Travel Scams, Don't be a Fool!

United States Travel Blog

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*April 1st is a day for fools but in the world of travel every day is a fools party. Travel fraud and scams account for the second highest number of complaints (behind Internet auctions) according to the National Fraud Information Center. While there is no fool proof method to protect yourself against possible fraud 100% of the time, there are some simple rules to live by.

1 NOTHING in the travel world is ever free.

2 If is too good to be true, stop being greedy because you will get scammed.

3 Never pay for the "opportunity" to book a trip at a later date.

4 Always pay for travel with a REAL credit card, not a debit card.

5 Get a second opinion on a "deal" from a reliable source or travel agent.

6 Read the fine print and disclaimers.

7 Never attend "sales presentations".

*One day you are at your local mall or gym and see an offer or contest to win "free" cruise or "free" vacation. Perhaps you received a call or a certificate in the mail. You think to your self "wow, this is my lucky day." Meanwhile some unscrupulous salesperson is thinking "wow, what a sucker." Remember rule 1, NOTHING in the travel world is ever free. Consumers end up paying for it one way or another. You do not work for free do you, and neither do the employees of these outfits? So how do you think these companies can stay in business by giving away free trips? Somebody has to pay and that somebody is you. The scam involved here takes many forms but all have the same result, separating you from your money.

*"Discount" travel clubs are the travel equivalent to used car lots. The deals look fabulous until you look under the hood. There are some legitimate clubs in business, usually those that cater to special interest groups or social networking, but most are fly by night operations looking for a quick sell with no delivery. These clubs will have high upfront membership fees and in return will offer members the privilege of booking a heavily discounted trip that was twice as heavily padded in price to begin with. They get hefty fee from your membership AND a nice commission form the travel supplier. So what does the consumer get? Let’s just say you might do better in the Nigerian lottery. The prices and the trips look great but when you try to book one there never seems to be a trip available on the dates you want to go. Every trip on every date you select will be sold out or blacked out, mostly on account of the fact that they never existed to begin with.

*Many consumers will just give up after a few tries which is what the company is hoping for. Most of these places close up shop within a few weeks of collecting the membership fees and start up elsewhere. Several of these sleazy companies will require a 60 days waiting period before your membership is active or will require 60 days advance purchase of a trip. Why 60 days? Most credit card companies require that you dispute any charges within 60 days. After that there is no way to recoup your money due to fraud. Some of these clubs will actually book a trip for you. The advertised $99 all inclusive 7 night resort vacation can be yours, just book the airfare and pay the taxes and fees. Guess what, those paltry taxes and fees as well as the jacked up airfare will make your trip cost several hundred if not thousands of dollars more than you expected. Had you just used a reliable travel agent to begin with, you would have gotten a nice vacation, when you wanted it without all the cow dung.

*The only people worse in my mind than the travel club scammers are the timeshare folks. When it comes to lying, cheating or stealing, these slim bags make Leona Helmsley look like Mother Theresa. The offers are seemingly straightforward: "come stay at a beautiful resort on us for the weekend and simply attend a short no pressure presentation." What they really should say is "we intend to get you out here and sick a squadron of vipers on you until you cave in and buy one of our timeshares just so that you can get out of here with your lives." These vultures prey on you while you are on vacation, a time when most have let their guard down. NEVER agree to anything or worse sign anything if you find yourself caught up in this pit of snakes. There are many cases when unsuspecting tourists fill out and sign what they think are information cards or hotel registration forms which really turn out to be binding contracts to purchase timeshare units. The buyers don’t find out until they return home to see the charges on their credit cards. Unfortunately it is difficult to fight something you signed a contract for. In this world where vacation time is a precious commodity, do you really want to waste it running for your life from a slick salesman?

