reduced by the amount of the item in dispute.

Regal shut down nine days after U.S. marshals to seized its only ship, the M/V Regal Empress, at Port Manatee. A Fort Lauderdale ship repair company claimed Regal owed it $750,000 and obtained a federal court order to detain the 1,100-passenger vessel.

Attorneys for the company, Motor-Services Hugo Stamp, on Tuesday asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven to order the ship sold at auction within eight days to pay off debts.

But other creditors objected that would amount to a fire sale and said the ship, built in Scotland in 1953, would fetch a better price if potential buyers had more time to arrange financing.

Barring any unforeseen objections, Scriven said she would order an auction in 15 days after receiving an appraisal of the ship's value later this week. She will use the appraisal to set a minimum bid.

No one representing Regal Enterprises, which chartered the ship and operated the cruises, appeared at Tuesday's court hearing. An attorney who previously represented ship owner Regal Cruises Ltd. told Scriven he was no longer authorized to speak for the company.

- Times staff writer Helen Huntley contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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