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TRAVEL INSIDER

When Trip Arrangements Fall Apart, There's Help

ConsumersThe California Seller of Travel Law, newly revised, lets travelers recover losses when agents or tour operators fail to deliver.

November 08, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

A key tool for California travel consumers has entered its second life, but thousands of travelers still don't know it lives at all.

First enacted in 1996, the California Seller of Travel Law was created to scare off fly-by-night travel businesses and give Californians a chance to recover money when properly registered travel agents or tour operators fail to deliver a service that has been paid for. Indeed, in the 2 1/2 years ending June 1, state records show, 298 successful consumer restitution claims had been awarded, totaling more than $630,000.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office estimates that 30% to 40% of all consumer claims filed under the law have won restitution.

"The fund is working exactly as intended," said Patricia Campbell, a Northridge travel agent and board member of the Travel Consumer Restitution Corp., which was created under the law.

But in many ways, the law has been an experiment in public- and private-sector cooperation. It required new paperwork from more than 4,000 enterprises that met its definition as sellers of travel in California, and it depended on travel professionals' willingness to assess themselves fees in order to pay for a fund to protect consumers. Expecting that revision would be needed, however, the law's makers gave it a built-in expiration date of December 1998.

Many travel agents and tour operators complained about the cost or the paperwork, which all sides agree was slow. But the law's backers have prevailed. In early October, after months of haggling and revisions, Gov. Wilson signed a bill that extends the law to 2006.

The revisions, which take effect Jan. 1, are a mixed bag for travelers: Several require consumers to do more in order to recover lost money. But the revisions also increase the number of trips covered by the restitution fund, and require that registered travel sellers display their registrations. The Seller of Travel Law can still be a powerful tool for recovering money when things go wrong.

Since 1996, travel agents, tour operators and airline ticket brokers that sell to Californians have been required to register with state officials, disclosing details of their business and their ability to meet financial stability requirements.

Once processed, each business gets a nine-digit California Seller of Travel (CST) registration number from the state, and is required to use it in all advertisements. The next time you hear of a travel offer that sounds too good to be true, look for the CST number or ask the salesperson about it. If you stick with companies that have proper CST registration, your chances of being ripped off are substantially reduced. (Consumers should also look for the CST's expiration date at their travel agent's office. Yearly renewal is required, and some consumer claims have been denied just because travel sellers' registrations had expired.)

But there's always a chance something will go wrong, such as a tour operator getting caught holding too much of a crashing currency and declaring bankruptcy. That's when the restitution part of the law comes into play. If that seller of travel doesn't provide the service that you've paid for, you can file a claim with the Travel Consumer Restitution Corp., which is run by a board of travel industry officials and one consumer representative. If the board finds the claim valid, it will compensate travelers for up to $15,000 per person.

Travelers seeking forms to make a restitution claim can write TCRC, P.O. Box 6001, Larkspur, CA 94977- 6001. (There is no phone or fax.) Those who want to check on the registration of a travel seller (or alert officials to an unregistered travel seller) can write the Office of the California Attorney General, Sellers of Travel Program, 300 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013, or fax (415) 356-6388.

Among the law's new revisions:

* Consumers now must pay a $35 processing fee to make a claim (it used to be free). But if compensation is awarded, the fee is refunded. Instead of having 60 days to one year from the date of travel to file their claims, consumers now have a six-month limit. And losses amounting to less than $50 will no longer be covered.

* Travelers who file restitution claims are blocked from also filing lawsuits against travel sellers over the same case. If the TCRC board's decision goes against the consumer, the consumer can appeal the case to the California Superior Court (which would probably require hiring an attorney).

* Consumers must seek reimbursement from all other potential sources--credit-card institutions, for example, or insurers--before resorting to a TCRC claim. And consumers can seek reimbursement only for their out-of-pocket costs for services not provided--no payments, for instance, for lost wages, pain and suffering or emotional distress.

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