Free trips that are not really free, discount pricing that’s not really available and memberships in travel clubs that don’t really exist? These are some of the ploys used by crooks posing as legitimate travel agents to take our money. Make no doubt about it, these people are criminals and law enforcement is after them.
Sunshine states of Florida and California have strict rules and government oversight to keep travel scams under control. Other states are learning the hard way as crooks move to areas they think are safe for prey on unsuspecting consumers. New Jersey is right in the middle of debunking a travel scheme, freezing the bank accounts and charging a husband and wife team with violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act on several counts.
Travel Deals of Marlton along with owner Daryl Turner and his wife, Robyn Bernstein promoted travel “seminars” through postcards delivered by mail. Unsuspecting guests attending the seminars were given vouchers for a free eight-night cruise plus free airfare. Later, company representatives would meet privately with the “winners” to pitch various levels of a club membership required to redeem the free travel along with assorted prices, ranging from $2,500 to $8,995 and an annual fee of $299.
Playing a shell game of sorts, those who actually purchased memberships then tried to book were either told their dates or requested accommodations were unavailable.
It’s an all too frequent scam that is entirely avoidable. The old saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” goes a long way towards staying clear of these scams. Scambusters.org says travel deals and offers through the mail are almost always scams and says to beware of phone calls too.
“If you are offered the travel deal by phone, be very skeptical. If you’re unfamiliar with the company, get its name, address, and local telephone number. Check their track record if you can. (Unless you can find a legitimate local or regional office for the company, it’s probably bogus.)”
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has some good advice too:
- Retain a healthy dose of skepticism. Be extremely skeptical about unsolicited e-mail, postcard and phone solicitations saying you’ve been selected to receive a fabulous vacation or anything free. Be especially wary of firms requiring you to wait at least 60 days to take your trip.
- Do your homework. Some offers might sound great on the surface, but be sure to read the fine-print. Certain offers impose so many requirements and restrictions, such as black-out dates and companion fees, that you will either never have the chance to take the trip or you will end up paying more than had you made the arrangements on your own or used an ASTA travel agent
- Run a “background check.” You should vet the companies from which you purchase travel services. You can do this by checking to see if they are members of ASTA or by searching for the company on the Better Business Bureau’s Web site. Other sites to check are www.complaintsboard.com and www.ripoffreport.com.
- Keep private information private. Never give out your credit card number unless you initiate the transaction and you are confident about the company with which you are doing business.
- Get the facts. You should receive complete details in writing about any trip prior to payment. These details should include the total price; cancellation and change penalties, if any; and specific information about all components of the package.
- Protect yourself. Always pay with a credit card if possible. Even legitimate companies can go out of business. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, credit card customers have the right to refuse paying for charges for services not rendered. Details of the Fair Credit Billing Act can be found at the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.
Flickr photo by B Rosen