No one wants to run headlong into a possible travel scam. In fact, everyone looks for breathtaking travel bargains. Perhaps a few will pan out for you in your lifetime. But there are scores of scam artists out there who prey on your instinct to save money on travel.
Pre-payment usually is required for travel products. That is why scam artists often concentrate on travelers. The Internet provides growth opportunities for such illegal and unethical activity.
What follows, in no particular order, are 10 red flags that frequently signal a scam-in-the-making.
Advance Payment is Required Without a Written Contract
Travel payments often are made before a trip, but you are entitled to a written contract stating the product(s) for which you are paying. This is true whether it's a deposit or payment-in-full.
Scammers often attempt to gain your trust with friendly phone pitches that result in credit card transactions. Reputable vendors will always spell out their offers in writing. Don't settle for less. If there's no record of the promises, you'll have no way of proving your side of the case.
Transactions by Courier Service Rather than Post Office
Anyone who insists on transacting travel business using only a courier service should be treated with suspicion.
Misleading people while using government postal services exposes the scam artist to a host of mail fraud statutes. So it's worth asking if the mail service is at least an option. If not, ask for the reasoning behind the policy.
Transaction Can Only Be Carried Out by Telephone
There are reputable travel firms that do business only on the Web, but if you encounter a vendor that will only book by telephone, ask questions:
Will I get a written contract to examine before I make my payment? What is your office address? Frequently, you'll get evasive answers--a signal it's time to hang up the phone and continue your shopping elsewhere.
Offer is for a "Limited Time Only"
Budget travelers encounter a vast array of time-sensitive airfare sales and other special offers. Most are legitimate, as they seek to fill empty seats, rooms or spaces at the last minute.
Depending upon the timing of your discovery, it might be necessary to make a quick decision. That's an accepted part of budget travel.
But an offer of deep discounts that must be booked immediately is suspicious. Triple your suspicion level if you must pay immediately for a departure date at least 60 days in the future, because that's the time limit for disputing credit card charges at many banks. As a general rule, someone trying to sell with stressful techniques should be avoided.
Different Names for Travel Provider and Seller
Here is a subtlety that many travelers don't discover until it's too late.
Why would the seller and travel provider operate under different names?
Frequently, a telemarketer or some other marketing agent has been employed to make the sale. It's likely this go-between is interested in pleasing the vendor, at the expense of the consumer. They get paid for closing deals, not for customer satisfaction.
It's also possible the names are different to avoid responsibility for the product in the event of a claim or legal challenges. Either way, it's not good news.
Hotel Names, Airlines or Other Vendors Not Disclosed in Writing
Online auctions like Priceline and Hotwire do not disclose vendors until after your bid is accepted. That's part of the risk you take in saving money with those services.
Auctions aside, if you're making a conventional booking, there is no reason whatsoever for withholding this information.
There can be a number of reasons for not disclosing hotel names, and none of them is good for you. They might be hiding a hotel that has bad customer ratings or is undergoing renovation. Sometimes, they want to cover up the fact that your hotel with "beach" in its name is nowhere near the water. Get the idea?
If hotel, airline, or car rental information is not disclosed, consider it a deal-breaker and move along to another opportunity.
A Price Far Below Market Value
This caution must be applied on a case-by-case basis. There are rare mistake fares that should be booked on airline websites, but $199 for a one-week vacation in the Caribbean clearly is not going to be profitable for the vendor.
Why make the offer?
Perhaps you're a prime target for a high-pressure timeshare sales pitch. Maybe the fine print says $199 is a base price from which add-ons will be assessed after you've paid. No vendor wants to lose money without gaining some other advantage in the process.
Offers to Make You a "Travel Agent"
Scam artists offer to certify you as a "travel agent," so you can gain access to all sorts of free trips and deeply discounted rates.
It's true some travel agents get these perks, but the offers go to established people who are strategically chosen. No one actually is required to offer any travel agent a free trip.
Some of these offers send you course materials, others just require a fee for some bogus certification that isn't worth the paper upon which it is printed. Both are a complete waste of money.
If you want facts on becoming a travel agent, consult professional organizations like ASTA. But don't pursue this career simply because you think it will open doors to a stream of free travel offers.
Hints of "Split Pricing"
Split pricing is the nasty practice of offering below-market pricing and then adding charges for items that appeared to be included in the original quote.
Reputable firms will offer vacations with language that says "from" or "starting at" a certain price. They also will show you the available upgrades. That's not split pricing.
By contrast, scammers bury their pricing structure in the fine print, hoping you'll assume your beach hotel actually is on the water or your ski chalet is adjacent to the slopes.
Frequent Use of Words Such as "Complimentary" and "Free"
Offers peppered with these words frequently are trying to distract you from some other reality. Your job is to find that hidden agenda, or perhaps just save yourself some trouble and reject the offer immediately.
Let's face it: Very few people on this earth offer complimentary items without some strings attached. It's important to have a clear picture of what you are buying. Freebies are nice, but when they become blurred with the actual cost of the trip, they can become a disadvantage.
Don't let slippery offers damage your travel budget or rob you of precious vacation time.