How to avoid bumpy ride into travel cyberspace

Fraud: Some quick advice for dealing with the slick operators.



With complaints of online fraud reportedly up sixfold last year and consumers spending more for e-travel than for any other Internet purchases, vacationers should cruise cyberspace with caution.

Most e-travel problems seem more the fault of inexperienced entrepreneurs still working out the glitches of a rapidly changing business milieu.

Web fraud, says the U.S. Tour Operators Association, falls into two categories: e-mailed "special offers," often claiming the recipient has won a contest, and Web sites advertising false travel deals. This is a tricky area when it comes to consumer protection. Seeing an offer on the Web doesn't count as getting it in writing, because the site can be changed in a flash.

The group offers this advice, much of which pertains to phone and mail offers, too:

* Don't judge a company by its Web site. Stunning graphics are no guarantee of stability.

* Be wary if you can get a guarantee of discounted rates only if you take immediate action. On the other hand, be cautious if you're told you have 18 months or more to take the trip; the company might be out of business by then.

* Beware of "instant travel agent" offers where companies offer to sell you an agent ID that supposedly will guarantee you discounted rates.

* Check with the Better Business Bureau and find out if there's a consumer protection plan to cover deposits and the like in the event of bankruptcy.

Other tips come from a Web company,

* A good Web site should offer users the option of going into SSL mode (secure server) when private information such as a credit card number is exchanged.

* Look for a safe-shopping guarantee promising to reimburse the $50 liability you incur as a credit card holder in the event the card information is stolen and used to make fraudulent charges.

* Read the privacy policy on every e-commerce site so you know what the companies will do with your personal information. Will they sell it to any telemarketer who's interested or keep it private unless you authorize distribution?

* Is someone you personally know a happy customer of the company? Has it won any awards from industry groups or been endorsed by trade publications or consumer watchdog agencies? This will at least be some indication that you're dealing with a reputable company. Invest a little library time to research what's been written about the company and you might save yourself a lot of grief -- and cash.

* Trust your instincts. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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