Avoid Falling Prey To Travel Scams

Travel scammers are getting busy again, trying to cash in as people begin to plan vacations for spring and summer.

The rip-off artists promise you a great vacation at a bargain price, then dump you in a horrible hotel, or charge sky-high fees, or pull other shenanigans that cost you more and more money.

On The Early Show Tuesday, consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen explained how to make sure you don't get cheated, and what to do if you are victimized.

The keywords, plain and simple, are "buyer beware," since travel fraud costs consumers $12 billion each year.

The best defense is not to fall victim in the first place; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

How do the bogus offers usually work?

You get a postcard, call, e-mail or fax offering you an all-inclusive vacation at a luxury resort. The price is very low and looks great, but you are often hit with hidden fees and taxes, you can have trouble getting the dates you want to travel and then be forced to pay an upgrade fee, and some of the luxury hotels turn out to be anything but.

What happened to you?

A fax came into the newsroom offering a week at a luxury, five-star resort in Cancun, Mexico for $299 dollars per person. Koeppen and her husband got a video showing luxury hotels. They bought it and, in the end, got hit with hidden fees and wound up paying more than $1,300. And the hotel was a dump.

Before you buy, there are some things you should do. First, get everything in writing.

Don't fall for high-pressure sales tactics. Tell the person you want to see all the information in writing first, including the refund and cancellation policies. If they say you need to buy right now or lose the trip, that's a red flag that it might be a scam.

Also, make sure you actually have a reservation at the hotel, and see it in writing, before paying for the trip.

Some of these trips offer the hotel, but not airfare. A lot of consumers have complained that they bought their plane tickets only to find out the hotel they wanted wasn't available, or the dates they wanted for the hotels were sold out. If you buy the airfare, then learn the hotel isn't available for when you wanted to travel, you might have a hard time getting your money back for the flights, or you'll pay a fee to change the flights, or you'll be forced to pay fees to get a hotel for when you want to travel.

Investigate the seller

Demand the address of the company. If it doesn't have a United States location, beware. Go to the Web to research the company's complaint history; see if there are any gripes on file at the Better Business Bureau or your state's attorney general's office.

Pay for the trip with a credit card

If you get scammed, you have more protection with a credit card, because you can dispute the charges. Be careful before you give out any financial information. The scam artists will say just about anything to get that information. They may say they only need it to verify that you qualify for the great deal. Don't believe them. Make sure you are totally sure the offer isn't a scam before you pay for it or give a deposit.

Where do you complain if you are victimized?

You can contact the attorney general in your state or the state where the travel company is located. Also, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission.

From the FTC Web site:

Have you ever been tempted to sign up to win a "free" trip at a fair, trade show or restaurant? If so, you may get a phone call, letter, unsolicited fax, e-mail or postcard telling you that you've won a vacation. Be careful. It may be a "trip trap." The vacation that you've "won" likely isn't free. And the "bargain-priced" travel package you're offered over the telephone or Internet may not fit your idea of luxury.

While some travel opportunities sold over the phone or offered through the mail, Internet or by fax are legitimate, many are scams that defraud consumers out of millions of dollars each month. The word "offer" can be a clue to hidden charges. When you get the phone call, or place the call in response to a postcard, letter, fax or Internet ad, you also get a sales pitch for a supposedly luxurious trip — one that you could pay dearly for.

The salesperson may ask for your credit card number to bill your account for the travel package. Once you pay, you receive the details of the "package," which usually include instructions for making trip reservation requests. Your request often must be accompanied by yet another fee. In addition, many offers require you to pay upgrade costs to receive the actual destinations, accommodations, cruises or dates you were promised. Some offers may require you to pay more for port charges, hotel taxes or service fees.

See a pattern developing? New charges are being added every step of the way. You may never get your "bargain" trip because your reservations may not be confirmed or because you must comply with hard-to-meet hidden or expensive "conditions."

Telemarketing travel scams usually originate out of "boiler rooms." Skilled salespeople, often with years of experience selling dubious products and services over the phone, pitch travel packages that may sound legitimate, but often are not.

These pitches usually include:

  • Oral Misrepresentations: Particular schemes vary, but all fraudulent telemarketers promise you a "deal" they can't possibly deliver. Unfortunately, you won't know it until your money's gone.
  • High Pressure/Time Pressure Tactics: Scam operators often say they need your commitment to buy immediately or that the offer won't be available much longer. They typically brush aside questions or concerns with vague answers or assurances.
  • "Affordable" Offers: Unlike fraudulent telemarketers who try to persuade people to spend thousands of dollars on an investment scheme, fraudulent travel telemarketers usually pitch club membership or vacation offers in a lower price range. The offers sound reasonable and are designed to appeal to anyone who is looking for a getaway.
  • Contradictory Follow-Up Material: Some companies may agree to send you written confirmation of your deal. However, it usually bears little resemblance to the offer you accepted over the phone. The written materials often disclose additional terms, conditions and costs.

    How To Protect Yourself:

    Unpleasant surprises can ruin a vacation, especially when they cost money. That's why it pays to investigate a travel package before you buy. But it can be difficult to tell a legitimate sales pitch from a fraudulent one. Consider these travelers' advisories:

  • Be wary of "great deals" and low-priced offers. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices.
  • Don't be pressured into buying. A good offer today usually will be a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses don't expect you to make snap decisions.
  • Ask detailed questions. Find out exactly what the price covers and what it doesn't. Ask about additional charges.
  • Get the names of the hotel, airports, airlines and restaurants included in your package. Consider contacting these businesses directly to verify arrangements.
  • Ask about cancellation policies and refunds. If the salesperson can't give you detailed answers, hang up.
  • If you decide to buy, find out the name of the travel provider — the company that is getting your reservations and tickets. This company usually is not the telemarketer. Get all information in writing before you agree to buy. Once you receive the written information, make sure it reflects what you were told over the phone and the terms you agreed to.
  • Don't buy part of the package — the air fare or hotel stay — separately from the rest. If the deal is not what you expected, it may be difficult to get your money back for the part of the package you purchased.
  • Don't give your credit card number or bank information over the phone unless you know the company. One easy way for a scam operator to close a deal is to get your credit card number and charge your account. Sometimes fraudulent telemarketers say they need the number for verification purposes only. Don't believe them.
  • Don't send money by messenger or overnight mail. Some scam artists may ask you to send them a check or money order immediately. Others may offer to send a messenger to pick up your payment.
  • If you pay with cash or a check, rather than a credit card, you lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. If you charged your trip to a credit card, you may dispute the charges by writing to your credit card issuer at the address provided for billing disputes. If possible, do this as soon as you receive your statement. In any case, the law gives you up to 60 days after the bill's statement date to dispute the charge.
  • Check out the company before you buy. Contact the attorney general in your state or where the company is located to see if any complaints have been lodged against the travel firm or the travel provider.
  • Be aware that fraudulent businesses often change their names to avoid detection.
  • If in doubt, say "no." Trust your instincts. It's less risky to turn down the offer and hang up the phone.