*A new scam that is running rampant now with the help of Al Gore (because he invented the Internet), is the "become a home based travel agent" scam. Companies that offer you a "travel agent credential" are about as genuine as a leprechaun. The days of freebies are gone and big discounts are few and far between. These "cards" do exist but are not for sale at any price. They must be earned though legitimate travel sales from accredited agencies. As a new travel agent myself I can attest to this first hand. In order to be recognized as an agent or receive commissions, you must be affiliated with a licensed agency or be registered as an independent travel seller with either the Cruise Lines International Association or the Airlines Reporting Corporation. Individuals may not apply for registration until they have sold a significant commissionable amount of travel working under and existing member. This is neither and easy nor part time accomplishment.

*There are large agencies that do allow prospective agents to work from home in their own travel business. There are several legitimate companies that do not require a large startup cost and they can be found with a bit of research on the Internet. You will have to generate your own leads and the commissions will be minuscule. Unless you have hundreds of prospective clients ready to go, do not expect much success. Beware of any company that requires you to purchase your own agency and then pay a monthly fee. There are several of these scam companies out there with the biggest and one of the shadiest being a company with a three letter name starting with Y and ending with B. They have a slick presentation and if I didn’t know better I might even be fooled by the promises made. They have two ways of earning money through the company: selling travel and selling agencies. It is multilevel marketing at its finest. In order to earn commissions you must pay an upfront fee of about $500 plus then a monthly license fee of about $50. Then you are entitled to earn 60% of the commission generated through your own travel agency website. Sounds good huh? Lets break that down. First it is 60% of the commission NOT of the total sale. To start airfare is NOT commissionable at all. They do give you $5 for each airfare booked, but this is a fee charged to your customers for the privilege of using your website. Car rentals and hotels pay about 5 to 10% of the base rate before taxes and fees. Cruise lines and packages generally pay a bit more 10 to 12% but again it is not on the taxes and fees. A $1000 cruise may include up to $400 in non-commissionable fees. But wait, remember that you only get 60% of the actual commission. One of these sites must sell about $2000 to $3000 a month in travel just to break even on the monthly fee. That is not even taking in to account the set up fee of $500.00. We all know how many thousands of travel booking sites there are on the INTERNET so unless you also plan to spend some pretty heavy advertising bucks, don’t plan on any traffic to the site. The real way to make money with this company is to sucker other unsuspecting people into buying these loser agencies.

*We have all seen the unbelievable fares and specials advertised for travel. What the public tends not to see are the asterisks and fine print accompanying them. A $299 fare to Europe for example may carry almost double the fare in fees, taxes and surcharges. Make sure to find out the total cost WITH all of the add .. you make a decision to book. Another place consumers get caught up is in the nightmare of frequent flier redemption and bogus offers. Airlines are the master of the game at this bait and switch tactic. Every year more and more airline miles are accumulated and even more will go unused. Airlines have tightened restrictions and added so many fees that miles are generally worthless. In a few years there will be more outstanding miles than the airlines will be able to accommodate. To make matters worse, millions of miles are accumulating with credit card use. All those Pollyanna’s who earn frequent flier miles with their credit cards need to wake up. More that 85% of you will not be able to use that free ticket when you need it and almost half will not be able to use it at all. If you have miles built up now, USE them as fast as you can. If you are still earning them switch to a cash back credit card. Capital One and American Express Blue are two of the best cash back cards and both have excellent benefits for travelers. Consider that you have to spend about $25,000 to earn enough miles for a domestic ticket. You will have to pay fees to use that ticket unless booked well in advance and it will be subject to capacity control and blackout dates. Now consider that Capital one will give you $250 for that 25,000 or AMEX will give you $300 to $500 for the same amount of miles in CASH. Remember cash has no blackout dates or capacity controls.

*If you want to make a donation, please send it to a worthy charity and not some corrupt or failing business. Cruise lines, tour operators, airlines, and yes, even travel agencies, have all gone under and left the consumer holding the bag. There is no foolproof way to prevent this but making an informed decision should eliminate most of the possibilities.

*How long has the company been around? Do they have a local office you can visit? Are they a member of a professional organization such as the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) , Association of Retail Travel Agents or the Cruise Lines International Association? While determining whether or not a company is a member of the Better Business Bureau may helpful in finding complaints, it does not always have information on new businesses. Remember to pay with a credit card. A debit card with a Visa or MC logo on it does not qualify for the same protections as a regular credit card. Never do business with a company that requires a cash deposit in advance unless you have verified the reputation of the company.

