Smart travelers are skeptical, cautious

Watch for too-good-to-be-true scams and keep eyes open when on road

Strategies

February 04, 2007|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

Let's all take an oath: "I promise to be a smart traveler in 2007. I will not succumb to phony last-minute travel deals. And when I travel, I will be alert at all times and protect my personal property to the utmost of my ability."

Over the years I have known travelers who couldn't bear to pass up a nearly free cruise or resort vacation, only to learn later that they were scammed.

I've known people who have had their cameras stolen, not to mention passports and cash.

In most instances, these travel disasters could have been avoided. Not all - there are a lot of smart thieves out there - but most.

People need to be skeptical when they receive offers that sound too good to be true. In fact, they probably are.

And, by being attentive and cautious, people can protect their valuables while on the road. In most cases, applying common sense can save them.

Let's say you receive a postcard, fax or e-mail offer for a fabulous trip - "a fun-filled four-day, three-night vacation to magical Orlando, home of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and more." All you have to do is call a toll-free number, listen to a scripted spiel, give them a credit card number, or send a certified check or money order.

Then your troubles begin. You have nothing in writing, you don't have a clue about the resort or when you can even go. As for canceling, good luck.

The American Society of Travel Agents and the Federal Trade Commission warn consumers about getting suckered into such deals, plunking down money without having complete details in writing. Typically, says ASTA, scam operators won't give full and complete information in writing until after they have been paid. ASTA also advises:

Never pay for a trip in cash.

Walk away from high-pressure sales presentations that don't allow time to evaluate the offer, or that require income disclosure.

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

If you think you've been scammed, contact your local Better Business Bureau, state consumer affairs office or ASTA's Consumer Affairs Department at astanet.com/about/consumer complaint.asp.

Now let's say you're getting ready to travel. Don't even consider taking all your money in cash.

American Express, for example, tells travelers to carry a "diversified wallet," a combination of credit cards, debit cards, traveler's checks/check card and local currency. When you are out and about, carry only what you need for the day; lock up the rest in your hotel room safe along with your passport.

Travel safety expert Kevin Coffey, a police detective and chief executive of his own company, Corporate Travel Safety (corporatetravelsafety.com), offered this advice: "Carry what you absolutely need - a driver's license; an emergency contact card with names, phone numbers, cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses; cash and needed credit cards.

"Sanitize your wallet. Leave behind unneeded credit cards, department store, gas and library cards. And you should not carry your Social Security card, which reduces the chance of identity theft."

Whether you travel domestically or internationally, you also need to be careful with cameras and laptops. You must be aware of who's around you in a crowd.

When asked about the latest scams thieves use, Coffey said pickpockets have been using variations of the same ploys for years - anything to distract a prospective target. Among the distraction techniques:

Pigeon poop or ketchup ploy. On a crowded sidewalk, someone will tell you that you have bird droppings or ketchup on your coat and offer to clean up the mess. While the person has you distracted, his cohort will lift your wallet, purse or carry-on and disappear before you know what happened.

The shoe drop. A variation of bird droppings, someone puts a glob of something on your shoe. As shoeshine boys scurry around you while offering to clean your shoe, your wallet is lifted.

The lush worker. This pickpocket pretends to be drunk, ricocheting off passengers on a subway until he stumbles into his target. As you fend him off, his hand goes into your jacket pocket, another popular spot for billfolds.

Coffey advises men not to carry their billfolds in the "sucker pocket," a rear pants pocket. "If you carry a billfold, put it in a front pocket."

Women, Coffey said, should carry as little information as possible in their purses, which should be as small as possible. There are new types of travel purses, he said, with straps reinforced with steel mesh that can't be cut.

You can lock your luggage, even at airports, if you use locks approved by the Transportation Security Administration.

Finally, remember your oath.

Alfred Borcover writes for the Chicago Tribune.

TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS

Dress with care -- Don't wear expensive-looking jewelry. Dress conservatively - not flashy, not overly casual. Protect personal information -- Make copies of your passport, credit cards and other valuable papers, and stash them in your luggage. Tech-savvy travelers store personal information on a USB thumb drive and can access data on any computer. Avoid theft -- If you travel by automobile, never put items in your trunk at your final destination, where thieves can be waiting and watching. Stow your things before you get there. Hide medications -- At hotels, especially in underdeveloped countries, travelers should hide medications such as Vicodin and Valium that can be sold for hefty prices on the black market. Be alert -- Check out travel scam alerts at ricksteves.com/graffiti.

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