Hang up to avoid getting hung up by con artists offering great trips

February 06, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

One couple paid $398 for a weeklong vacation to the Bahamas and Florida only to find that the "first-class hotel" they were promised in the Bahamas was a roach-infested dive with beat-up furniture and no toilet paper.

Another couple sent $99 to a travel company for a four-day trip to the Bahamas, only to never hear from the company again.

Representatives from the travel industry and government officials gathered last month at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to talk about these and other travel scams and find ways consumers can protect themselves from the rampant proliferation of travel fraud.

"Everyone has gotten a postcard or a phone call at one time or another that starts off saying 'Congratulations! You have won a free vacation to Hawaii,' but if it seems too good to be true, then it definitely is," said Art Weiss, assistant attorney general for Missouri, at the sixth annual American Society of Travel Agents conference on travel fraud.

Statistics from the National Consumers League revealed that more than $100 billion is lost annually as a result of fraud and that one out of every seven cases involves travel scams.

Furthermore, very few of the victims of travel scams have been able to get their money back.

Most of these scams take place over the telephone or through direct mailings.

Scams can range from a vacation package where consumers pay a low price and are promised air fare and accommodations, but later are told they must pay additional fees; to free trips to "resorts" that turn out to be time-shares, where they are pressured into buying into the property. Some con artists sell lists of names of those who have been conned before to others wanting to commit travel fraud.

Con artists have become so successful, travel experts say, because many Americans -- one in six, according to the consumers league -- have difficulty turning down offers over the phone. As a result, travel packages being offered by groups other than travel agencies have increased 20 percent annually.

The American Society of Travel Agents offers these tips on avoiding travel fraud:

* Be extremely skeptical about postcard and phone solicitations that say you've been chosen to receive a fabulous vacation.

* Never give out your credit card number unless you initiate the transaction and are confident about the company with which you are doing business.

* Before paying, ask for complete details about any trip in writing. These details should include total price, cancellation and change penalties and specific information about all components the package.

* Walk away from high-pressure sales presentations that don't allow you time to evaluate the offer.

* Be suspicious of companies that require you to wait at least 60 days to take your trip.

* Don't send money by overnight mail or messenger.

If you're caught in a scam:

* Call your bank or credit card company to stop payment.

* Notify the Better Business Bureau.

* Notify the state attorney general.

But "the best advice," Mr. Weiss says, "is just to hang up on these people."

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