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Travel and You

Vacations: Increasing Scams

May 31, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Your phone rings at home one evening.

"Congratulations," announces the caller heartily. "I'm calling from the XYZ Market Research Group to tell you that you've won a week's vacation for two at your choice of London, Hong Kong, Rome or Hawaii, including air and hotel accommodations, for just $319.

"We're making this spectacular offer to a select few as part of a destination market survey."

(Your heart pounds. How did you get so lucky?)

"As you can imagine," the caller continues, "an offer like this will be snapped up very quickly. We need a fast answer or you may lose this opportunity.

"You can lock in your vacation now by giving me your Visa or MasterCard number and our fulfillment house will get the documentation out to you within three weeks."

'As you can imagine, an offer like this will be snapped up quickly.'

With that inducement, you're reeling off the requested credit-card information, your mind dreaming of hula dancers or Buckingham Palace or whatever. What luck! How many people get the chance to take a trip like that for only $319?

Not many--and probably not you.

It's highly likely that you have just become a victim of one of the legion of travel-scam operators springing up in every corner of the nation. Chances are there is no XYZ Market Research Group and there is no dream vacation.

Instead, a phony company may now have your credit-card number. MasterCard or Visa will pay the firm and bill you for the $319 just about the time you begin to smell a rat. Your documentation won't arrive in three weeks or four or six. Maybe you'll call the company to express your concern.

A Slight Delay

You'll be told that there was a computer problem or that the demand surprised XYZ and that there is a slight delay in fulfillment. Above all, you'll be told not to worry.

So you wait, impatient but somewhat reassured. By the time your patience runs out and your suspicions return, it's too late.

The operators of the XYZ Market Research Group have folded their tents and slunk off, leaving a trail of unanswered telephones and broken dreams, taking with them your $319 and a like amount from thousands of others.

Crooks like these are known as boiler-room operators or 90-day wonders. It takes them 30 days to set up their dummy corporations, advertise their wares and solicit customers, 30 days to collect money and another 30 to make their getaway, covering their tracks as they go.

Illegal telephone solicitations such as these have been the target of action by law enforcement authorities in at least three states--California, Florida and Massachusetts--in the last couple of years. But still they go on.

It's not hard to put a scheme like that in place. All that's needed is a shell corporation, some telephone lines and a deal with the credit-card companies. Just that--and the gullibility of the public.

It's not known how many Americans have been victimized by such scams this year alone. But people in a position to make educated guesses believe that $1 million every working day would not be an unreasonable estimate of the loss nationwide.

Misrepresented Products

There are other kinds of programs in which there is a travel product for you to buy. Too often, according to the attorneys general of California, New York, Florida and Illinois, these products are misrepresented.

Legal action is pending or likely in California, New York, Florida and Illinois against certain travel companies for allegedly telling less than the whole truth.

For instance: "HAWAII, $29 round-trip. Restrictions apply. Call . . . " was the text in an ad that ran in some California newspapers recently. Wow, thought thousands of people. Can this be true? Well, actually, no.

The $29 didn't buy a round-trip ticket to Hawaii, according to a suit filed in district court by representatives of California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. What it got you was a certificate qualifying you to buy a vacation package, including a mandatory seven-night hotel accommodations package from the advertiser, World Travel Vacation Brokers of Alsip, Ill.

Not only was the ad headline misleading, according to Van de Kamp, but World Travel also marked up the price of the hotel rooms it required the public to buy in order to qualify for the mythical $29 air fare--by as much as 100% in some cases. World Travel is in trouble for the same practice in its home state of Illinois, as is another company, Runway 29, which made a similar pitch to newspaper readers in the Midwest.

Not surprisingly, World Travel is admitting nothing. Its San Francisco-based attorney, Alexander Anolik, responded to the complaint by filing a general denial in court.

"This advertising was no more misleading than, say, PSA's advertising of a $39 fare from Los Angeles to San Francisco," Anolik says. "Restrictions apply to that fare; restrictions apply to the World Travel fare."

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