Terrible Travel Scams and Ripoffs: Part Two

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 29, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, car rental, Ed Perkins, hotel, vacation rental.

Over the last month, our coverage of the five worst travel scams and the 10 worst travel ripoffs generated a lot of comments from readers—and even a few disagreements. Also, I've had several follow-up calls from reporters asking something like this:

"Do travelers face any scams and ripoffs beyond the ones you covered?"

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Sadly, the short answer is, "Yes, as a traveler, you face more than five bad scams and more than 10 ripoffs." So here are a few more traps for the unwary.

Really Crooked Scams

The worst scams are those in which the operator of the scam is really crooked, with no intention of delivering anything, and instead simply planning to keep your money. Among those:

  • Guaranteed timeshare sale. A few agencies target timeshare owners who no longer want their interval and want to get out from under the various payments and maybe recover a part of their ownership cost. These agencies advertise that they'll help you "get rid of your timeshare" in exchange for a stiff fee up front. According to the Timeshare Users Group (TUG), those fees can be as high as $7,000. In reality, all you get rid of is your money. Until the timeshare actually sells, you're still on the hook for the payments, and the agency may well list your timeshare for something like $1 or even 1 cent on Ebay or Craigslist. The defense is to inform yourself about the realities of selling an unwanted timeshare and to sell it through legitimate channels. A nominal fee for an online listing is legitimate, but not a big upfront payment. TUG is the best place to start.
  • Identity theft. I've read a few reports recently about an identity theft scam that is being pulled at some hotels. A few minutes after you settle into your room, you get a call from someone saying, "This is the front desk. We made a mistake in entering your information, so we need you to repeat the credit card numbers you gave us when you registered." Of course, the call is from a crook who noted your arrival and room number, and your credit card information is immediately used to pile up some purchases. This sort of scam isn't confined to travel, but apparently hotel guests are especially vulnerable. The defense is obvious: Don't ever give out your credit card information to anyone who calls you and asks for it; either agree to call back or go to the desk personally.

Our earlier report covered phony tickets and phony travel insurance.

Disguising the Real Deal

Several scams operate by misrepresenting the nature of what the operator is promising: Among the more notorious:

  • "Free" vacation weekend/timeshare hard sell. We're happy to inform you, says the pitch, that you've "won" or been "specially selected" for great vacation weekend somewhere. All we ask you to do is register, make a reservation, then show up at the resort for a wonderful time. Oh, and by the way, we'd like you to sit in on a brief presentation about a wonderful investment opportunity. Of course, that wonderful "investment opportunity" turns out to be a timeshare interval or a pay-up-front travel club, and that "brief" presentation actually takes anywhere from a half to a full day of sitting in a "closing room" while being subjected to an unrelenting high-pressure pitch. A minor variant, once prevalent in Honolulu, is to offer "free" admission to some attraction if you agree to sit through the pitch. Yes, if you stick it out, you do get whatever was promised. But don't kid yourself: Those sales pitches are good; they've been carefully scripted and proven to work. I once met an assistant state attorney general who went on one such trip to check out the scam and wound up buying a lot. The defense: Always assume that any blind offer you get in the mail or by email that claims you've "won" something you didn't even know about is a scam, and toss it in the recycling or hit the "delete" button.

Our earlier report covered travel "protection" that really isn't insurance and the various pay-up-front schemes that promise much but deliver little or nothing unless you pay more.

The Old Shell Game

A few scams involve switching you without advance knowledge or consent. I can't cite any current court cases, but these have worked over the years.

  • Hotel switch. Hotel chains with more than one property in major beach destinations have been known to overbook their prime beachfront property deliberately, then, when you arrive for the ocean view room you reserved and paid for, a manager reluctantly informs you that "we're really sorry, the whole area is overbooked and your room isn't available, but fortunately we've been able to find a substitute room at an affiliated hotel just a block or two away." Of course, the replacement hotel is not on the beach and has no ocean view rooms, but the operator claims that you're lucky to get a room at all. The defense is not to fall for the scam: If a hotel can't honor a reservation, find your own replacement and demand a full refund from the original hotel—taking it to small claims court if necessary.
  • Apartment switch. A variation on this one has occurred with vacation rentals. You sign up for what looks like a good deal, but when you arrive the agent or manager tells you that the unit you reserved is unavailable because of " unexpected maintenance" or some such, and the operator has arranged another accommodation that's "just as nice." Of course, it isn't just as nice; it may be smaller, in a poorer location, in bad condition, or whatever. Check here for stories various travelers have posted about one agency. This scam is especially difficult to deal with in an overseas setting, where you know legal redress will be tough to impossible. The defense is to refuse an unsatisfactory switch, demand a refund, and find your own replacement. If you're nervous about overseas problems, rent through a U.S.-based agency that must fix your problem, refund your money, or face legal action.

Our earlier report covered card mills and no-event ticket packages.

Miscellaneous Ripoffs

Out-and-out scams may be relatively rare, but the travel industry is full of misrepresentations and ripoffs. Over the years, we've often highlighted the worst of them, including several mentioned in our recent ripoff report. Among the worst:

  • Rental car insurance trickery. Our earlier report covered the fact that you might not need extra insurance. But that may not be the end of it. All too often, local agents resort to trickery to get you to buy insurance you really neither want nor need, either by lying to you about your own coverage or tricking you into unwittingly signing or accepting something you didn't intend to sign. Often, they print contracts with "accept" boxes pre-checked "yes." The defense is to know exactly what coverages you have, carefully review all the little boxes—even if the contract is in a foreign language—and stick to your guns about refusing.

Our earlier report covered add-on fees for services that should be in the base price and foreign exchange fees on credit cards. We observed one interesting development, however: Not everybody agrees that optional extra fees for services that used to be included in the base price are rip-offs. Some buy into the argument that separating out the optional extras allows airlines and hotels to keep their base fares/rates lower than if they had to provide all the extras within the base price, even to people who don't use them. We think most of the extra fees are, in fact, rip-offs, if not inherently, at least in the levels of the prices charged. But it's your call.

 
 
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