The tall salesman hovered as I studied the slick brochure. The Eiffel Tower
and Big Ben beckoned to me. Europe in the fall certainly sounded enticing.
“What’s the catch,” I inquired.
“Oh, there’s no catch. Just purchase $500 worth of fine jewelry and you’ll win a free trip for two to London or Paris. This has been a very popular promotion for us, in fact we can barely fill out the forms fast enough,” he quipped.
But after reading the fine print and asking a few more questions, I realized the “free vacation” was not what it appeared. It fell into my idea of a travel scam. I left disappointed, yet wiser.
Scam is an ugly word and it’s particularly ugly if you fall victim to one. Your hopes are built up, only to be dashed on the jagged rocks of reality and your bank account suffers.
Scams are found in every legitimate line of business and the travel industry is certainly no exception.
If anything, travel lends itself to unscrupulous operators because so many people long to visit exotic places. They want so badly to find that super deal, all rational thought and common sense, go out the window.
So what exactly was the jewelry store scam? Besides the initial cost of the jewelry, participants were required to pay for accommodations in a luxury hotel, costing over $375 per night, with a seven night minimum. In this case, the high cost of accommodations, in addition to the jewelry purchase was the catch.
How can you distinguish a travel scam from a legitimate good deal? The answer is-it’s not so simple these days. You could say there’s a sizeable gray area in the travel industry. Keep in mind, travel offers need not necessarily be illegal to be considered a swindle or scam. Many fall into the category of deceptive or at least highly misleading offers.
Deceptive deals or travel scams usually fall into three primary categories. The first variety offers something for free, provided you agree to purchase something else and abide by certain rules. Experts have labeled this the “inflate-deflate” game. Similar to the jewelry store experience mentioned above, the price of the extra item, the accommodations in this example, are highly inflated to cover the true cost of what you’re supposedly getting for free. Thus nothing is really free, although it’s advertised as such to get your attention.
The second type of travel scam, more detrimental, is when the promoter plans to give you a free or very low-cost trip, but intends to put the “squeeze on” once you’re arrived at the destination. Sure, your hotel room is free, but it’s roach-infested, has soiled sheets and broken door locks. There isn’t a restaurant for miles and the young desk clerk reeks of alcohol.
By the time you realize you’ve been taken, you’re already at the destination, completely worn out from traveling and carrying a wallet full of money. At this stage, the promoter “squeezes” you into an offer of a room upgrade, which costs hundreds more. You’ll feel safer and be situated better for sightseeing, but at a high cost.
The third category of travel scam is considered the worst. In the “string along” the instigator never intends to deliver on any of his promises. You’re told you have been selected to receive some wonderful prize, such as a free week in the Caribbean or a ten day cruise to Alaska. But, first you must respond immediately either by giving your credit card number over the phone or by sending a credit card authorization or personal check.
After you’ve done this, you’re asked to select the dates you wish to travel. All seems in order, as you eagerly anticipate your journey.
A week or two passes, and you’re notified the selected dates didn’t quite work. You submit more dates as they string you along. The stalling continues until one day the promoters phone number is disconnected and he’s nowhere to be found. Of course in the meantime, charges have been placed on your credit card or your check has been cashed.
As a variation, the “string along” type travel scam will sometimes include numerous blackout dates and arbitrary deadlines imposed making it virtually impossible for you to travel.
No one wants to be taken in by a travel scam. To avoid being a victim, always be wary of promotions that require on-the-spot decisions. No legitimate travel offer expires if you don’t say “yes” that instant. The scammers ploy is to hook you quickly, before your better judgment can overrule wishful thinking.
Reconsider any “free” prize that requires you to pay a processing, administrative or handling fee. Those three are simple-sounding words can be the key to recognizing a bogus deal. Free prizes should have no conditions attached.
Think twice before giving your credit card number over the phone, especially if you’re unsure about the proposal. Request something in writing and ask for the refund policy.
Unless you want to be contacted i.e. harassed weekly, don’t fill out any entry forms or sweepstakes forms you see at the dry cleaners or supermarket.
The dividing line between an honest travel service and a travel scam can be decidedly faint, thus one person’s scam is another creative marketing method. It is those borderline scams which can be the toughest to accurately evaluate.