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Beware of trips that turn into runarounds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Cynthia and David Garast sent a cashier's check for $239 to a Florida travel firm, they thought they were paying in full for a five-day, four-night holiday in the Bahamas, including a cruise between Fort Lauderdale and Freeport, Bahamas.

The cruise trip was advertised in the classified section of their local newspaper, they said.

More than a year later, all the suburban Chicago couple have to show for their money is a 10-minute videocassette and audiotape romanticizing their intended destination. They also received a reservation request form from the travel firm, which is headquartered in Casselberry, an Orlando suburb. But to make a reservation they would have to fork over another $69.50 each -- a total of $139 -- as a "reservation deposit" that would be "applied" toward "port taxes, service charge, three buffet meals [on the ship] and the Federal User Fee."

That would bring their total payout to $378, excluding air fare, in exchange for vacation date requests that couldn't be guaranteed. And there was no indication if there would be further charges beyond the "reservation deposit."

The Garasts' only receipt is from the express delivery service that delivered their virtually worthless vacation kit in exchange for their cashier's check.

Never did the Garasts receive a printed description of the trip, they said in telephone interviews.

For nearly a year, the Garasts have tried to get a refund, since they didn't receive the advertised trip, they said.

What the couple got from the Florida firm was, they say, a runaround. They said the people who answered their phone calls (identifying themselves only by their first names) repeatedly told the Garasts they'd have to talk with a supervisor about a refund, though each time they were told no supervisors were available. They were told a supervisor would call them, though they never received a call back.

The Garasts said the only concession they received from the firm was a one-year extension to February 1994 to submit a reservation form (with the additional payment) and several alternative vacation dates.

The reservation form specified that the payment and choice of vacation dates must be sent to Incentive Internationale Travel in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Incentive Internationale Travel was among several firms charged April 1992 by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) "with deceptively marketing travel packages to consumers nationwide through a network of telephone salesrooms, and with aiding telemarketers to deceive consumers." Incentive Internationale subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Garasts have written off thoughts of taking the trip.

Eileen Harrington, the Federal Trade Commission's associate director of marketing practices in Washington, said that although she couldn't comment specifically on the firms the Garasts dealt with, their procedures are standard for these kinds of telemarketing operations.

She described Incentive Internationale, part of Passport Internationale, as subjects of an FTC lawsuit. In the parlance of the FTC, she said Incentive and Passport were "roots" and the telemarketing firms that the Garasts dealt with were "dandelions that pop up every place."

"The root firms wholesale travel certificates [which purport to be good for specific travel-related services] and do fulfillment [filling orders]," she explained. "The dandelions act as the retailers."

At a recent conference about deceptive travel packaging practices conducted by the American Society of Travel Agents, Ms. Harrington said the loss from telemarketing scams is $40 billion annually.

"There's a lot of money to be made in telemarketing, and there are both legitimate and illegitimate operations," she said. "Illegal activities are now organized with branches and multilevels, and the FTC is attempting to get at the roots. This is the 'dandelion theory.' They don't want to pick the dandelion; rather, they want to pull out the roots."

As an example, she explained that a root company figures that in a given year it will sell 300,000 certificates for $12 apiece to the dandelion retailer. "The dandelion is going to turn around and sell the certificates at retail for several hundred dollars. The root knows that if its business plan is to sell 300,000 of these things, it can only afford to travel a certain number of the people who buy the certificates.

"And that's why the root sets up elaborate reservations systems," Ms. Harrington said. "The hope is that a large percentage of purchasers will give up out of frustration [as the Garasts did]. A certain percentage will get their trip. A much larger percentage will get a trip, but not until they have paid substantial additional portions of money to cover the actual cost of the root of traveling them plus any profit margin."

Why do people bite on these vague, elusive travel offers?

"During the recession, an exotic but inexpensive vacation is something that is very alluring," said Patricia S. Howard, a lawyer for the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection who worked on the Passport/Incentive case. "Many people can't afford to take a vacation to the Caribbean, and here they find something that looks like they can do it for just under $300 if they can just get themselves down to Florida."

Said Ms. Howard of the Passport/Incentive case: "One of our allegations is what you are buying is almost a chance to go.

"We have no quarrel with the vacation if people know exactly what they are getting," she explained. "But when it's touted as being a luxury cruise to the Bahamas, that isn't right. And when people used to get postcards in the mail that said, 'You have been especially selected . . . to receive our luxury cruise to the Bahamas,' there's just everything wrong with that sentence. They weren't especially selected. Hundreds of thousands of those postcards went out every week. They are not going to receive it [the cruise], as in 'win it,' which is what many consumers thought. They are going to pay for it. And it's not luxurious."

True travel bargains are rare. Consumers have to know who the sellers are, and they should not buy vague travel packages from unknowns, or hand over cashier's checks or money orders to a courier.

It's best to adhere to the adage, "If the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

AVOIDING SCAMS

There are ways to avoid travel scams, but consumers must be smart about the ways they make purchases. These suggestions come from the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Protection Division:

* Never buy a so-called bargain vacation package without comparison-shopping. Get prices from several vendors for the same trip.

* Do not buy a vacation package from any vendor who cannot provide references. Check the references before making a final purchase.

* Do not buy a vacation package from any vendor who requires you to give a credit card number before the vendor provides you with written material describing what you intend to purchase.

* Do not give credit card numbers, bank account numbers or cashier's checks or money orders for courier delivery to businesses with which you have not previously done business or whose references you have not checked.

* Be suspicious of vacation packages with price tags far below the prices charged by travel agencies.

* Do not buy a vacation package from a high-pressure telephone salesperson.

These additional tips come from Susan Kaplan, a lawyer and officer of the Society of American Travel Agents:

* Never give your credit card number over the phone, no ifs, ands or buts, unless it's a company with whom you've done business for years.

* Don't agree to any contract before you have a chance to see it in writing.

WHERE TO CALL

If you have a travel scam complaint, you can call:

* The American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Affairs Department, (703) 739-2782.

* Council of Better Business Bureaus, (703) 276-0100.

* Your local state's attorney's consumer fraud office.

* National Fraud Information Center, (800) 876-7060.

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