Some Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Vacation-Scam Victim

Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

At the federal, state and local levels, authorities find themselves besieged by consumer complaints about travel rip-offs.

Complaints range from outright fraud by companies that take in money with no intention of providing vacations as promised, to those who simply misrepresent the products they offer.

Cheap, eye-catching air fares . . . that don't exist. Some travel clubs promising huge savings . . . that they can't deliver.

Splashy headlines in ads trumpeting unbelievable deals . . . accompanied by a notation in the smallest type available that "some restrictions apply." Two-for-one plans . . . in which the one the customer must pay for turns out to be more expensive than the cost of two discounts on the open market.

These are the kinds of things that have people crying "foul" from coast to coast in seemingly ever-increasing numbers.

Complaints Pour In

In California, the attorney general's office recently fielded 160 complaints in two days. In February, normally the slowest month of the year, the office received 265.

The U.S. Postal Service mail frauds department has developed a confidential list of 82 travel-scam operators in the greater Miami area alone. A source there estimated that one phony company, in business for not more than four months, accumulated $6 million before its principals dropped from sight.

Virginia is trying to find the funds to create a series of public- service ads warning its residents against the danger of travel cheats. Houston is forming an industry advisory board to devise ways to help the public distinguish between the bargains and the bogus.

The Federal Trade Commission is considering co-sponsoring public-service radio warnings in partnership with the American Society of Travel Agents, the nation's biggest retail agent trade association.

The scope and severity of the travel scam plague are beyond question. The problem has become chronic, far worse than ever.

California's attorney general's office is concerned, as are the other bodies mentioned, that, bad as the situation is now, it will get totally out of hand in the peak summer months ahead.

Why is 1987 turning out to be such a black year for so many consumer travelers?

Two Major Factors

There are probably two major influences at work: deregulation and telemarketing.

Deregulation of the airline industry--and the competition it encouraged--has conditioned the public to the availability of airline bargains. The price wars that wrack the air transportation industry at regular intervals have made consumers expect--even demand--low fares.

Two-thirds of the people who fly at any given time of the year travel with discounted tickets. Discretionary travelers, as distinct from business people, buy "super-savers" and "max savers"and whatever other kinds of "savers" happen to be available.

They have the luxury of time to plan and book ahead, thereby making it possible to use advance purchase discount fares, something that commercial travelers generally can't do.

So, after eight years of deregulation, the public doesn't always react with as much healthy skepticism as it might when it is confronted with an offer of a $29 round-trip fare to Hawaii, or a week's vacation for two in London for just $319. And there are, apparently, plenty of people out there willing to capitalize on this consumer gullibility.

The job of separating the customer from his or her money has become much easier with the evolution of telemarketing. The public has perhaps been lulled into a false sense of security by its growing familiarity with the method.

It has become commonplace for magazine publishers, department stores, real estate operators and others to make contact with prospective buyers by telephone. Some of the callers are part-time employees hired to read a canned speech to whomever answers the phone.

Look for the Catch

If you get such a call, here's a suggestion: Never mind making small talk. Ask the caller what the bottom line is--what is he selling and how much does it cost?

Travel is such an appealing product that people tend to be receptive to talking about "fabulous" deals. And they don't mind listening to others talk about the subject, too.

It's easy to misrepresent, whether deliberately or accidentally, whatever product is being pushed. It's equally easy for excited consumers to think they understand exactly what's being promised when, in fact, they don't.

Put all of these things together--consumers' low-fare orientation, their acceptance of telemarketing approaches as well as their unawareness of its risks, and the basic allure of travel--and you have a dangerous environment for the unwary. Unless travel buyers get smart in a hurry, the situation may only get worse . . . much worse.

Minimize the Risk

None of us can ever protect ourselves 100% from being ripped off. But we can take some steps to minimize our exposure to danger, especially in the area of travel buying.

The first thing is to resist pressure. If the person who calls you with one of those "too-good-to-be-true" travel deals is overly pushy, back off. You needn't hang up the phone, just slow down the conversation.

Start by asking the caller to identify the company--get its address and telephone number.

Set about finding the reason for the call. If the caller is evasive, or doesn't seem to know the address or ZIP code or telephone number . . . hang up.

Never give credit card numbers over the telephone unless you know exactly what firm you are talking to, and know it to be reliable and honest.

Demand written disclosure of everything that goes into the vacation offer, including the full price, before you part with any money.

Don't buy a travel package from anybody--by telephone or otherwise--unless that person is able to tell you what airline is involved. And don't buy from anybody who doesn't seem to know much about the specifics--flight times, routing and so on. Some people have been known to make the "sale" and then go out and hustle up the air space.

Check the Disclaimers

Read any disclaimer or terms and conditions that the travel literature contains. And question anything you don't understand. Again, if you don't get the right answers, bail out.

I read one the other day that I wouldn't have wished on my worst enemy. The company, according to the document, provided two round-trip tickets, plus lodging, for the price of one full economy air fare.

Anybody thinking about dealing with this outfit should immediately have asked: "How much is the economy fare, and how much are two of the best available discounts?" The betting is that two of the best discount seats would have been cheaper.

But there was more. Some departure cities, the company said, might require the purchase of first-class air fare rather than one round-trip economy ticket. Since when did departure cities dictate the kind of ticket to be bought?

And in any case, why promote the package based on a two-for-the-price-of-one economy ticket, if some departure cities mysteriously required buying first-class?

Also, The word "lodging" struck me as a bit vague. What kind of hotel are we talking about? Specifically, which hotels are among my options?

The operator, a travel club, " . . . does not guarantee your vacation request" and " . . . (some departure dates) may be subject to a surcharge." The club "assumes no responsibility for the verbal or written claims of others . . . (and) . . . assumes no responsibility for damage, injury or expense occurred at the resort, or to and from the resort."

Customer at Risk

All of that seems to me to leave the operator liable for very little, and the customer at risk for everything.

Some credit-card companies have introduced rules making it easier for customers to get their money back if they have been the victims of travel scams. But the system is far from foolproof, and it's time-consuming. Better you don't let yourself get into that position in the first place.

If you do find yourself sucked into parting with money you didn't really want to, report the circumstances to an authority, such as:

--The Federal Trade Commission, Division of Marketing Practices, Washington, D.C. 20580; phone (202) 327-3128.

--The Office of Community and Consumer Affairs of the Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C. 20590; (202) 755-2220.

--The Los Angeles Attorney General's Office, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010; (213) 736-3645.

--Your Better Business Bureau. In Los Angeles: 639 S. New Hampshire Ave., 3rd Floor, Los Angeles 90005; (213) 383-0992.

--The police, even though most forces aren't equipped to devote a lot of time to investigating such crimes.

--The U.S. Postal Service: Consumer Advocate, U.S. Postal Service, Washington, D.C. 20260-6320; (202) 268-2284.

--The telephone company, depending on what method is used to contact you and how documents are transmitted.

Maybe if you stop to weigh the merits and the risks of any seemingly attractive travel offer that comes your way, you won't need to bring any of those organizations into the act. Prudence is the name of this game.

That is not to say that no good deals exist out there. They do. It's just that you have to look before you leap into buying anything that comes along.

It's been said before, but it should be said again--if what you're being offered seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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