Travel scams still trip up the unwary consumer Fraud: Swindles include 'free' trips you have to pay for, great bargains you can't check out, travel-agent start-up kits you buy now for discounts later; Strategies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Somewhere deep in the American psyche is the desire to nab a great deal. With vacation sweepstakes and travel come-ons at every turn, it's no wonder people pounce on them.

They would do well to back off.

Despite the efforts of government and consumer groups, travel fraud keeps getting bigger and more insidious. The old scams are still working, and new avenues are proving ever more fruitful for con artists.

Besides pitching travel packages over the phone and by postcard, scammers are taking to the Internet, which offers a worldwide audience and plenty of anonymity.

And the swindlers are reaching more consumers by offering business opportunities, such as work-at-home travel franchises, and by linking travel offers with other potential purchases - and not just resort property.

Become a travel agent and get thousands in discounts! See our vacuum-cleaner demonstration and receive a free hotel package! Often enough, the discounts aren't available and the hotel offer doesn't pan out.

Consumers are losing $12 billion a year in bogus or deceptive travel offers, up from $7 billion just a few years ago, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Cleo Manuel, public affairs vice president for the National Consumers League, said that as travel scams evolve, consumers have to stay alert.

If you truly win a travel package, you shouldn't have to pay any fees - a long-used telemarketing ploy - to receive it. If you want discounts, you shouldn't expect to get them automatically by purchasing a travel agency start-up kit.

"Travel is a great bait for con artists," Manuel said. "And they do a lot of bait and switch. Consumers pay $400 for discount coupons 'worth thousands,' but all the requirements make them worthless."

Indeed, people have a weakness when it comes to travel opportunities. When the family budget is cut, travel is often a casualty. For many people, travel can be financially out of reach, especially to island locales or faraway destinations.

"Ask anybody anywhere what they would do if they won the lottery, and nine out of 10 would say they'd travel," said James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va. "Travel is a dream."

Prosecutors and consumer groups say the perpetrators of travel fraud are difficult to catch. Questionable companies elude detection by changing names, selling their businesses or relocating frequently. And prosecutors must be able to prove not just that consumers are dissatisfied but also that companies have violated laws. Nationally, travel scams rank among the top five categories in the complaint system at the Federal Trade Commission's consumer-protection bureau.

While scams have evolved, they've also found a new, comfortable home on the Internet. The National Consumers League monitors on-line fraud and invites consumers to report schemes to its Internet address at www.fraud.org. According to the league, scammers find the Internet attractive for several reasons:

* The numerous potential victims worldwide.

* Web sites can look polished and professional, lending an air of credibility to a company the consumer has no knowledge of. And Web sites can be altered quickly.

* Mass e-mail programs make it cheap to contact thousands of consumers.

L * E-mail headers can be forged to hide a company's identity.

* The scam artist might be in another country, seriously complicating refund attempts.

Whether over the Internet or on an old-fashioned postcard, many of the tried-and-true scams are still popular among con artists, Ommen said.

One such workhorse: Consumers are notified that they've won a vacation and must call an 800 number to claim it. But the caller is required to pay certain fees, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, by credit card. And actually booking the trip becomes troublesome because of restrictions. As often happens, the promoter goes out of business or changes names, leaving little recourse for the consumer.

"Be your own travel agent" promotions make the American Society of Travel Agents seethe.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have been tricked into sending money to these groups," said Ashurst, the society's spokesman.

A few consumers may get enough information from some of the offers to actually sell some travel and make commissions,

Ashurst said. But, more and more for discount purposes, the travel industry requires agents to hold a card from the International Airlines Travel Agent Network. To qualify, agents must meet minimum guidelines for work hours and sales.

"You should say, 'What's the catch here?' " Ashurst said. "Why would suppliers want to give these discounts?"

The FTC decided against trying to close down so-called travel-card mills with an outright ban on all such offers. But the agency works with state attorneys general to investigate, on a case-by-case basis, these complaints and a host of others.

Recently the FTC won a temporary restraining order against a company selling "luxury cruises" from Florida to the Bahamas over the phone. Consumers were promised resort accommodations for a small promotional fee.

