Cheap trips, touted on the phone, may not be bargains


Pack your bags, they tell you. You are invited to experience a "travel opportunity of a lifetime." They make it sound as if Florida is heaven -- and you have a chance to go. They offer you a Caribbean cruise -- but fail to make the distinction that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean. They speak of luxury -- but provide hotels and resorts that don't quite match up to the luxury billing.

Three such opportunities for "world-class" vacations recently came my way -- all from travel agencies in or near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They were in the form of a postcard or certificate.

When you call their 800 numbers, their phone people read scripts that spell out the great treats that await you -- usually a stay in Fort Lauderdale, a seven-hour cruise (each way) to Freeport in the Bahamas, a three-night stay in Freeport and several more days in Florida. You provide air transportation.

The scripts all end the same way. The phone people tell you that they take only one call per household, that they prefer to have your spouse on the line, that you must make your decision on the spot and pay for your travel purchase (about $400 for two) with a credit card.

These promotional practices fly in the face of advice from the Federal Trade Commission, the Florida Bureau of Consumer Protection, the American Society of Travel Agents and other consumer groups.

"Don't give in to high pressure to make an instant or impulsive decision," said Eileen Harrington of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Look around. Do some comparison shopping. If they won't hold the offer for you while you're doing that, then don't buy. This isn't like buying airline tickets from a major airline, where they may only have a certain number of seats available for a certain fare and you really do have to buy right away.

"These cruise [and hotel] packages just aren't like that."

Ms. Harrington, an expert in telemarketing schemes, said travel vendors make it seem plausible that you have to decide right away, based on consumers' knowledge of fare wars. "But when you're only allowed one call and have to have your spouse present, that's a tip-off to trouble."

Ms. Harrington also said that "State registration and membership in trade associations often can be used to confer an air of legitimacy when none really is deserved."

"Use common sense," advised Gloria Van Treese, chief of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, part of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Shop and compare. We advise consumers buying travel to shop locally. Find out from your local travel agents what's available. If you encounter a problem, it's easier to deal with somebody locally than it is to deal with someone who is five states away."

When these Florida firms say they are registered with the state, it means, in part, that they have posted up to a $25,000 surety bond or letter of credit. If the firm should default, the state could use that money to make restitution, Ms. Van Treese said. But, for example, if 25,000 consumers were out a trip, the best the state could pay would be $1 per consumer. The only other recourse the consumer would have is to go to court, Ms. Van Treese said.

Ms. Van Treese said she has seen complaints filed against these firms, but most were resolved. Only a few, she said, were still pending.

Both ASTA and the Cruise Lines International Association said they look into complaints they receive and try to resolve them but essentially have little power to control questionable marketing practices. They both, however, caution consumers to be wary of deals that sound too good to be true.

David Love, an ASTA spokesman, urged consumers to request detailed information in writing before making a decision.

Ask about space availability and the full cost of the trip. (Normally the vendors will tell you that you have 18 months in which to take your trip and that they require 45 days advance notice to make arrangements.)

And remember: Don't give your credit card number over the phone to a vendor you don't really know.

"Believe me," said Mr. Love, "if the offer is only available at the time you call, that's a huge red flag. You need to be careful. People will do anything to grab your attention, but they are not sending you something for nothing."

Consumers need to be cautious about so-called good deals coming out of Florida, a hotbed for all kinds of scams. Fred Schulte, investigative editor of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the author of the just-published "Fleeced! Telemarketing Rip-offs and How to Avoid Them" (Prometheus Books, $24.95). Mr. Schulte's comprehensive book grew from a series of stories he wrote for his newspaper on boiler-room operations that sold ++ cheap certificates good for vacations in Florida and the Bahamas. But this book goes far beyond the travel realm and is a must for anyone who wants to be informed about ways consumers can be fleeced of their hard-earned dollars by phone-room sharpies.

At this moment, the FTC is considering new rules to ban deceptive, abusive telemarketing practices, which could, among other things, result in civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.

Wary consumers who think they've been had should contact the National Fraud Information Center at (800) 876-7060 or ASTA Consumer Affairs at (703) 739-2782. You can also write to the National Consumers League, 1701 K St. N.W., Suite 1200, Washington, D.C. 20006, for a copy of "Be Smart," a booklet that tells consumers how to avoid fraudulent offers.

According to the National Fraud Information Center, travel fraud robs consumers and legitimate firms of $12 billion a year. So if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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