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Don't let a scam sink your summer vacation

If you're on the hunt for a vacation deal, keep your guard up. It's not only high season for getaways, it's also peak time for vacation scams. Attorneys general and consumer groups nationwide are issuing warnings as the scams ramp up for the season.

These scams come in a variety of forms, including free-trip offers, supposed discount travel clubs, fake booking sites and phony house rental ads.

Free trip offers can come via email, phone or by regular mail. They make it seem like you've won something, but chances are you pretty good you haven't.

It will become apparent when you're asked to pay for taxes, certain fees or other charges prior to taking your "free" trip. If you're asked to pay, the trip isn't free -- and you can expect more charges to follow. Once a victim gives money to a scam artist, they're marked as a sucker, and the crook will come back as many times as possible.

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Discount travel clubs can sound like a great deal. You can get top-notch lodging cheap, nab great airfares, get access to places others can't. So, you end up paying a fat fee up-front to secure your opportunities.

The problem is, as many have learned, when it comes time to book something, it's not available. Or some other wrinkle makes it clear that the money you paid didn't buy any advantages.

Warning signs for this scam include high-pressure sales tactics. Law-enforcement officials say when you feel pressured to make a decision on the spot, it's time to walk away.

Don't sign up for any travel club you haven't fully checked out independent of the endorsements published in their own literature or on their website.

With so many real booking sites, many offering legitimate deals, there's no reason to go off the grid and find some site that no one has heard of. But many consumers have been doing just that, and end up showing up at hotels they booked only to find nothing reserved in their name.

Especially when booking online through a third party, be sure you're dealing with a legitimate operation.

Vacation rental scams have also gotten more sophisticated over the years even though they're still most likely to be found on online classified ad sites.

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The phony rental property will either be available at times when none usually are or will be at a far lower rate than normal. It might even include photos of the property inside and out (typically copied from another listing).

When the victim checks on the property's availability, they'll be asked to wire money to pay a deposit to hold the rental, according a warning from the National Consumers League's Fraud.org site. When victims show up, they typically find the address doesn't exist or that the property wasn't available to rent.

Here are some additional tips from the National Consumers League:

  • Watch out for unsolicited e-mails, phone calls and faxes offering hard-to-believe deals on travel to desirable locations. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If you're working with a travel agency or vacation planning service, make sure to get all details about the trip in writing. Watch out for vague promises that you'll be staying at "five-star" resorts or riding on "luxury" cruise ships at cut-rate prices. Get as much information as you can, including the total cost, any restrictions that may apply and the exact names of the promised airlines and hotels.
  • Free is usually not free. Think again before you believe promises that you've won a "free" vacation. Often, these are just thinly veiled ploys to get your credit card information to "verify" your eligibility or to pay a "processing fee." You should never have to pay to collect a prize.
  • Check out the travel company before giving it any money. Call the company service yourself to see if the prices match or simply if the outfit exists. A Better Business Bureau search is a good first step. Also make sure that the company is registered with the American Society of Travel Agents.
  • Watch out for "travel clubs" that offer "free" memberships. Often these services do little except charge your credit card every month and provide few, if any, benefits.

  • Use your credit card when purchasing a trip. If you feel that you've been swindled, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.

  • Beware of any offers that involve high-pressure sales pitches that urge you to commit right away because the offer will "expire" otherwise. For example, timeshare seminars are often just ways to get consumers to sign up for timeshares, often featuring a come-on like "free" lunch or "free" vacation that are full of hidden fees and traps.

  • If you'll be traveling overseas, call your credit card company and bank to let them know what countries you'll be visiting and when you plan to return. This way they can be on the alert for any suspicious charges from a scammer that gets your card information while you're on the road or after your get back home.

  • Ask questions and be cautious. Read all the fine print carefully. Companies need to tell you how your trip will operate. Even if they make their policies difficult to read, look them over before sending any money. If you can't get answers to your questions, avoid using that company.