Travel scams still trip up the unwary consumer Fraud: Swindles include 'free' trips you have to pay for, great bargains you can't check out, travel-agent start-up kits you buy now for discounts later

Strategies

September 20, 1998|By Edward M. Eveld | Edward M. Eveld,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Somewhere deep in the American psyche is the desire to nab a great deal. With vacation sweepstakes and travel come-ons at every turn, it's no wonder people pounce on them.

They would do well to back off.

Despite the efforts of government and consumer groups, travel fraud keeps getting bigger and more insidious. The old scams are still working, and new avenues are proving ever more fruitful for con artists.

Besides pitching travel packages over the phone and by postcard, scammers are taking to the Internet, which offers a worldwide audience and plenty of anonymity.

And the swindlers are reaching more consumers by offering business opportunities, such as work-at-home travel franchises, and by linking travel offers with other potential purchases - and not just resort property.

Become a travel agent and get thousands in discounts! See our vacuum-cleaner demonstration and receive a free hotel package! Often enough, the discounts aren't available and the hotel offer doesn't pan out.

Consumers are losing $12 billion a year in bogus or deceptive travel offers, up from $7 billion just a few years ago, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Cleo Manuel, public affairs vice president for the National Consumers League, said that as travel scams evolve, consumers have to stay alert.

If you truly win a travel package, you shouldn't have to pay any fees - a long-used telemarketing ploy - to receive it. If you want discounts, you shouldn't expect to get them automatically by purchasing a travel agency start-up kit.

"Travel is a great bait for con artists," Manuel said. "And they do a lot of bait and switch. Consumers pay $400 for discount coupons 'worth thousands,' but all the requirements make them worthless."

Indeed, people have a weakness when it comes to travel opportunities. When the family budget is cut, travel is often a casualty. For many people, travel can be financially out of reach, especially to island locales or faraway destinations.

"Ask anybody anywhere what they would do if they won the lottery, and nine out of 10 would say they'd travel," said James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va. "Travel is a dream."

Prosecutors and consumer groups say the perpetrators of travel fraud are difficult to catch. Questionable companies elude detection by changing names, selling their businesses or relocating frequently. And prosecutors must be able to prove not just that consumers are dissatisfied but also that companies have violated laws. Nationally, travel scams rank among the top five categories in the complaint system at the Federal Trade Commission's consumer-protection bureau.

While scams have evolved, they've also found a new, comfortable home on the Internet. The National Consumers League monitors on-line fraud and invites consumers to report schemes to its Internet address at www.fraud.org. According to the league, scammers find the Internet attractive for several reasons:

* The numerous potential victims worldwide.

* Web sites can look polished and professional, lending an air of credibility to a company the consumer has no knowledge of. And Web sites can be altered quickly.

* Mass e-mail programs make it cheap to contact thousands of consumers.

L * E-mail headers can be forged to hide a company's identity.

* The scam artist might be in another country, seriously complicating refund attempts.

Whether over the Internet or on an old-fashioned postcard, many of the tried-and-true scams are still popular among con artists, Ommen said.

One such workhorse: Consumers are notified that they've won a vacation and must call an 800 number to claim it. But the caller is required to pay certain fees, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, by credit card. And actually booking the trip becomes troublesome because of restrictions. As often happens, the promoter goes out of business or changes names, leaving little recourse for the consumer.

"Be your own travel agent" promotions make the American Society of Travel Agents seethe.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have been tricked into sending money to these groups," said Ashurst, the society's spokesman.

A few consumers may get enough information from some of the offers to actually sell some travel and make commissions,

Ashurst said. But, more and more for discount purposes, the travel industry requires agents to hold a card from the International Airlines Travel Agent Network. To qualify, agents must meet minimum guidelines for work hours and sales.

"You should say, 'What's the catch here?' " Ashurst said. "Why would suppliers want to give these discounts?"

The FTC decided against trying to close down so-called travel-card mills with an outright ban on all such offers. But the agency works with state attorneys general to investigate, on a case-by-case basis, these complaints and a host of others.

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