Have scam, will travel
You may need a vacation, but don't put your finances at risk to do it
NEW YORK (CNNfn) - If you're offered a trip to Hawaii for $48, the palm trees on Waikiki aren't the only thing you'll find that's shady.
Despite the unrealistic price, such deals inevitably find takers among those who long for a cheap getaway. The National Consumers League estimates that Americans are bilked out of at least $12 billion each year due to travel fraud.
"People let their common sense go on vacation before they do," said James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents. "It's easy to get caught up in the whole experience."
Travel scams are as varied as the crooks who operate them, but there are threads of similarity which run through many of them. Often, this starts with an unrealistic claim.
"Congratulations. You have been chosen to receive a world-class offer for a free Bahamas vacation!" the postcard or telemarketing person shouts.
At this point, your mind may be telling you this offer is too good to be true, but your work-wearied heart is already packing your bermuda shorts and sunglasses.
While the word "free" may be the most notable part of that phrase, the word "offer" should receive more of your attention.
"Offer" is often a clue to hidden charges, since it merely implies you will be given the chance to sign up for a trip. Instead, you'll frequently be asked to pay certain processing fees or reservation deposits in order to receive the vacation. Later on, taxes and other service fees may have to be paid.
Oftentimes, these telemarketers have bought vouchers in bulk for these travel offers.
These vouchers are relatively cheap for them to purchase since they are subject to all sorts of restrictions, such as when the airlines have cheap seats. This is usually not at peak periods, which are the very times when you would want to travel. In this way, these restrictions will be passed onto you.
Even if the travel arrangements are as presented, you may find yourself forced to attend an overly-long, high-pressure sales presentation to buy a time-share or vacation club package. Either way, it's not necessarily what you bargained for when you envisioned yourself lying comfortably on a beach.
The bottom line is these types of offers rarely are as good as they seem. "If you have to pay money, you haven't won a thing," said Ashurst.
Instant travel agents
Consumers are faced with a dazzling array of choices when they travel but it's more difficult to discern who's reputable and who's not.
Part of the reason for this is the rise of instant travel agents. Under this scheme, companies offer people instant travel agent certification and credentials for a fee.
"You're then urged to bring other people into the program saying you will be able to get free trips for yourself," said Susan Grant, director of the Internet Fraud Watch.
"It ends up becoming more like a pyramid scheme."
The growth of the Internet has further muddied the waters of buying travel packages. Grant noted that travel fraud has gone from being the 13th most commonly reported online fraud last year to 9th in just the past six months.
In most cases, fraudulent travel companies have simply taken their scams online with very little changes. The slick pamphlets of yesterday have become the slick websites of today.
You don't have to be a waiting victim for these types of scams, however. There are steps you can take to at least minimize the chances you will be defrauded.
You will first need to be alert for signs which should tip you off to a possibly shady vacation scheme. These include:
- Promises of a deal which you know can't possibly be delivered.
- High pressure or time pressure tactics which tell you that you need to buy immediately or the offer will be gone.
- Contradictory follow-up material which differs from your original deal or details fees or other additional costs.
Even if the travel offer passes these tests, take it one step further. Check out the company before you buy. ASTA provides accreditation for travel agents and will confirm an agent's status and let you know if any complaints have been filed with the agent.
When buying travel from an Internet site, look for the Better Business Bureau's online seal of approval, which means the BBB has actually gone to the travel company and inspected its operations.
You can also check with your own travel agent about any offer. "A couple of hours talking to travel agents can save you a lot of headaches down the road," said Ashurst, who noted that a travel agent may even be able to beat the special offer and eliminate your having to deal with an unknown firm.
Getting all of this information is crucial since it may be too late to do anything once you're underway on your trip.
"Unfortunately, at that point there's not a whole lot of good options," said Grant. "You have to assume that it's going to have to wait until you get back home."
If you've been scammed, you can contact the Better Business Bureau, your state's consumer affairs office or attorney general's office. If the dispute is with an ASTA-approved travel agency, ASTA will mediate to find a resolution.
Additionally, the National Fraud Information Center allows you to report your complaint online. It will then forward your complaint to the appropriate authorities.
As long as you have paid with a credit card, which provides an electronic trail, you at least have a fighting chance to get your money back. If possible, dispute the charges by writing your card issuer as soon as you receive your payment. If not, you have up to 60 days after the statement's date to battle the charges.
In the end, you need to remember that you are in control. You don't have to buy a vacation package "right now." You don't have to give your credit card number to a stranger. And you don't need a vacation so badly that it's worth jeopardizing your finances.
-- by staff writer Randall J. Schultz