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Travel and You

States May Need Help in War Against Scams

February 21, 1988|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

State and other law enforcement agencies have made significant strides in their running battle to protect consumers from travel scams, but many believe that even more victories can only be achieved through greater federal involvement.

The difficulty facing states is that no sooner do they shut down one phony travel operation than the same operation pops up in another state. California has made things so tough for some of these operators in recent months that many have moved away.

That's the good news. The bad news is that they're still in business elsewhere, and their target victims haven't changed.

The operators simply move their offices to Utah or Florida or Nevada or wherever, and continue to bombard Californians with offers of travel arrangements that turn out to be shoddy, overpriced or, as often as not, nonexistent.

Federal Crime Category

Conducting a fraudulent business across state lines, of course, lifts the crime into an entirely different category.

A criminal activity done within one state is, essentially, in conflict only with municipal police forces and the state attorneys general's office. But a bogus company based in one state and soliciting business in another violates federal laws.

At that point an operation comes under the purview of the FBI, Federal Trade Commission, Postal Service (if the U.S. mails are used in any part of the transaction) and even the Secret Service.

The entry of such agencies into the game gives the public a whole new battery of weapons to use against travel-scam operators. At least in theory.

The reality is that personnel shortages, coupled with the sheer volume of criminal activity they have to investigate, sometimes prevents these organizations from moving as fast as they would like.

The crooks are very aware that if they can keep state authorities off their backs by changing their bases of operation, the chances are it will take the "feds" a long time to move in.

Hit-and-Run Tactics

Speed is essential in dealing with scam operators. Their hit-and-run tactics often begin to pay off in 60 to 90 days and, if they come under investigation in one place, it doesn't take them long to shift across the nearest state line.

An official of the California Attorney General's Office estimated that more than 50 "dream vacation" scam outfits have been driven out of business in California in the last year. But he pointed out that that did not mean they were no longer preying on Californians.

"We can put so much pressure on, say, ABC Holidays that we force it to shut down," the official noted. "And six weeks later, XYZ Vacations starts sending out offers to residents of this state . . . from Florida.

"There's no way we can know, until they are investigated by the attorney general in that state, that the operators of ABC and XYZ are one and the same," the official said. "The solicitation flyer may be different, maybe the price has been adjusted to divert suspicion . . . but the owners, and the criminal intent, are common to both companies."

More Active Role

Because of situations like that, the National Assn. of Attorneys General is pushing hard to get the FTC and FBI to take a more active role in policing the actions of the scam artists. The association wants to bring the "big guns" to bear on the problem.

An indication of the uphill nature of the fight facing states is the ratio of travel-related to non-travel-related complaints received from the public.

Although 50 or more scam operators have left the scene in California, for example, consumer complaints about so-called bargain travel offers outnumber those about any other single item.

Illinois took a dozen of the worst travel frauds to court last year and shut down the operations. But still, one in four consumer complaints filed there concerns travel offers that are less than they seem to be.

"The problem is that travel scams are so lucrative," the California official said. "The public is very receptive to the message.

"Travel is a powerful lure, and there is no shortage of criminals waiting to exploit that condition."

Manpower inadequacies notwithstanding, a high-priority federal intervention program would probably help. So would the imposition of stiff jail sentences for those found guilty rather than, as is so often the case, just a slap-on-the-wrist fine.

In one case, on the East Coast, a scam operator negotiated a plea bargain in which he agreed to pay a fine of $450,000, this after running a scheme that was thought to have netted him millions.

In the end, perhaps the best defense against travel rip-offs is a more cautious, even skeptical, public. State and federal authorities admit that nothing they do can be absolutely effective because it can only be done after the fact.

Damage Is Done

Almost by definition, when a state attorney general or the Federal Trade Commission takes action against a fraudulent travel operator, that operator has already been the subject of consumer complaints; by that time, irreparable damage may have been done.

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