It's vacation time, the perfect time for the Feds to go after travel companies who promise more than they deliver. Tuesday the Federal Trade Commission announced legal action against 25 companies charged with defrauding travelers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
CBS Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum tells us why it's so important to choose wisely when you're planning your dream vacation.
This federal action is part of an ongoing effort to crack down on vacation rip-offs, deceptive offers that overstate amenities included, hide extra charges in "all inclusive" packages and tell people they've won a trip when they haven't.
These bogus offers do more than waste your money. They result in ruined vacations, spoiled honeymoons, and families put through nightmare ordeals far from home. You're about to meet some folks who learned this lesson the hard way.
Three years ago, the Padgett family left their home in Wilmington, North Carolina headed for a dream vacation in the tropics. The brochure promised a visit to paradise.
"And when you get there it's a nightmare, it's nothing of what they advertised," says Demetria Padgett.
The family's hotel in the Bahamas was a crumbling, moldy building in a bad part of town, with barbed wire all around it, and, that was just the outside.
"It was rat-infested, roach-infested, holes in the wall, no linens, filthy," she says.
Even today it's hard for the Padgetts to watch their vacation videos. And while this may be an extreme case, vacation horror stories are not at all uncommon.
In fact, the Federal Trade Commision now has travel scams on its top ten list of complaints.
"The common theme is that they misrepresent to consumers what they will get in their tour package," says Jodie Bernstein of the Federal Trade Commission.
"They made it sound like I was going to get a luxury vacation for a value and I didn't," says Mary Solinger. She purchased her trip to the Bahamas after she got an offer featuring Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host Robin Leach, who also hosted the company's promotional videotape.
"As a devotee of the good life, take it from me. Only one thing's better than having fun...and that's having more fun!" says Leach on the promotional video. But Solinger says her vacation was nothing like Leach promised. Especially the cruise ship.
"It wasn't the boat I was on, that is for sure!" She describes it as " very small, dilapidated, overstuffed with people," she says.
More than a dozen states sued the company behind Solinger's trip. Some of them, including Washington State, also sued Robin Leach personally.
Washington's Attorney General Christine Gregoire says of Leach, "He owes it to consumers, if he's going to endorse it, to know what in fact consumers are receiving." Robin Leach's name with this kind of offer carries a lot of credibility, she notes.
Here's one more vacation horror story, and this one goes beyond dirty hotel rooms and crowded boats. Vicki Walker says her daughter could have been killed during a high school graduation trip to Mazatlan.
On the charter flight to Mexico, with none of the promised chaperones from the tour company on board, the flight attendants encouraged and helped organize a wet T-shirt contest. Several girls were even paraded into the cockpit so they could be judged by the pilots. Walker says that's a violation of federal rules that could have caused an accident.
Besides being a mom, Vicki Walker is a state representative in Oregon. She got a tough new travel law passed in her state, and worked with federal investigators to crack down on deceptive tour packages.
"These people need to be held accountable for their behavior. They absolutely need to be held accountable," says Walker.
Representative Walker is getting her wish. On Tuesday the Federal Trade Commission and 21 states announced legal actions against 25 travel companies charging them with fraud and deception.
How can people make sure this doesn't happen to them?
You can check out a hotel before you go, but there's a hitch: Many of these fraudulent travel sellers put the names of high quality hotels on their mailings. But at the last minute you are told it's over-booked and get switched to a no-name hotel.
How can you protect yourself?
Work with an established travel agent. Beware of offers from telemarketers that come out of the blue saying you have won a trip, or offering one at an unbelievably low price, or insisting that you buy now rather than having time to think about it or comparison shop.
For more information on the travel scam crackdown, go to the FTC Web site.
©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed