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Travel Scams:
How to Recognize and Avoid Them.

by Paul Motter
Nov. 29, 2006

At one time or another, we all encounter problems with a company that refuses to honor its commitment. And according to the Federal Trade Commission, travel scams consistently rank near the top of its complaint list. I personally had a very close encounter recently.

At a county fair, I saw a booth with a big banner proclaiming "Enter to Win a Free Cruise!" I had to complete a form for a "drawing," so I filled it out, thinking, "Man, I've got to see what these jokers are up to." I gave them limited personal information -- some fictional -- and tossed it in the box.

About a week later I received a dinner-hour phone call. I had expected to get some kind of cut-rate offer, but I didn't expect what I heard next: "Mr. Motter, you have won a free cruise vacation." For just a minute, I was actually taken in. I was the first-prize winner, and that would mean something special -- something just for me.

So I asked them what I had won. They told me, "You have won a free Florida vacation, complete with free airfare, a free hotel, and a free cruise!"

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"Really?" I asked, "All that and no strings attached?"

"That's right!" they said.

It took about 30 seconds for my bubble to burst. As soon as I asked them how it worked I knew it was a bucket of worms, and I was the fish on the line they were hoping to reel in.

As the details started hurling out of the mouth of the hustler on the phone, my original joy was replaced with unmitigated annoyance for the people who waste our valuble life time with lies like this.

The cruel hoax works like this:

  • I had won free airfare - but only in the form of a "companion ticket" if I booked a regular ticket with this agency at full fare.

  • I had won a free hotel stay - as long as my spouse and I attended a three-hour time-share presentation.

  • And the cruise was free - as long as I agreed to pay the "service and handling fees."

  • What kind of cruise? A one-day turn-around casino gambling cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas.

I should have hung up on them, but I decided to play along to see how far this scam would go. The moment of truth came when I asked what I had to do to collect my prize. "We will need a credit card number, right now, to hold the reservations for you."

"What reservations?" I asked, " I haven't made any reservations yet! I haven't gotten a single price quote from you, and we haven't talked about travel dates. Why do you need my credit card now?" They vaguely read off a script about standard deposit fees required to cover the air, hotel, cruise and transfers. Then they added in some service and handling fees and taxes, and a few disclaimers about blackout dates.

"It doesn't matter what arrangements you eventually decide to make," they said. "We need your credit card information now so when you do make arrangements you are assured to be in the system."

"By 'in the system,' you mean I am guaranteed my vacation will have the dates I want?"

"Unless it's a blackout date, or the hotel, flights, or ship are full, then you have to make other arrangements." In other words, the deposit didn't hold anything, except me as a paying customer for them. By now, of course, I was done with them, but being in this business I wanted to see how far they would press me.

Of course, caller ID showed the number as "no information," so I tested them. "Give me your callback number and I'll give you my credit card information in a few minutes - I just want to check the calendar."

"Sorry! No can do." he chuckled. "This is your official prize-winner notification call, and if we don't charge your credit card right now we can't award you first prize."

That was enough. "This is ridiculous," I replied. "I'm not your first-prize contest winner, I'm your number one chump of the hour. You people should be ashamed of yourselves." But these guys were not easily put off. They turned on the harder sell, that magic combination of happy yet pushy salesmanship, beginning with the get-the-sucker rule number one: make the mark say "YES."

"Mr Motter, do you understand you just won our first prize?"   (Um, yes)

"And that means you are getting a lot of free travel from us?"   (Um, yes)

"You want to be a winner, don't you Mr. Motter?"   (Um, yes)

"Doesn't a cruise sound great right now?"   (Um, yes)

"Plus, the deposit is fully refundable! Now do you feel better?"   (Um, yes)

Whoo-boy, these guys were playing fastball, So, if I was going to knock them out of the park I had get a grip. "How much is the deposit, and what does it cover?" I asked. My "free" vacation prize was going to cost me more than $500 before the phone call ended -- just to get the ball rolling with a "deposit." Other yet to be identified fees could surface along the way, I was advised; meals, transfers, tips and a room upgrade, if I wanted one (ha! guess what that means). It was time to wrap this up.

"Listen to me, only an idiot would give you a credit card number without knowing what they are paying for, and if that is what you take people for, then you are the one with the problem." I said.

So they asked, incredulously "Mr Motter, are you actually refusing to be our first prize winner?"

Of course I was; but they weren't getting off that easy.

"Did I say that? Absolutely not. I want the prize I legally won and I expect you to deliver it to me, and you will get my credit card number when I have travel dates and a complete itemized receipt for the charges."

So they hung up on me!

When they first called and told me I won, I had a mental image of a child (perhaps a six-year-old with brown eyes and pigtails) mixing up my ticket stub in a fish bowl with thousands of others. She magically pulled my name out. Only me, I was "the winner" -- And now they had just hung up on me. Some winner.

Two weeks later I got another phone call from a different person. "Mr Motter, you have won a free cruise!" "Oh really" I asked. "And when was the drawing held?" "Just today" they said, "and you are the winner."

"I am the winner, and no one else?" I asked, and they affirmed. "What a coincidence!" I said. "I won the same contest two weeks ago. That's amazing, isn't it, Wow, what do you think the odds are?" Ha! I had them, at least for a second

"I don't know," they hemmed and hawed. But they recovered with "so, have you claimed your prize yet?"

"You mean have I given anyone my credit card information so they can charge me a bunch of yet-to-be-described service fees and other charges?" I asked.

The only reply I heard was a very uncertain, " um, no."

And this time I hung up on them -- after I said, "This is a scam and you really should get a life."

The next day, I was attending a class at the local university when a gal friend said to me, "Guess what, I won a free cruise!"

I said, "Let me guess, you were at a fair, filled in a form and they called you and said you had won." "Yes!" she said, "How did you know?" I told her I had also won - twice. She had given them her credit card information, and all I could say to her was, "My advice is to try to reverse the charge with the credit card company, these people are crooks." She did.

All Too Typical

Travel scams (and other kinds too) almost always have a loophole to negate what they tell you is a fully refundable deposit:

  • They ask for your original booking number which they never gave you

  • You call and ask for a refund and they agree to do it - but the "paperwork gets lost" so the charge remains.

  • They won't let you claim your "prize" for over 60 days, which is the time window your credit card company gives you to cancel any charges

What is the moral? If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. If you are asked to give a lot of personal information up front to get anything "free" this is at best a company trying to get your marketing information so they can resell it -- and at worst it is a scam. To whom do they sell your personal information? Anyone they can -- like the second group that called and told me I had won a free cruise. They probably had no idea I had already been contacted and put through the ringer. And who knows how many times that same information has been sold by now?

If you receive an email saying you have won a free cruise - delete it without opening it - unless you recognize the name ( CruiseMates has given away three cruises with NO strings attached ).

I have one in my inbox right now I will use for research. The subject is "enjoy a bahama cruise at no cost" and it is from "cruiseagent" (actual email address: [email protected]). There is nothing but images in the email - no text (a sure sign of spam) and a button says "claim your cruise." I clicked it purely for research for this article, and my McAfee immediately warned me that the website "" was trying to load spyware on my computer. So I went to the McAfee SiteAdVisor site and looked up the site. Here is their report:
After entering our e-mail address on this site, we received 292 e-mails per week. They were very spammy.

Some of the Most Common Travel Scams:
As we said above, a telemarketer convinces a client to make a deposit for a trip, promising a full refund if the client changes his mind. But when the client tries to cancel, that salesperson doesn't work there anymore -- and he made a mistake in saying it was refundable, or the paperwork for your deposit gets lost, or the company asks for the original booking which doesn't exist.

Some fake companies do not even have formal contracts. They fax you a handful of brochures with hand-written prices circled on them, then total them all up and charge your credit card. When you arrive at your destination, the accommodations are several categories lower than you expected, or you must attend a time-share presentation, or find someplace else to stay. And that is a best-case scenario. Some people discover the whole thing was a scam and there are NO rooms waiting.

How to Avoid the Scams:
Get the details of your vacation in writing, and a copy of cancellation and refund policies before you pay. Don't accept vague terms such as "major hotels" or "luxury cruise ships." Get the names, addresses and telephone numbers for the lodging, airlines and cruise ships you'll be using. Get booking numbers from the individual travel suppliers and call them to verify that the room or seats you have been promised are actually booked in your name at the price you were quoted.

With cruises, any reputable travel agent will run your credit card charges directly through the cruise line, not his travel agency. The charge on your credit card statement should show the name of the cruise line, and the agent should have sent you a booking number you can use at the cruise line web site to see your booking details. This is usually true with airline reservations as well.

Beware of questionable language. If a salesperson says, "You've been selected for a spectacular luxury dream vacation," they are not promising anything will be free, or even cheap. It just means they selected you from the phonebook (or paid for your contact information) to try to make a sale.

If they use the term "subject to availability," put up your radar. Does that guarantee anything? In cruising, getting a guaranteed "Run of Ship" cabin is quite common, and often a good deal. But expect to be placed in the minimum category it guarantees, and then hope to be pleasantly surprised if you get an upgrade.

If they mention "blackout periods," those are blocks of dates -- usually around holidays or peak vacation seasons -- when no discount travel is available, then get the exact dates you are allowed to travel before you commit, then if all else is well book your dates as soon as possible. What is "available" today may not be tomorrow. With special offers, you probably can't cancel just because you missed your opportunity to book the rooms you wanted.

Never make a decision or commitment right away - especially to a pushy stranger on the telephone. There is no reason to pay for anything without full details. A reputable travel agent wants your vacation to go perfectly just as much as you do. If things go wrong for you, they go wrong for the agent, too -- and he must fix the problem. If a travel agent does not seem concerned about any problems, questions or requests for details you have before the trip, chances are he doesn't plan to be around by the time your world falls apart during the trip.

Always pay with a credit card, never a check - and never with cash or a wire transfer. With a credit card you should be protected if something goes wrong. You can cancel the transaction with the credit card company and ask for your money back. Unfortunately, some telemarketers are merely freelance commissioned brokers. If something goes wrong with the travel, and you paid them directly, they are not responsible for the failures of any individual travel service provider as long as they passed along your payment. You may have to fight the failing party, often in a distant venue (another state or country) to get back what you paid - which may be disputed by them or the broker. That is why you need detailed invoices from individual service providers. A good travel agent will deal with them individually and share the information with you.

If you get scammed, contact the attorney general in your state and the state where the travel supplier and the travel broker reside. If it is truly a fraud (they misrepresented what they were selling you and won't refund your money), that is illegal and punishable. But that doesn't guarantee that you will get any of your money back.

For legitimate travel agent disputes go to The American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Affairs, at 1101 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For cruise agency disputes contact CLIA, the Cruise Lines International Association. All fully licensed and bonded cruise travel agents are members of CLIA, at


If you have any specific questions or comments about cruise scams, go to this message board: Travel Scams so you can see how your fellow travelers feel about the subject.

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