Scam alert

Question: Two years ago, my wife, two young children and I traveled from LAX to Barcelona, Spain. Having purchased tickets for $3,500 through a consolidator, I confirmed our reservation several times with the airline. When we tried to check in, however, it turned out the tickets were bogus, and we ended up buying same-day replacement tickets for $11,000. Our credit card refunded the original ticket price, but the airline has denied any responsibility. What more can a consumer do to protect him/herself when dealing with a consolidator?

Harry Collyns

Los Angeles

Answer: Air travel consolidators can save a savvy traveler a ton of money, unless, of course, it's a fraudulent operation, which this one was.

Here's something you don't hear me say very often: This is not the airline's fault. The consolidator made the reservation; it just never paid for the ticket. Instead, the scum suckers helped themselves to Collyns' money and left him holding the bags.

Here are some ways to avoid getting suckered:

* Check the fine print on any ad (which is how Collyns found this company) for a CST number. CST stands for "California Seller of Travel," and it means the seller is registered with the state. The number doesn't guarantee a company is one of the good guys, but it suggests that the seller has at least taken one step to legitimacy. (Beware if it says, "CST Pending.")

* Make sure the CST number is real. Go to www.ag.ca.gov/travel/index.htm. Click on "seller search," which should give you the name and contact information for the registrant.

* Still on the seller search result, check to see whether it says "yes" under the category marked TCRC, or Travel Consumer Restitution Corp., fund. If yes is marked, that's more good news.

"If a business is a registered seller of travel in California and it is located in California, it will have a Travel Consumer Restitution Corp. number," said Lori Forcucci, a California deputy attorney general.

"That means that the company is registered with the TCRC, and a consumer who loses money in the course of purchasing travel services may apply for reimbursement of the money lost."

* Pay with a credit card. Collyns' card company reimbursed him for the original tickets. Unfortunately, some of the people who were snookered paid with cash, which vanished along with the charlatans.

* Use a travel agent. Agents use consolidators; they should know who is legitimate and who is not. (If you don't have a travel agent and want to find one, go to the American Society of Travel Agents, www.astanet.org, and click on "find a travel agent.")

* Finally, remember that the old cliche -- if it seems too good to be true, it probably is -- became a cliche because it repeatedly proved itself right.

Pay attention to that nagging voice in the back of your mind. It could be the difference between Barcelona and a bum deal.

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