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Travel and You

Some Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Vacation-Scam Victim

June 07, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

At the federal, state and local levels, authorities find themselves besieged by consumer complaints about travel rip-offs.

Complaints range from outright fraud by companies that take in money with no intention of providing vacations as promised, to those who simply misrepresent the products they offer.

Cheap, eye-catching air fares . . . that don't exist. Some travel clubs promising huge savings . . . that they can't deliver.

Splashy headlines in ads trumpeting unbelievable deals . . . accompanied by a notation in the smallest type available that "some restrictions apply." Two-for-one plans . . . in which the one the customer must pay for turns out to be more expensive than the cost of two discounts on the open market.

These are the kinds of things that have people crying "foul" from coast to coast in seemingly ever-increasing numbers.

Complaints Pour In

In California, the attorney general's office recently fielded 160 complaints in two days. In February, normally the slowest month of the year, the office received 265.

The U.S. Postal Service mail frauds department has developed a confidential list of 82 travel-scam operators in the greater Miami area alone. A source there estimated that one phony company, in business for not more than four months, accumulated $6 million before its principals dropped from sight.

Virginia is trying to find the funds to create a series of public- service ads warning its residents against the danger of travel cheats. Houston is forming an industry advisory board to devise ways to help the public distinguish between the bargains and the bogus.

The Federal Trade Commission is considering co-sponsoring public-service radio warnings in partnership with the American Society of Travel Agents, the nation's biggest retail agent trade association.

The scope and severity of the travel scam plague are beyond question. The problem has become chronic, far worse than ever.

California's attorney general's office is concerned, as are the other bodies mentioned, that, bad as the situation is now, it will get totally out of hand in the peak summer months ahead.

Why is 1987 turning out to be such a black year for so many consumer travelers?

Two Major Factors

There are probably two major influences at work: deregulation and telemarketing.

Deregulation of the airline industry--and the competition it encouraged--has conditioned the public to the availability of airline bargains. The price wars that wrack the air transportation industry at regular intervals have made consumers expect--even demand--low fares.

Two-thirds of the people who fly at any given time of the year travel with discounted tickets. Discretionary travelers, as distinct from business people, buy "super-savers" and "max savers"and whatever other kinds of "savers" happen to be available.

They have the luxury of time to plan and book ahead, thereby making it possible to use advance purchase discount fares, something that commercial travelers generally can't do.

So, after eight years of deregulation, the public doesn't always react with as much healthy skepticism as it might when it is confronted with an offer of a $29 round-trip fare to Hawaii, or a week's vacation for two in London for just $319. And there are, apparently, plenty of people out there willing to capitalize on this consumer gullibility.

The job of separating the customer from his or her money has become much easier with the evolution of telemarketing. The public has perhaps been lulled into a false sense of security by its growing familiarity with the method.

It has become commonplace for magazine publishers, department stores, real estate operators and others to make contact with prospective buyers by telephone. Some of the callers are part-time employees hired to read a canned speech to whomever answers the phone.

Look for the Catch

If you get such a call, here's a suggestion: Never mind making small talk. Ask the caller what the bottom line is--what is he selling and how much does it cost?

Travel is such an appealing product that people tend to be receptive to talking about "fabulous" deals. And they don't mind listening to others talk about the subject, too.

It's easy to misrepresent, whether deliberately or accidentally, whatever product is being pushed. It's equally easy for excited consumers to think they understand exactly what's being promised when, in fact, they don't.

Put all of these things together--consumers' low-fare orientation, their acceptance of telemarketing approaches as well as their unawareness of its risks, and the basic allure of travel--and you have a dangerous environment for the unwary. Unless travel buyers get smart in a hurry, the situation may only get worse . . . much worse.

Minimize the Risk

None of us can ever protect ourselves 100% from being ripped off. But we can take some steps to minimize our exposure to danger, especially in the area of travel buying.

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