*Not all scams occur before you go. Con-artists are equal opportunity employers. Thieves and tricksters are forever coming up with new ways to scam travelers, so it’s important to find out about these scams before you travel. The most common ones usually involve taxis and hotels.

*Imagine you have just had a harried and long day on a business trip or even a vacation. You arrive at your hotel and the only thing you want to do it take a hot shower and crawl into bed. Just as you are drifting off into dreamland the phone rings. It is a clerk from the front desk asking you to verify some information. Apparently some forms were mixed up during check in and they just had a shift change. Her or she is simply trying to straighten it out. The front desk clerk AKA scammer asks to verify if the last 4 digits of your card are "1234." No, those aren’t yours and without thinking you rattle off the correct one including the expiration. The overjoyed clerk announces they found your form and you are all set. The real wake up comes the next time you try to use your card and it gets declined. Never give a card number or any information over the phone at a hotel. Calling the front desk may not prevent this either as the scammer may be an actual employee or be using a temporarily abandoned front desk area. Tell this clerk you will be happy to straighten it out in the morning in person.

*Hotel scams start even before you get to the property. We have all been to train stations and airports full of important and professional looking folks offering discount hotel rooms to unsuspecting travelers. They pass themselves off as legitimate tour operators. They may even have official looking badges or brochures of the hotels. Anyone with a computer these days can make up these lousy credentials. They will offer to take you to the hotel and offer you a great rate. Not only are you in danger of being robbed of your wallet luggage or worse assaulted on the way to the property, once you get there nothing will ever be as it was promised. The apologetic hotel clerk will tell you all of the advertised rates are sold out but that they do have a room at double to triple the promised rate. You are free to leave, but by then your free ride has left you high and dry, usually in an unsavory part of town or worse, well out of town. Some travelers insist on finding rooms when they arrive at their destination. This can be a good way of getting deals but I do not recommend it except for the most savvy and most experienced travelers. The rest of us are better off making reservations prior to arriving that include a confirmation number. If you must make reservations upon arriving, go to an official tourist information office or pick up a local guide book and head to a phone.

*Similar to the hotels is the taxi scam. Imagine you see an incredible line outside your airport or train station. It appears that you will have a wait of 30 minutes or more. Just then a well dressed official looking man will offer to get you a taxi with no waiting. These tricksters tend to look for weary, ill-informed travelers who should really just have idiot stamped on their foreheads. Never accept a ride from an unlicensed taxi, EVER! Most countries require taxis to be metered and licensed. In the best case scenario these unlicensed cab drivers will deliver you to your location for about 4 to 5 times the actual fare. More often than not, you will not arrive where you intend. Unsuspecting tourists have found themselves robbed of luggage and money and left off in a deserted area. Many times they have also been assaulted and in some cases murdered. Any taxi cab should have the car number and company marked on the outside, a registration and driver information card displayed on or near the dashboard, and should either have on display or offer on request a list of charges. If you are staying at a hotel, ask the staff to recommend a taxi and inquire about the correct fare for your destination. If you think you were scabbed, try to record identifying information about the driver and/or the vehicle so you can report it to the police.

*"Caveat emptor" is the name of the game for consumers in the travel world. If you let yourself get taken advantage of, you will. Use the good sense your Momma gave you, as well as my tips here and you won’t play the fool.

*If you do get scammed, please help to inform others by filing with the ASTA’s consumer site, Travel Sense. This site offers ways to keep your travel purchases safe and protect yourself from con artists. To report possible travel fraud, notify
ASTA’s consumer affairs office, or call the National Fraud Information Center’s hotline at (800) 876-7060, and check with your local law enforcement agencies to see if they can help you.
travelman727 says:
Great advice! After reading your article, I feel very fortunate (lucky, not smart) for having not yet been scammed :-D
Posted on: Aug 05, 2008
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