Monday, April 04, 2005

A 'free' vacation can wallop the wallet


WASHINGTON - If you say yes to the telemarketer or the Internet pop-up ad offering a free trip for two to the Bahamas anytime in the next year, what happens next?
Often, veteran travel-fraud investigators say, fees and taxes add $200 to the cost of the "free" trip. Still, it seems like a bargain. Then the hotel rooms set aside for the package are booked when you want to travel. The agent offers an upgrade to another room that's available. That's another $200.
Want electricity in that room? That's extra. And expect to attend an all-day, high-pressure sales pitch for a time share. You won't have your companion to help you. The strategy is to separate couples and pitch to them separately, aiming to sell one party on the deal and have them sell the other.
Travel fraud -- dominated by these so-called vacation certificates -- is growing, fraud specialists say, often with help from online auctions, virtual travel agencies and pop-up ads.
"The Internet is fantastic, but has also created fantastic problems," said J.R. Kelly, the director of Florida's Division of Consumer Services.
Kelly should know. When it comes to travel scammers, Florida is Mecca. Complaints to his office doubled last year, and he expects the same this year.
Vacation certificates made up three-quarters of Florida's 4,400 travel-fraud complaints in 2004, according to Kelly. They involved Florida as a destination and as a place of business for scammers.
When people get tricked in travel scams, the average loss is about $1,200, according to the National Consumers League, a coalition of government and non-profit consumer groups.
In one brick-and-mortar case, travel agent Casandra Littles of Roxbury, Mass., sold cruises and trips that she'd bought using stolen identities. Littles, who's now serving a 21-month federal prison sentence, racked up $45,000 in charges on stolen credit cards before the Secret Service nabbed her in 2002. In addition to protecting presidents, the agency investigates bank and wire fraud, including cases involving credit cards.
Scammers offering vacations -- whether free or as prizes in online raffles -- sometimes obtain credit card numbers by saying they're needed for "verification" or to guarantee payment of unauthorized charges. The scammers sometimes disappear after taking supplementary payments for "free" vacations.
The pitch for real estate can be very convincing, says Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Bellows, at 27, was talked into a $7,000 time share he couldn't afford.
"No matter how much we think we're experts -- and I think I'm a pretty savvy traveler -- we can get ripped off," he said.
Kelly thinks he knows why.
"We're all greedy to some extent, and we all want the cheapest price for something," he said.

I personally never liked timeshares and think it is a waste of money to invest in one!

"Sometimes that can get you into trouble."Anyone wishing to respond to my notes posted in this weblog can do so on the we8there forum.


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