We're all in search of great travel deals. Unfortunately, this makes us vulnerable to travel scams.
Consider the case of a lady in Tennessee. She smiled broadly when the incredible deal was delivered at work.It appeared to be the same letterhead the corporate travel office used. She assumed the offer of a deeply discounted trip was some sort of company perk, and she quickly booked it.
The promises of five-star tropical luxury "for a small handling fee" disappeared as swiftly as her money.
That is one of many case studies from the bulging travel scam files at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Go to its counterpart agencies in other industrialized nations, and you're likely to find similar collections of scam stories.
In an age when everyone is trying to find the best possible travel deal, scores of unscrupulous operators will try to separate you from your money. They'll provide, at best, disappointing arrangements.
The vast majority of these "deals" share similar characteristics, making them fairly easy to spot and avoid.
There are some simple ways you can keep away from the victim file.
If you've shopped for a car, you've probably heard the irritating question "what can I do to put you in this vehicle today?"
The idea is to close the deal before a buyer can come up with objections. It's not always a dishonest ploy. But in the travel arena, it should raise red flags of caution.
FTC attorneys recommend you become very skeptical of any deal that must be booked immediately.
Interestingly, many of those immediate deals often involve trips that are at least two months in the future. Why? Many credit cards have a 60-day limit on challenges for purchases. They want you to recognize your fate only after that time has expired.
Another red flag should fly when the company wants to do business only with courier services. Many times, the aim is to avoid mail fraud statutes associated with postal services.
Here's another common sign of trouble: when the names of the seller and travel provider differ. In that case, chances are good you're dealing either with a telemarketer or some other go-between who does not have your best interests at heart.
High-pressure tactics, lengthy delivery delays, and multiple dealers should raise your scam suspicions. But there are more subtle techniques designed to separate you from your money, too.
Some travel scams leave you with nothing. Others promise you great things, and deliver garbage. Still others make good on the promises if you pay additional charges.
Let's start with the travel scams that are complete frauds. They are easily avoided if you pay by credit card and insist that the provider is bonded or a member of a reputable travel society. If any of those conditions cause the slightest irritation at the other end of the deal, scram.
Others will deliver on their offer of a Bahamas vacation, and nothing else. Consider the story of a Missouri couple: They were promised a top hotel.
What they received was a room with no air conditioning, concrete floors, and no access to the beach.
"This whole vacation experience was a nightmare, and absolutely nothing like what was represented by the company," the woman told the Federal Trade Commission.
Next, look at how people are fighting back when such rip-offs are the consequence of travel bookings.
The FTC is taking a stand against the travel scammers, and the effort now has strong roots.
Years ago, the agency launched Operation Travel Unravel. It sued three companies accused of fraudulent business practices. The settlement brought more than $300,000 in redress and a requirement that bonds be posted before the companies could attempt future transactions.
That's just scratching the surface in the world of travel scams.
Other criminals prove more difficult to prosecute.
For example, some scam artists employ a technique called "split pricing." They'll offer airfare and accommodations at prices well below market levels. But there will be fees in the fine print that more than offset the savings. Others will mention a luxury hotel, but hide the fact that an expensive "add on" fee is required prior to check-in.
Despite the efforts of government agencies like the FTC, the travel industry is very poorly regulated. Anyone can hang a sign in front of their door and sell travel products. If you have access to a fax machine, telephone or email account, you can send out solicitations.
The FTC does offer an online complaint form. But bear in mind that no one can offer guarantees of recovery after you've been bilked.
So before you buy, consider the following checklist, compiled from the FTC, the Department of Transportation, and the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Always use a Credit Card
This gives you the option of disputing fraudulent charges through your credit card company. By the way, never give your card number to someone asking for verification of your identity. Only give the number for actual orders.
Learn the Vocabulary
How many times have you received the following email?
"You have been specially selected to receive our SPECTACULAR LUXURY DREAM VACATION offer." Read it several times. You have NOT been awarded a free vacation. Why are you special? How is the trip spectacular? What elements make it a luxury trip? These are words designed to get your attention, not necessarily to accurately describe the services.
Verify the Details of Your Trip
When they say the hotel is five-star quality, ask for the name and address. With the Internet at your disposal, it is easy enough to check on any hotel. End the deal if it isn't supplied. The same is true for airlines, tours, cruise ships, and any other products. Reputable companies do not hesitate to provide this information. Check the company's track record, too. Your local authorities should have lists of firms that attract multiple complaints.
Run from "Instant Travel Agent" offers
A common scam is to sell so-called certification as a travel agent. This, you'll be told, allows you to take advantage of professional discounts and free travel. The problem with this one is that professional discounts are not obligatory. Suppliers decide when and to whom they extend price breaks. Some of these so-called deals are multi-level marketing scams.
Bad news. Don't be duped.
Watch Out for the Word "Complimentary"
Why is something being offered to you free of charge? Many times, the idea is to provide a captive audience for hours of sales presentations. Do you want to spend your precious vacation time listening to these pitches? Be warned: many are structured to make you feel obligated, and most are very high-pressure presentations.
With little regulation and electronic frontiers to exploit, travel scams are here to stay.
The annual take on these rip-offs runs well into the billions of U.S. dollars, and travel complaints routinely top the list of most common consumer problems.
Travel is one of the few products that is paid for prior to delivery. But travel scams usually don't ensnare skeptical, well-educated budget travelers. Complaints might not result in full recoveries -- or any recovery.
They want your trust and your money. Leave them empty-handed.