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Protect yourself

December 06, 2009|By ON THE SPOT and CATHARINE HAMM

On Thanksgiving Day, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about a woman who lost the money for her wedding venue by renting a house that wasn't the agent's to rent. (You can read it at latimes.com/travelmystery.)

That was the story of my wedding fiasco, and since its publication, several readers have asked whether I have practical advice on how to prevent such a debacle. My dealings with police, both as a victim and journalist, have given me some insights that might save you the same trouble.

* Be skeptical, even if the website looks legitimate. Nice pictures and a professional presentation on a website are no indication of anything except a good designer. My wedding venue was advertised on two legitimate websites, both of which removed the ad when they realized it was a problem. Other people have gotten tangled up in scams on Craigslist.

The common thread is the ease with which criminals can hide in cyberspace.

"The Internet has certainly opened up a great door for the criminal element," said Det. Sgt. Jim Whitham of the Smith County (Texas) Sheriff's Office, which handled my case. The anonymity of the Net may even increase the trickster's boldness. "I think part of that is they know they are sitting in the living room in their underwear and nobody knows where they're doing it from," Whitham said.

* Put your faith in people you know -- and in credit cards. Getting a recommendation from a friend or a travel agent is a good start, along with checking with the Better Business Bureau. Also check user comments on various forums. None of the alleged victims I interviewed who paid for the nonexistent vacation venue had met their rental agent, and neither had I.

I made the enormous additional mistake of paying by wire transfer. If I had used a credit card, I would have been protected from fraud, thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act. I'm not always a fan of the credit card companies, but they're great allies if you think you've been defrauded. You just have to be sure you dispute the charge quickly, usually within 60 days.

* If your inner voice is telling you something is wrong, pay attention. At least one of the people I interviewed said he asked the person who is alleged to have swindled him whether it was a scam. The answer was no. As he later learned, just because someone says it isn't a scam doesn't mean it's not. In his case, it was. He was out almost $10,000, police records show.

* If you do get ensnared in something, prepare to be your own best advocate. This is true in many instances, especially in money mishaps. The number of financial crimes is staggering; the number of resources to fight them is not. Sgt. Justin Newsom, head of financial crimes in the Austin (Texas) Police Department, told me his office alone handles 8,500 cases a year -- "and that's just in this office," he said. Multiply that by the number of municipalities in the U.S. and you'll get an idea of the caseload.

The number of ways you can be defrauded is equally staggering. Det. Carl Satterlee, also of Austin's financial crime unit and who was pivotal in some of the cases in the story, said he handles "anything from identity theft to credit card abuse to check fraud to bank scams, stolen check, forgery, just a wide variety of stuff."

* If you have the time, take the time. "If it's a good deal today, it's going to be a good deal tomorrow," Whitham said. You may feel pressure to commit right now; it's what I'm calling "rushing roulette." You might get hurt; you might not. But by putting on the brakes, you'll at least have more time to consider the risks versus the rewards.

And that, readers, is time well spent.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every letter.

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