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Con Artists Are Out to Get Your Credit Card Numbers : Crime: So-called "identity theft" rates high among scams in travel industry. Some thieves attract victims on the Internet.

November 26, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Your good name is important, of course. But if you're a traveler trying to stay out of trouble these days, it's your good numbers that need protecting--your credit card numbers, your phone company calling card numbers, your bank machine PIN numbers. They're what can give scamming strangers access to your money.

And there are plenty of those scamming strangers out there. When state officials gathered in Sacramento last week to talk about consumer complaints, identity theft topped the list, and authorities agreed that travelers were among the most common victims. In fact, on a new list of 10 leading consumer complaints compiled by the state Assembly's Committee on Consumer Protection, Governmental Efficiency and Economic Development, four of the complaints stemmed from dubious practices within the travel industry.

The National Consumers League, which tallies fraud complaints by consumers to law enforcement agencies, last year estimated that one in seven complaints concerned travel. And when the league revised its estimates for 1995, the rate rose to one in five. Here are the four categories of travel trouble that made the state's hot list.

Identity theft: For years scam artists have been making "cold call" phone pitches of products, seducing consumers into reciting their credit card numbers, which the criminals then can use to obtain more money than was authorized. But lately the field has diversified, and in the estimation of many state officials, identity crimes--literally, stealing people's credit identities in order to empty their accounts--have surpassed simpler sales scams as the leading form of consumer fraud.

Authorities tell of how bad guys linger near the phone banks in airports and hotels, visually or aurally picking off phone card authorization codes that allow them to run up someone else's phone bill. In a recently reported East Coast scam, con artists pose as bank employees in front of "broken" ATM machines, handing out cash to cover small withdrawals and asking customers to disclose their PIN numbers. But the most rapidly increasing identity theft, authorities say, is probably Internet fraud--individuals who, posing as travel professionals or others in an informal, interactive, online environment, persuade consumers to type in their credit card numbers to book a service or hold a ticket. Then they vanish from cyberspace, armed with the credit card number. By some accounts, the Internet hosted $20 million in transactions last year. As that number increases, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents said, he expects fraud cases to soar. Until more safeguards are added, he said, the Internet is "the Wild West. People need to be very, very careful." ASTA urges consumers never to disclose credit card numbers on-line.

Phony prizes and misleading offers: Often operating within the law, many companies are in the business of sending out certificates for "free" travel that lead to costly obligations: As arrangements are made, consumers gradually find themselves paying for hundreds of dollars in air fares, taxes, upgrade fees and various other costs. In the end, the "free trip" may cost more, and deliver less, than a standard package vacation would have. Some prize-giving companies advertise their membership in trade organizations (including ASTA) whose logos may reassure travelers, but do not guarantee good value.

Deceptive advertising: Usually, this means ads that announce a low-priced flight or lodging or tour, but omit important conditions that must be met in order for a traveler to get that price. Sometimes small companies place these ads, which include a price and a phone number but not the company's name--an immediate warning that a consumer should be on guard.

But many argue that this country's major air carriers and some high-volume travel agencies deserve some scorn here too. Daily, they place (and newspapers and magazines accept) ads that say, for instance, "Los Angeles-New York, $159." Then the small print language acknowledges that the round-trip LA-NY fare is $318, and that one-way travel is not part of the offer. This may seem dishonest, but there's no federal law against it.

Travel failures and scams. In an industry as crowded and competitive as travel, honest companies sometimes fail. But the greater threats to most consumers are posed by the phantom companies that offer implausibly low prices, collect client money and then vanish.

Consumers can avoid these operators by using firms with established track records (one attribute to look for is membership in the U.S. Tour Operators Assn.), and also by paying when possible with a credit card, so that the consumer's money can be protected if the service never materializes.

Consumers with specific questions can call the National Fraud Information Center, sponsored by the National Consumers League, at (800) 876-7060 between 6 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. PST.

*

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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