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Have you ever been tempted to buy one of those bargain-priced travel packages sold over the telephone? Be careful. Your dream adventure may be a misadventure if you fall victim to one of the travel scams sold over the phone. While some of these travel opportunities are legitimate, many of them are scam operations that are defrauding consumers out of millions of dollars each month.
How The Scams Work
These schemes take many forms. Often, schemes involve vacation travel packages. A consumer pays hundreds of dollars or more to receive a travel package that includes round-trip air transportation for one person and lodging for two people in Hawaii, London, or another vacation place for a week. The catch? You must purchase a high- priced, round-trip ticket for the second person from the fraudulent travel operation or you must pay for costly accommodations in less- than-ideal timeshares or resorts. You may end up paying more than what it would cost if you purchased your own tickets in advance or bought them through an airline or reputable travel agency.
Another scam starts by sending you a postcard stating: "You have been specially selected to receive a free trip." The postcard instructs you to call a phone number, usually toll-free, for details about the trip. Once you call, you are given a sales pitch for a supposedly luxurious trip that is not free at all. Sometimes, a credit card number is requested so that your account can be billed for the package. Only after you pay are you sent the vacation package with instructions on requesting reservations for your trip. Usually, your reservation request must be accompanied by yet another fee. The catch here? New charges are being added at every step of the way. And, you never get your "free" trip because your reservations are not confirmed or you must comply with hard-to-meet hidden or expensive "conditions."
Telemarketing travel scams usually originate out of "boiler rooms." Skilled salespeople, often with years of experience selling dubious products and services over the phone, pitch travel packages that may sound legitimate, but often are not. These sales pitches usually include some of the following techniques:
* Oral Misrepresentations. Whatever the particular scheme may be, telephone salespeople are likely to promise you a "deal" they cannot deliver. Unfortunately, you often do not realize this until after you have paid your money.
* High Pressure/Time Pressure Tactics. These scam operators are likely to tell you they need your commitment to buy right away or that this special offer will not be available tomorrow. Often, they will brush aside your questions with vague answers.
* "Affordable" Offers. Unlike telephone fraud operators who try to persuade people to spend thousands of dollars on a particular investment scheme, travel scam operators usually pitch their membership or vacation offers in the range of hundreds of dollars. Because this amount is often in the price range of those planning vacations, offers may appear to be reasonably-priced.
* Contradictory Follow-up Material. Some firms may agree to send you written confirmation of the deal. You will find, however, that the literature bears little resemblance to the offer you accepted. Often, the written materials will disclose additional terms, conditions, and costs.
How To Protect Yourself
No one wants unpleasant surprises on a vacation. Therefore, it pays to thoroughly investigate a travel package before you commit to purchase. While it is sometimes difficult to tell a legitimate sale pitch from a fraudulent one, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
* Be wary of "great deals." One tip-off to a scam is that the offer is very low-priced. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away things of real value or to undercut substantially everyone else's price.
* Do not be pressured into buying -- NOW. Generally, a good offer today will remain a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses do not expect you to make an instant decision.
* Ask detailed questions. Find out exactly what the price covers -- and does not cover. Ask if there will be any additional charges later. Find out the names of the specific hotels, airports, airlines, and restaurants that your package includes. You may wish to contact these places yourself to double-check arrangements. Find out exact dates and times. Ask about cancellation policies and refunds. If the salesperson cannot give you detailed answers to these questions, this is not the deal for you.
* Get all information in writing before you agree to buy. Before purchasing a travel package, ask for detailed written information. Once you receive the information, make sure the written material confirms everything you were told by phone.
* Do not give your credit card number over the phone. One easy way for a scam operator to close a deal is to get your credit card number and then charge your account. Sometimes scam operators say they need the number for verification purposes only. Never give your credit or charge card numbers -- or any other personal information (such as bank account numbers) -- to unsolicited telephone salespeople.
* Do not send money by messenger or overnight mail. Instead of asking for your credit card number, some scam operators may ask you to send a check or money order right away -- or offer to send a messenger to pick these up. If you use money rather than a credit card in the transaction, you lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. (See following section, "What To Do If You Have Problems.")
* Check out the company. Before buying any travel package, check first with various government and private organizations to see if any complaints have been lodged against the travel firm calling you. A list of some of these organizations is included on page 5. Be aware that fraudulent firms change their names frequently to avoid detection.
* If in doubt, say "no." Sometimes an offer appears legitimate, but you still have doubts. In that case, it is usually better to turn down the offer and hang up the phone. Remember, if something goes wrong, the likelihood of your receiving any money back is very slim.
What To Do If You Have Problems
If you have problems with a travel package, try resolving your disputes first with the company that sold you the package. If you are not satisfied, try contacting your local consumer protection agency, Better Business Bureau, or state Attorney General. In addition, you may want to write to the American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Affairs, at 1101 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, which may be able to mediate your dispute. You also may contact the National Fraud Information Center, 1-800-876-7060 (9:00a.m. - 5:30 p.m.. EST, Monday - Friday). Or, write to the Federal Trade Commission, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. Although the FTC generally does not intervene in individual consumer disputes, the information you provide may indicate a pattern of possible law violations requiring action by the Commission.
If you charged your trip to a credit card, you may dispute the charges by writing to your credit card issuer at the address provided for billing disputes. Try to do this as soon as you receive your statement, but no later than 60 days after the bill's statement date. In some circumstances under the Fair Credit Billing Act, your credit card issuer may have to absorb the charges if the seller does not resolve your dispute. If you did not authorize the charge, you are not responsible for its payment.
For More Information
If you would like more information about travel issues, write to ASTA, at the address above, for a list of its publications. In addition, for single free copies of Timeshare Tips, Timeshare Resales, or Fair Credit Billing contact: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580; 202-326-2222.
Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission in cooperation with the American Society of Travel Agents
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