As temperatures are heating up, consumers’ thoughts are increasingly turning to making vacation plans. Unfortunately, scammers will be on the lookout as well … for unwary victims.
Travel has always been an area where consumers should have their anti-fraud antennae perked. Here are some of the types of travel scams NCL's Fraud.org staff have been hearing about recently:
Vacation Rental Scams – These scams typically crop up on online classified sites like Craigslist.com. The victim will search for an apartment or home for rent in a desirable destination and find an attractive rental at a very low price. The victim contacts the “renter” (who is in reality a scam artist) who then requests a “deposit” on the rental. Typically it is requested that the deposit be sent via wire transfer. When the victim arrives at the property she finds that it either does not exist, that the condition has been misrepresented, or that it was never available for rent. Efforts to get back the deposit fail. Scammers typically use images from a real property (often taken from real estate sites) to make their scams seem legitimate.
Timeshare Purchase Scams – Victims are lured to a high-pressure sales pitch (sometimes at the timeshare resort itself) with promises of a high-value “free” gift, such as a car, RV, or cruise package. To obtain the gift advertised, the victim must pay a “fee” for delivery or processing. When the gift arrives (if it ever does), it is typically of much lesser value than waht was originally presented to the victim.
Fraudulent Timeshares – The victim receives a package in the mail or via email detailing a timeshare for sale. If the victim invest, they later find that the timeshare does not exist, the timeshare company has “gone out of business,” or otherwise is unable to return the deposit paid.
Fraudulent Vacation Packages – Victims see an advertisements for a deeply discounted vacation package at a luxurious resort or cruise. After the deposit is paid, the victim finds that the quality of the package has been grossly misrepresented and/or there are significant additional fees that must be paid at the destination to take advantage of the “great deal.” Efforts to recover deposits are generally unsuccessful.
Airfare Scams – Victims are lured in by promises of steeply discounted airfares. Once the purchase is made, the victim receives no confirmation or a counterfeit confirmation e-mail or paper ticket. A variant of this scam occurs when the victim purchases the ticket and is then told that their credit card purchase has been declined. A wire transfer is requested which results in no ticket and no way to recover the funds.
Tips for Avoiding Travel Scams
So, before you head out on your dream vacation, bone up on these tips for avoiding travel-related scams:
- Watch out for unsolicited e-mails, phone calls and faxes offering hard-to-believe deals on travel to desirable locations. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- If you are working with a travel agency or vacation planning service, make sure to get all details about the trip in writing. Watch out for vague promises that you’ll be staying at “five-star” resorts or riding on “luxury” cruise ships at cut-rate prices. Get as much information as you can including the total cost, any restrictions that may apply, and the exact names of the promised airlines and hotels.
- Free is usually not free. Think again before you believe promises that you’ve won a “free” vacation. Often, these are just thinly-veiled ploys to get your credit card information to “verify” your eligibility or to pay a “processing fee.” You should never have to pay to collect a prize.
- Check out the travel company BEFORE giving them any money. Call the company service yourself to see if the prices match or simply if they legitimately exist. A Better Business Bureau search is a good first step. Also make sure that they company is registered with the American Society of Travel Agents.
- Watch out for “travel clubs” that offer “free” memberships. Often these services do little except charge your credit card every month and provide few, if any, benefits.
- Use your credit card when purchasing a trip. If you feel that you’ve been swindled, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.
- Beware of any offers that involve high-pressure sales pitches that urge you to commit right away because the offer will “expire” otherwise. For example, Timeshare seminars are often thinly-veiled ways to get consumers to sign up for timeshare often featuring a come-on like “free” lunch or “free” vacation that are full of hidden fees and traps.
- If you’ll be traveling overseas, call your credit card company and bank to let them know what countries you’ll be visiting and when you plan to return. This way they can be on the alert for any suspicious charges from a scammer that gets your credit card information while you’re on the road or after your get back home.
- Ask questions and be cautious.Read all of the fine print carefully. Companies need to tell you how your trip will operate. Even if they make their policies difficult to read, look them over before sending any money. If you can’t get answers to your questions, avoid using that company.
- Read your invoice. Confirm that it includes every cost, including fees. Take the time to understand the purpose and amount of each fee. Some common hidden fees to watch out for: International Departure and Arrival Taxes, Processing Fees, Peak Week Surcharges, Late Booking Fees, Departure City Surcharges, Travel Insurance, Fuel Surcharges.
- Be aware of cancellation policies. Before sending any money, you should know how much you will lose if you need to cancel.
- Avoid any company that mandates arbitration for disputes. Don’t give up your legal rights.
File a complaint if you have a dispute. In most states, you can do this through the Attorney General’s office. This calls attention to the company so that future travelers will not repeat your experience. Also, the attorney general may mediate your dispute to help resolve it.