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Travel and You

Don't Let Scam Artists Ruin Your Next Vacation

August 02, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

The fight is on against a second generation of travel scam artists bilking the public out of millions of dollars a year.

This new breed--battered and sometimes chastened by authorities, but never totally defeated--has begun to polish its act. Not in the hope of becoming more legitimate; but rather, in hopes of becoming more profitable and less vulnerable to detection.

Whereas before you might have been called at home by somebody offering you an unbelievable travel bargain if you gave them your credit card number, now you're liable to be offered, for $10,000 or $15,000, a distributorship.

It's true. Some of these travel bandits have started offering "exclusive" geographic areas for anybody who wants to be the sole distributor of the "product."

Of course, there is no product, just as there rarely is one of those "fabulous free vacations" that are frequently offered. What's more, the exclusive rights will be sold dozens--maybe hundreds--of times in the same area.

Investor Rip-off

But the luckless investor, our would-be entrepreneur, doesn't know that. Instead of ripping off a large number of consumers for small amounts, scam artists are now ripping off smaller numbers of consumers for large amounts. There is apparently no limit to the brazenness, or inventiveness, of some of these characters.

Take the case of the phony travel club that was under investigation in Florida. Somebody in the attorney general's office there wrote to the company asking for information.

The letter later appeared in the promotional literature sent out by the company . . . with an accompanying note that while there were phony travel clubs out there, the attorney general didn't think this was one of them and here was the letter to prove it.

Fact was, of course, the attorney general did think it was one of them. But the company wasn't under indictment at the time, and the letter did not state the official view clearly.

Then there arose the question of how to circumvent mail-fraud rules. Scamsters found that they were putting themselves in double jeopardy when soliciting by telephone or post card, then collecting money through the mails. Use of the mail system in the furtherance of a fraudulent scheme brings into the equation another band of law enforcement--U.S. Postal Inspectors.

So who wants to fight them as well as police and the attorney general? Now some of these crooks will pay for Federal Express delivery service, or even send a courier around to your home to pick up the payment.

Of course, often you don't need to send money. These people take credit cards.

One common approach by bogus travel operators is to take your credit card number over the phone and tell you to choose three dates on which you can travel. They apparently intend to find space for you on one of those dates.

But they can't seem to book your date within the 60 days after the contact. Why? They'll tell you it's because of the availability of flights, and the time it takes them to process your request and so on.

The real reason is that within the 60 days, your credit card charge will have been submitted to Visa or MasterCard or whoever, and the money remitted to the so-called travel organizer. By that time, of course, it is more complicated for the consumer to go back to the credit card company for some kind of relief, rather than simply stopping payment, which is easier in the days immediately after a purchase.

All of the major credit card firms are aware of the problem and are sympathetic to those who get caught in the trap. Their security departments are working with state and federal authorities to find a solution.

Travel scams are not going away. Especially when conducted by phone, they have become an "in" crime.

Representatives of the attorney general's office of California, Florida and Kansas, along with the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Postal Service, MasterCard and Visa, and the Council of Better Business Bureaus met in Los Angeles recently to discuss their mutual problems.

The meeting was sponsored by the American Society of Travel Agents, a large trade group with a special stake in the activities, telemarketing or otherwise, of travel scamsters.

For one thing, a consumer who spends several hundred dollars on a travel bargain that doesn't exist may not have money enough to buy a real vacation from a legitimate travel agent. Result? ASTA members lose potential sales.

Then, too, those involved in phony travel schemes are frequently lumped together under the generic label of travel agents. They are not.

A Concern to ASTA

Tarring the bandits and legitimate travel agents with the same brush is what concerns ASTA. It doesn't do much for the public image of an industry that processes two-thirds of all airline tickets and more than 90% of all cruise sales in the nation.

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