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Free Vacation? Free and Discount Travel Fraud

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You receive a phone call, a message, or an email announcing that "you or somebody you know" entered you in a contest, and that you have won a free cruise or vacation package. Or your are offered a cheap travel deal - a price too good to refuse. What could possibly go wrong if you accept such a vacation package?

"Free" and "Discount" Vacation Deception

It is not at all uncommon for people to be told that they have won a free vacation. It is extremely rare for such a vacation to in fact be free, and in some cases the total cost may exceed what you would pay if you booked the trip on your own. Common cheap and free travel deceptions include:

  • The Time Share Promotion - You are offered a steeply discounted vacation, but as part of the deal you must listen to a sales pitch for time shares. Many people report that they end up spending a lot more time at sales pitches than was promised when they signed up for the vacation. In some situations, they also report very heavy-handed, unscrupulous, and even dishonest tactics by the sales agents.

    In a variation of the time share scam, you aren't even told that you are participating in a time share promotion until you reach your destination, at which time you have to listen to sales pitches to obtain "vouchers" for food and accommodation.

  • Free Plane Tickets - You are told that you have won free plane tickets, perhaps even including vacation destinations such as Hawaii. The catch? You must book your hotel, and perhaps even purchase some or all of your meals, through the company which is offering the "free" tickets. The cost of food and accommodation are inflated to include, and perhaps exceed, the cost of your "free" air fare.

  • Free Vacation Package - You are in fact flown to your destiation for free, but you are booked into a dirty, uncomfortable hotel with lousy food. You may even be told that if you check out you will not be able to use your return ticket. Your choices are to stay in your miserable accommodation, or to pay an exhorbitant "upgrade" fee to get into a reasonable hotel. (You could buy your own return ticket, but airlines usually charge a premium for last minute ticket purchases and almost always charge a premium for one-way travel.)

  • The Disappearing Travel Agency - You are told that you have won a wonderful trip, no strings attached, but that you must pay certain fees to secure your reservation. Typical fees claimed are for port charges, airport security fees, or room taxes. After you pay the fees, perhaps hundreds of dollars, you never hear from the agency again. When you try to call their number, you find that it has been disconnected and the travel agency has disappeared from the face of the earth - with your money.

  • The "Limited Time Offer" - You are offered a spectacular travel package, good only for a limited time, but you are told that you must make an immediate and substantial deposit to lock in the deal. After you pay your down payment, the travel promoter will tell you that the dates you want aren't available, and will stall you until the offer expires (or the promoter disappears). You do not get your deposit back.

  • Vacation Discount Cards or Certificates - You pay up front for the discounts, but find that there are so many restrictions on when you can actually obtain the discounts that you can't take advantage of the offers. Or you discover that the few hotels which accept the card or certificate only do so at "full rate", and that even with the "discount" you pay as much or more as any other vacation traveller.

  • "Become a Travel Agent" Offers - You pay a fee to "instantly" become a travel agent, with promises of huge travel discounts. As the credential isn't real, no discounts are available.

  • The Disappearing Discount - You purchase a discount package, but every time you try to book your trip you are told that surcharges and additional fees apply.

Protecting Yourself

You can help avoid being cheated by taking the following steps:

  • Remember - if a travel deal sounds too good to be true, it almost always is.

  • Travel offers that come via unsolicited telephone calls or by spam email are much more likely to be fraudulent.

  • Don't be afraid to say "no". Don't let them pressure you. If they call you and "won't take no for an answer", hang up.

  • Whenever possible, purchase travel services only from businesses you know to be genuine.

  • Take your time. If you are pressured to make a quick decision, the chances are much higher that you are being scammed.

  • Get the details before you buy. For example, find out what accommodation is included in a package and check it out before you book. Check with the hotels to make sure that they work with the promoter - sometimes promoters lie about the hotels they intend to use. If meals are included, find out what restaurants they use, and any limits or restrictions on what you may order. If the package includes a rental car, find out what rental agency they will use and the model of car you will receive. Find out what airport and airline they will use for any air travel.

  • Check out similar packages with other, legitimate travel agencies and services. You may find that you can get this "spectacular deal" for less money through a reputable travel service.

  • Get it in writing. If the offer comes over the phone or by email, ask them to send you a full description of the package and all terms and conditions. If they won't provide a written description of the offer, or have made promises inconsistent with what they send in writing, you can be quite certain that they are trying to cheat you.

  • Make sure you know all date restrictions on any travel package - if there are so few days available that you can't schedule a holiday, you're throwing your money away.

  • Make sure that you are dealing with a genuine travel promoter or agency before giving them a credit card number by telephone, email, or through a website.

  • If you are pressed to send payment by courier or overnight mail, think twice. Unscrupulous promoters want your money as soon as possible, and sometimes use couriers or overnight delivery services to avoid the possibility of federal mail fraud charges.

  • If in doubt, pay by credit card. While there is no guarantee that you will be able to effect a charge-back if the travel deal turns out to be a fraud, you effectively have no chance of recovering your money if you pay by check, money order, wire transfer, or cash.