Yelp Uses Public Shaming To Dissuade Fake Reviews

While social travel review sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor can be helpful for trip planning, one constant criticism is how easily it is for business owners to write or pay for fake reviews of their establishment to boost its rating. In Yelp’s latest effort to discourage this kind of manipulation, they will be publicly shaming these businesses by displaying warning signs to readers (shown above).

The travel site is putting on their detective hats and watching for suspicious activity by business owners. For example, if many reviews are being submitted from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address, this can be an indicator. Once they find these “rogue solicitations,” they warn users. According to Digital Trends, the alert will stay active for 90 days and will be removed after this period, as long as the business quits gaming the system.

“We want to make sure consumers are making informed decisions,” said Eric Singley, Yelp’s VP of Consumer & Mobile Products. “Yelp’s automated review filter is working around the clock to flag these types of biased reviews, and we believe that you deserve the right to know when this type of activity is taking place behind the scenes.”

Although this new idea has only been in place for a couple days, it’s already working. For example, a Texan business owner who had purchased 200 positive online reviews was caught in Yelp’s filter due to its overly “impressive results.”

Mr. Singley notes that, while Yelp does have to be aware of these scams, for the most part their travel community is full of honest business owners.

For more information, check out Yelp’s official blog post on the new initiative.

[Image via Yelp]

Adventure Travel Company Kumuka Worldwide Goes Out Of Business, Leaves Customers To Fend For Themselves

For nearly 30 years, adventure travel company Kumuka Worldwide had been seen as a tour operator that provided affordable and high quality itineraries to practically every corner of the globe. The company’s extensive catalog included more than 600 tours to such far away places as Africa, Antarctica, Australia and more. But that all changed recently when Kumuka announced that it was going out of business, leaving many customers scrambling to make alternate travel plans while also trying to find a way to get their money back.

About two weeks ago, U.K. based Kumuka posted a message on its website announcing that the company was suspending trading and going into voluntary liquidation. They informed customers that if they booked on a trip that was departing prior to July 22, their tours were safe and would go off without a hitch. But those that had booked travel after that date were simply told to “re-book with another operator.”

Of course, booking with another company is much easier if you have the funds but it seems Kumuka’s customers will need plenty of patience if they hope to get their money back. Kumuka recommends that travelers in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada contact the Travel Compensation Fund to begin the process of getting their cash back. U.K. customers are told that their money is protected by that country’s Civil Aviation Authority while Americans are advised to make a claim with their credit card company or to contact their travel agent.

Kumuka’s competitors were quick to offer aid to the company’s abandoned clients. Tucan Travel extended their loyalty discount program to Kumuka customers while Intrepid Travel and Dragoman are offering special deals too. That’s small consolation, however, for those who saved for months in order to take a trip and now must wait to receive compensation before they can book again.

As someone who loves to travel, and plans his trips weeks and months in advance, I can’t imagine how crushed I would feel if I were one of these customers. Imagine looking forward to getting away to a dream destination only to have the rug pulled out from under you just before you go. Seems like the very definition of disappointment to me.

Travel Scam Watch: Travel Clubs exposed

Its a scam we read about and think “How could someone fall for this?”. Promises are made for fabulous vacations at an almost-unbelievably low price. As a savvy member of the club, those chosen to join will reap great savings traveling with other like-minded people. But in the end, nobody went anywhere except to the bank for a pile of money to give the next convicted felon produced by the travel scam industry.

Just this week Daryl Turner, a New Jersey travel club owner, was arrested on allegations that he stole more than $75,000 from people who thought they were buying exotic vacations through his Dreamworks Vacation Club reports This is right after a February civil agreement on the same company that included more than $2.2 million in restitution for more than 600 customers who bought packages dating back to 2008 through Dreamworks and other companies operated by Turner.

Though the various scams varied from company to company, they all operated in classic travel scam fashion appealing to ordinary people looking for a bargain. The Dreamworks Vacation Club operation is a great example of a scam that has been going on for years, customized to the day’s economy or the consumer market being targeted.

Sitting here reading this today, removed from the high-pressure sales environment, its not hard to see through the deal.

“Five days in London with round-trip air for $535” was one of the members-only deals available through the Dreamworks Vacation Club. That low price was made possible by a big up-front membership fee of up to $8995, steep but seemingly fair for a lifetime of savings.

How do we know if something is too good to be true?

1. Google them, for yourself or someone else– A quick Google search for Dreamworks Vacation Club got me a lot of hits. That would have been plenty of reason for most people to walk away. But these criminals often target groups of people who do not use the Internet all that much. Buyers from geographically low-income areas who may not have the technical knowledge to do a search or Seniors are prime targets.

2. Contact your state’s Attorney General’s office or Division of Consumer Affairs– Odds are you are not the first person being wooed by criminal scam artists. They often have a long track record of crimes that crosses state borders and involves multiple companies over a long period of time.

3. There should never be a rush to buy– Unless you’re on a disintegrating asteroid in outer space being offered a ride on the last rocket to safety, take your time. Our friends at have 10 Tips To Avoid Online Travel Scams worth a look that center around the notion “Don’t rush into ordering from us if you don’t have time,” and “Take your time. Most scams have time-sensitive ordering requirements.”

4. You got mail- While Internet-based scams are plentiful, many rely on U.S.Postal Service mail for the “hook” that gets prospective buyers interested. An official-looking certificate with a familiar travel company logo and color photos we may have seen elsewhere in print is often what opens the door to let these criminals into your life. Travel Scam crooks are not really all that concerned with copyright laws.

Just ask the guys at Dreamworks Vacation Club.

Flickr photo by B Rosen

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Travel scams and how to avoid them

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. 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 and
  • 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

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Car rental tactics that will cost you money

There’s nothing like hitting the open road in summer, but before you get that rental car, there are a few things you should know. National Geographic Traveler ombudsman Christopher Elliot tells all in a recent CNN piece that reveals sneaky ploys rental agencies use to jack up the price-after you’ve signed on the dotted line.

According to Elliot, there are six hidden costs you may find yourself paying for, if you’re not careful. Additional driver add-ons, under 25 premiums, redefinitions in vehicle sizes, and extra charges for returning a car early are some of the things to watch out for. Most of us who have rented cars have failed to find a gas station en route to the airport drop-off at one time or another, and paid the price. Elliot says that you can now get socked with an “under 75 miles” refueling fee, as well.

With all that crude still gushing into the Gulf, it’s touching that rental agencies are punishing drivers for not burning more petroleum. Watch your credit card (and before you plunk down extra dollars on insurance, check your card policy; many provide full rental car coverage), and safe motoring.

[Photo: Flickr | Stuck in Customs]