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'Travel Agent' Ruse Reaps Discounts : Tourism: People without training are obtaining credentials to qualify for the lower fares. State says policing is up to the travel industry.

January 04, 1994|From Associated Press

Former California congressman Jim Bates says posing as a travel agent to get discounts seemed like a pretty good deal.

"It's a sales gimmick. I don't think I see anything wrong with it," said Bates, now a political consultant in San Diego and a part-time rancher in Idaho.

Bates is among a number of Americans who, without any relevant training or qualifications, are getting travel agent credentials that entitle them to huge vacation discounts and VIP treatment.

Bates, who served in Congress as a Democrat from San Diego, said he purchased a card that identified him as a travel agent a couple of years ago and was happy to get the discounts.

His name was used by World View International of San Diego in advertisements that said for $495 anyone could become an "independent contractor" and qualify for reduced rates.

"In three trips, I saved over $1,000. I'm sold on World View and recommend them to my friends," the Bates testimonial said.

The former congressman, who said in an interview that he does not recall paying $495 to World View, said he has no complaint with the travel agency, which claims that thousands have paid to become its "independent" agents.

Tim Donlan, who heads World View, did not return repeated calls to his office.

Those who purchase credentials or get them from friends receive no formal training. Travel agencies generally do not require their employees to undergo training. But many agencies prefer that applicants complete courses--usually lasting six weeks--that familiarize workers with the increasingly complex world of computerized reservations systems.

There is little that law enforcement can do to address the problem, says one California prosecutor who looked into the matter but decided there were no grounds for prosecution.

"It would seem to be up to the various hotels and airlines to police it. I seriously doubt there is a violation," said Hershel Elkins of the California attorney general's office.

Fearing a black eye to the industry, travel agent trade groups are taking matters into their own hands by developing a counterfeit-resistant identification card aimed at exposing scam agents.

The new cards will "weed out the phony agents," said Paul Ruden, counsel for the American Society of Travel Agents. "We are dealing with it."

There's no hard estimate on the number of phony agents, although the industry says it is growing.

For those who offer the discounts, such as hotels and airlines, the issue is more one of credibility than economics.

"It's no big financial loss," said Jack Williams, a marketing executive with American Airlines. "But it's a problem. It leaves the impression we have a bunch of crooks, and we don't have that at all."

In some cases, a bona fide agent will place the name of a friend or customer on an approved list of agents submitted to travel providers, such as airlines, cruise lines, hotels, group tours and car rental companies.

The suppliers, who give the discounts to promote business from travel agents, may rely on the lists as proof an individual is the real McCoy.

Other agencies, such as World View International, sell membership cards to the general public, promising discounts for travelers who have no intention of becoming agents themselves.

Anastassia Mann, who runs a Los Angeles travel agency, said the practice has been growing.

"It's extensive, particularly in the entertainment industry. They say: 'I'll give you my business. But I want to be on your list.' The companies that won't cooperate don't get the corporate business," she said.

"There is too much abuse," Mann said. "We have to professionalize the benefits of this industry."

Sue Kaplan, another Los Angeles travel agent, said, "Our system tolerates in the travel industry what it doesn't in other industries."

But there appears to be nothing illegal about the practice.

The American Society of Travel Agents, representing about half the 32,000 travel agency outlets in the nation plus some 10,000 travel supply businesses, thinks the new ID card is the answer.

The card will include a hologram to prevent forgeries and assure suppliers that those who get agent discounts are working to earn them.

The punishment for transgressors would be expulsion from travel agency trade groups, which could hurt business. Membership in ASTA and other trade organizations is an emblem of professional credibility.

ASTA also recently amended its code of ethics to say that no member will provide credentials to people not in the business.

Some who offer discounts are also taking precautions.

Bill Kaufman of Disney Attractions, which manages the Disney theme parks, said agents must apply for discounts two weeks in advance and are carefully checked out.

"We're real strict," he said. "We're tough as nails to get something out of. We look at the agents as partners. The ones that are producing we help."

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