Avoiding Travel Scams

According to the Federal Trade Commission, travel scams cost consumers 12 Billion dollars annually. Don't get caught in the trap.

Last Christmas season, a jewelry store chain ran a promotion offering a free trip to London or Hawaii with a purchase of $500 worth of fine jewelry. But, after reading the fine print it was clear the free vacation was not exactly what it appeared. What was the catch? Besides the initial cost of the jewelry, participants were required to pay for accommodations in an exclusive luxury hotel, which cost over $350 per night, with a seven night minimum...$2450.00 is hardly free!

How can you distinguish a travel scam from a legitimate deal? Travel experts agree, it's a gray area these days.

Travel scams generally fall into three basic categories. The first type offers something for free, as long as you agree to purchase something else and abide by certain rules. Akin to the jewelry store offer above, the price of an item, the accommodations in this case, are inflated to cover the true cost of what is supposed to be free. Participants were not allowed stay in any other cheaper hotels.

Since we all have a different definition of a bargain, this arrangement could be considered a borderline scam. If you intended to buy the jewelry regardless and were accustomed to spending more than $350 a night on hotel rooms, it might have been a favorable deal.

In the second variety, the promoter gives you the free or low-cost trip but, puts the squeeze on once you've arrived at the destination. Sure, your hotel room is absolutely free, but it's roach-infested, has soiled sheets and broken door locks. There isn't a restaurant for miles and to top it off, the neighborhood is obviously unsafe. By the time the truth dawns, you're already at the destination, exhausted and carrying a wallet full of travelers checks. The promoter then squeezes you into the offer of a room upgrade at an outrageous price. Under these circumstances, the vast majority of travelers pay the additional fee and chalk it up to experience.

The third category is more pernicious. In this version, you're told you have been selected to receive a super travel bargain, but you must first respond immediately either by giving your credit card number over the phone or by sending a charge authorization.

After you comply, you're asked to select the dates you wish to travel. A week or two passes and you're notified the dates selected didn't work out. You submit more available dates as they string you along. The stalling continues with various excuses about the arrangements until one day the promoter's phone number is disconnected. Or, you may never settle on dates and the deal expires. You then find getting a refund is next to impossible or more trouble than it's worth.

Swindlers continue to refine their dishonest techniques. One new variation includes disguising the operation as a charity, such as an organization fighting child abuse or sponsoring an anti-drug campaign.

Anyone can coin a grand name and use it as a front for fraud. Through an aggressive telemarketing appeal, victims are shamed into a purchase. It might be "free" hotel packages or a discount dining coupon booklet, to help the disadvantaged. In reality the hotel ends up costing $70, for administrative costs and the coupon booklet which you purchase for $50 is actually available free of charge from the tourist information center.

Con artists have gone so far as to counterfeit the logos, pictures and techniques of other high-profile sweepstakes that advertise extensively on television. They may go to the expense of sending you a notice, by special delivery indicating you've won one of the big prizes. All you do is send in a "processing fee" of two hundred dollars or more. At the outset, spending two hundred dollars for a one-week vacation in Bermuda sounds like a small price to pay, but will the trip ever materialize? Probably not, and if it does, the trip will include a high-pressure sales pitch, along with assorted other headaches. When it's all said and done, you'll spend much more than $200.

A more recent innovation has promoters using respected names in the travel industry on their questionable certificates. It may seem to add credence to their claims, however, the deals are still controversial. Most certificates are nothing more than deceptively designed brochures or reservation forms.

The dividing line between an honest travel service and a swindle can be faint indeed, thus one person's scam is another's creative marketing method. It's entirely up to the consumer to investigate, decipher and evaluate the hard facts.

© High Speed Ventures 2011