Travel Scams
How to Avoid Them

Part 1

UNLIKE MOST PRODUCTS, travel services usually have to be paid for before they are delivered. This creates opportunities for disreputable individuals and companies. Some travel packages turn out to be very different from what was presented or what the consumer expected. Some don't materialize at all! If you receive an offer by phone or mail for a free or extremely low-priced vacation trip to a popular destination (often Hawaii or Florida), there are a few things you should look for:

If you encounter any of these signs, proceed cautiously. Ask for written information to be sent to you; any legitimate travel company will be happy to oblige. If they don't have a brochure, ask for a day or two to think it over; most bona fide deals that are good today will still be good two days from now. If they say no to both requests, this probably isn't the trip for you.

Some other advice: If you are told that you've won a free vacation, ask if you have to buy something else in order to get it. Some packages have promoted free air fare, as long as you buy expensive hotel arrangements. Others include a free hotel stay, but no air fare.

If you are seriously considering the vacation offer and are confident you have established the full price you will pay, compare the offer to what you might obtain elsewhere. Frequently, the appeal of free air fare or free accommodations disguises the fact that the total price is still higher than that of a regular package tour.

Get a confirmed departure date, in writing, before you pay anything. Eye skeptically any promises that an acceptable date will be arranged later. If the package involves standby or waitlist travel, or a reservation that can only be provided much later, ask if your payment is refundable if you want to cancel, and don't pay any money you can't afford to lose.

If the destination is a beach resort, ask the seller how far the hotel is from the beach. Then ask the hotel.

Determine the complete cost of the trip in dollars, including all service charges, taxes, processing fees, etc. If you decide to buy the trip after checking it out, paying by credit card gives you certain legal rights to pursue a chargeback (credit) if promised services aren't delivered.

Part 2

Safety While On The Go

Tourists make tempting targets for thieves and hustlers because they often carry expensive cameras, jewelry, and large amounts of cash. Worse, travelers often find themselves in unfamiliar territory where they are frequently lost or confused or simply preoccupied with seeing the sights. Here are some popular scams- and how to avoid them (but remember that your best protection is to be prepared for anything).

  1. Avoid hucksters who approach you near the airport baggage area and offer a cut-rate cab ride to your hotel. At best, you'll pay a wildly inflated price for a roundabout journey. Instead, head for the official taxi stand outside.
  2. When you check in at a hotel and the front-desk clerk announced your room number within earshot of others, demand a different room. Otherwise you may find yourself prey to a thief or worse.
  3. Watch out for "shoulder surfers," who hang around public telephones. They'll steal your calling-card number when you punch it into the keypad. Block their view, and cup your hand around the keypad. Be equally cautious about speaking the numbers out loud to an operator.
  4. While walking, stay alert to diversionary tactics used by a pickpocket or thief. One popular routine involves a stranger's throwing garbage at you or squirting you with mustard. While a second person rushes to help you, a thief unnoticed, may relieve you of your belongings.
  5. Beware of accidents used to collect insurance money. One or more cars may cut you off or stop suddenly in front of you and cause the accident. They other driver will blame you for injuring him and his car. Later his insurance will claim more injury or more serious vehicle damage than you observed. Keep detailed notes.

Part 3

When planning a trip, here are some additional tips:

  • Beware of unsolicited travel opportunities.
  • There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If a travel opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Either they will take your money and run, or there are hidden charges. For example, many so-called "free vacations" or "vacation giveaways" require you to stay at a specific hotel-at exorbitant rates.
  • Beware of extremely low-priced offers, unsolicited offers involving Florida or Hawaii, and opportunities that try to pressure you into buying on the spot.
  • If you're elderly, be especially careful. Scam artists will try to confuse and manipulate you.
  • Ask detailed questions (e.g., what is covered by the price and what isn't, whether there are any additional charges, the names of the hotels, airlines, airports, and restaurants, exact dates and times, cancellation policies, and refund policies), and get it all in writing before you buy anything.
  • Never give personal information, including credit card numbers, social security numbers, bank account numbers, or similar information to an unsolicited telephone salesperson. If you must, ask for a telephone number and call them back the next day, after you've had time to check them out. Call the Better Business Bureau and use the telephone number to verify if they're a legitimate business, and if so, whether there have been any complaints. You can also checkout the company with the state attorney general's office and the local consumer protection agency.
  • Pay for purchases with a credit card, never with a check or money order. When you pay for purchases with a credit card, you're protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act against fraudulent charges.
  • Never give out your frequent flyer number over the phone, unless you initiated the call.
  • Don't assume that just because a company places advertisements in a newspaper or has a toll-free 800 number, it must be safe. It takes time for a company to generate enough complaints for the Federal Trade Commission to start an investigation. Moreover, not all 800 numbers are toll-free these days, and it's possible for an individual to get their own toll-free number.
  • Do not give your tickets to anyone other than an agent of the airline at the ticketing/check-in counter, the gate, or the airline's offices. A common scam is for someone wearing a uniform similar to that of the airline to provide some excuse for taking your tickets (e.g., claiming there is a problem with the tickets). If you're not sure that someone is an airline employee, check their ID with the airline.
  • If you've encountered a problem, or are suspicious of an offer, call the National Fraud Information Center, a hotline operated by the National Consumers League. The number is 800-876-7060 and can be reached from 9a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT during the week. You can also call the local Better Business Bureau, the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, and the Attorney General's office.

A good booklet to read is Telemarketing Travel Fraud, a free publication of the Federal Trade Commission. Call 202-326-2222 for a copy, or write to: Federal Trade Commission, Public Reference Branch, Room 130, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC 20580.