The Federal Trade Commission calls them "trip traps," tickets to Heartbreak Hotel. They are the too-good-to-be-true vacation offers that flood mailboxes, fill the Internet or are pitched by fast-talking telemarketers:
"Hello. You have been chosen to receive our spectacular luxury dream vacation...."
The FTC cautions consumers to beware of unsolicited offers, which may be fraudulent moneymaking schemes perpetrated by fly-by-night operators. The promotions may contain hidden extras that triple the cost, promise luxury and deliver mediocrity, or be bound by blackout dates and other restrictions.
" 'Free' or 'guaranteed,' those are two buzzwords," says Collot Guerard, a litigating attorney for the FTC. The agency takes complaints at its Web site, http://www.ftc.gov, and on its toll-free phone line, (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357), and feeds them into a worldwide database for law enforcement agencies.
What are signals for buyers to beware? "Any sort of extravagant promises that sound too good to be true -- travel anywhere, anytime," she says. She cautions that a "vacation offer" may be "an offer for you to pay $500. It's not a free vacation."
Timeshare and travel-club promoters' offers may sound enticing, but travel often is restricted to midweek, or the waiting list is three years for properties in popular locations.
"Businesses usually can't stay afloat selling goods or services for less than they really cost," says Susan Grant, director of the National Consumers League's fraud information center, (800) 876-7060 or http://www.fraud.org. "They may be offering trips that simply don't exist or lying to you about what a trip will cost."
During the first six months of 2002, travelers reporting Internet vacation fraud reported an average loss of $437.
The FTC and various consumer groups caution recipients of unsolicited offers to:
Ask for the name of the company, its address and its telephone number, then call back. Check out the company with the Better Business Bureau or the state attorney general's office. In California, a company offering air or sea travel as part of a package must be registered with the attorney general's office.
Ask for details about the travel package, including the names of hotels, airlines and restaurants. Don't settle for a "major airline" or "leading hotel."
Find out if the company is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. or another reputable group.
Ask for details of the offer in writing, and look for red-flag phrases such as "subject to availability."
Beware of solicitors who call after business hours.
Never give out a credit card number or Social Security number.
Never call a 900 number, which is a toll call. Beware of area codes including 809, 758 and 664, which are Caribbean locations.
Anyone tempted to buy an unsolicited travel package should:
Refuse to be pressured into an immediate decision. A good offer today usually will be a good offer tomorrow, and legitimate businesses do not expect you to make snap decisions.
Ask about cancellation policies and refunds.
Get everything in writing before giving money to the company.
Compare the price by shopping around. You may find that it's not such a great deal.
Find out whether you must sit through a timeshare sales pitch.
Beware of buying a long-term (five- or 10-year) membership in a timeshare or travel club. Within five years the company may go out of business, its annual fees may be hiked or beautiful properties may fall into disrepair. It is difficult to resell these timeshares or memberships, and timeshare properties rarely appreciate in value.
Remember that the Internet is a cheap and readily available medium for con artists. Be skeptical. Web sites appear and disappear overnight.
Don't be talked into sending your payment by overnight mail, and don't allow the company to send a messenger to pick it up. These may be clues that the company is trying to avoid detection or mail fraud charges.
Say no if you have any doubts. If you decide to buy, pay by credit card, which will give you some protection against fraudulent charges. If the company says the earliest departure date is two months away, be wary; the operator may know you have 60 days to dispute a credit-card charge.
The FTC warns that consumers are defrauded out of millions of dollars each month in telemarketing fraud. The best advice: Don't let go of any money you can't afford to lose.