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Beware holiday travel scams

Millions of Americans will hit the road, rail and sky during this holiday season. But with the cost of travel on the rise, especially airfares, passengers are easy prey for a host of scams -- cheap offers hard to pass up, but too good to be true.

Travel editor Peter Greenberg identified several such scams, and shared pointers on how to keep from falling prey to the crooks.

According to Greenberg:

Not surprisingly, many of the scams are online.

Some seem legitimate. But there are some warning signs. For example, you want to travel to Europe and a travel site offers you a hotel or apartment rental at a great price in a city you want to go to. It seems perfect, except you can't pay with a credit card. They want a bank or wire transfer. DON'T do it. It's a scam.

Or you get an e-mail that says you've won a free hotel stay in the Bahamas. There's an 800 number to call to "collect" your prize. But when you call, you're told that the agency handling the "winners" also has to book your air travel to the island. Before you know it, your "prize" just cost you $1,600 or $2,000 in airfare, and the hotel where you're staying is nowhere near the beach and, in some cases, you're then subjected to a draconian timeshare presentation.

Then there are breaking news-related travel scams. When in 2010 the volcano erupted in Iceland, thousands of travelers were stranded, which became an opportunity for scammers. When many travelers returned home, they found an email offering "compensation" from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. All they had to do was provide some personal details, including their passport information and credit card details, so money could be deposited into their account. There is no such entity as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and any time you are asked to provide credit card details to receive something, there's an overwhelming chance it's a scam.

Also, during the holidays, you can often be targeted using familiar e-mail addresses of your friends. It's happened to me, when I received an e-mail purporting to be from friends saying they were in Barcelona and had had their wallet stolen and that they're in a hotel, unable to pay their bill. This is a travel scam that uses details taken from social networking sites (such as Facebook) to send phony distress e-mails to family and friends. And of course, these e-mails ask that money be wired or transferred..

And as the holiday season approaches, let's not forget football scams! Each year at this time, lots of people get duped by travel scams related to big-ticket sporting events. College bowl games are a particular vehicle of the travel scammers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation usually issues an alert around Super Bowl season that not all tour packages include tickets to the game. The Better Business Bureau issues similar alerts, advising the public to exercise caution when purchasing game tickets.

Let's say you receive letter or e-mail, or see an ad selling a "Super Bowl tour package" or "Olympic travel package." But all you're getting is airfare and a hotel room. Guess where you get to watch the event? From your hotel room!

The Department of Transportation's Truth in Ticketing rule came in 1994, after hundreds of Wisconsin fans were ripped off at the Rose Bowl. They paid for their trip and hotel rooms, but the "package" never included game tickets. The rule requires travel promoters who advertise Super Bowl packages that include tickets have either have the tickets in hand or a written contract to receive them. If a travel operator sells a package that includes game tickets and then fails to provide them, the customer is entitled to a full refund, including airfare and hotel.

In 1997, more than 80 Patriots fans were left empty-handed in New Orleans when several travel companies failed to provide tickets as promised. The attorney general later sued the company and required them to pay partial restitution to consumers.

In 2008, hundreds of people -- fans, relatives and friends of athletes -- paid nearly $50,000 for non-existent tickets to the Beijing Olympics.

"Free" Vacation Scams

How many consumers have received an email or letter claiming that they have won a free stay at a luxury resort hotel? It might be free, but in most cases, the hotel is far from luxury. That's when the scammers employ the old bait-and-switch technique, offering a better room or another hotel, for an additional fee. In addition, anything on top of sleeping there is not included -- resort fees, taxes, meals, transportation, etc.

In one common scam, a cold-caller will request a credit card number to cover "service fees," and say the vacation package will be sent via mail. Of course, by paying with a card, you're told that you have a certain period of time to cancel, but by the time the package arrives, it's too late.

Other scammers may offer hundreds of dollars worth of discount travel packages that show up in the form of a coupon book. Those same discounts are available for free in hotels, from local businesses and at visitor and convention bureaus.

Travel Clubs

We received a letter from a woman asking if discount travel clubs are a good deal. It seems her friend just paid a whopping $6,000 for a membership, and she'll now receive discounts on motels and airfare. In a word: No.

Here's how the scam works. First, you'll receive a flier in the mail or a cold-call claiming you've won some kind of prize, like free airfare. However, in order to redeem your prize, you'll be asked to attend a sales-pitch for the travel club at a convention center or a business rental property.

At the door, they'll ask you for your personal information and credit card number (which should be your first indication to walk away) and proceed to pressure you into buying a "lifetime membership" in their discount travel club, which could cost upwards of $9,000 plus a processing fee and annual dues of $249.

Why is that? Because when you finally do try to use you membership to book the discounted travel they promised you during the sales pitch, you'll find that the price they quoted you is no better or even higher than what you could find by yourself online. But, when you try to complain or get a refund, you'll end up dealing with disconnected phone numbers, and that local branch where you signed up no longer exists -- the operation has packed up shop to scam in a new city.

In one case a few years back, Texas' attorney general charged a Dallas-area firm with the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). Royal Palms Travel Inc. and All Inclusive Excursions sold travel club memberships through a shell company, Sealand Travel Club, promising deeply discounted travel opportunities.

High-pressure sales pitches involved offers of free trips and airline tickets, with membership charges of $2,000-$8,000. But those reduced price travel opportunities required a deposit and then submitting receipts for vouchers or rebates. The so-called free trips had so many restrictions it was impossible to redeem them.

This post was originally published on Oct. 23, 2010.