Some consumers took the trip and found that the luxury cruise was instead an extended ferry boat ride and that the "world-class hotels" were far from it, the FTC said. Others, who couldn't take the trips because of travel restrictions imposed by the company and extra fees, lost initial payments of as much as $600.

Michael Milgrom, FTC assistant regional director based in Cleveland, said telemarketing sales rules require companies to make certain disclosures, such as the full cost of what's being sold and that no refunds will be available.

Other potential violations include telling consumers that they've "won" a vacation they must pay for and that the vacation in discounted when they actually are paying the full cost.

Always be wary, said Milgrom, when a solicitor says the deal is a one-time offer and requires a credit card number.

"If you have to decide right then, there's probably a reason for that that's not good for you," Milgrom said. "You should be able to call around and compare costs."

Many consumers "registered" for the vacations at local fairs and trade shows thinking they were entering a drawing. Manuel said consumers encounter such registrations for supposedly free prizes everywhere they go, from the mall to the health club to the grocery store. Even if some actually award prizes, her advice is this: Steer clear.

To register, people often are asked their income or whether they own their own home. The purpose of such questions is to generate marketing lists, which are then sold, Manuel said. Some of these companies "are trying to increase their chances of scamming, not to increase your chances of winning," she said. "We call them 'sucker lists.' "

In brief

Fast solutions

A new high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link to London is expected to be completed in two phases by 2007, shaving 35 minutes off the travel time between the English capital and Paris. stretch of traditional track between Folkstone and London currently keeps maximum train speeds between 60 and 80 mph, whereas Eurostar trains operate at speeds of up to 186 mph on the continent.

Kids

What are the best getaways for the diaper set? Here are the top 10 for vacationers under 3 (and their parents), according to the Family Travel Forum newsletter. Beach resorts: Boscobel Beach and Franklyn D. in Jamaica, Smuggler's Notch in Vermont and the Tyler Place on Lake Champlain. Ski resorts: Teton Village in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New Mexico's Taos Ski Valley. Top spa: the Peaks in Telluride, Colo. Top wilderness camp: Montecito-Sequoia Lodge in Los Altos, Calif. Top European getaways: London's Athenaeum Hotel & Apartments, Portugal's Sheraton Algarve Pine Cliffs.

SOME TIPS TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM SWINDLES

When you happen upon a potentially great vacation deal - especially by way of a phone solicitor or Internet e-mail - protect yourself against scams. Here are a few tips:

Ask detailed questions about travel packages. Find out exactly what the price covers - and does not cover. Ask whether there will be additional charges later. Find out the names of specific hotels, airports, airlines and restaurants that your package includes. You may wish to contact them yourself to double-check the arrangements.

Find out exact dates and times. Ask about cancellation policies and refunds. If the salesperson cannot provide detailed answers, this is not the deal for you. Get all information in writing before you agree to buy.

Do not be pressured into buying immediately. Generally, a good offer today will remain a good offer tomorrow.

Do not send money. Instead of asking for your credit card number, some scam operators ask you to send a check or money order right away - or offer to send a messenger to pick these up. Firms that send couriers may be trying to avoid detection and charges of mail or wire fraud.

Check out the company. Before paying, call your state attorney general's office and the Better Business Bureau to check for complaints against the firm. Be aware that fraudulent firms change their names frequently to avoid detection.

Buy from a business you know. Deal with members of a professional association. Be wary when the seller's name differs from the travel provider's name, because you may be dealing with a telemarketer who has no further responsibility to you after the sale.

Don't deal with company representatives who claim they need your checking or credit card account information for NTC identification or verification. They don't.

Multiple-year memberships in vacation accommodations may come with increasing fees, or the property might become rundown. Resales are difficult if not impossible because of the lack of a secondary market, and timeshares rarely appreciate in value.

Companies that offer to sell instant travel-agent credentials have no control over the decisions of cruise lines, hotels, car rental firms and airlines to extend professional courtesies to travel agents. Be wary of their promises of guaranteed discounts.

In general, be wary of "great deals." One tip-off to a scam is that the offer is very low-priced. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away things of real value or to undercut substantially everyone else's price.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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