Travel Scams FAQ
Travel scams rely on human nature to overcome common sense. They appeal to your need to feel special (you've been selected!), to be a part of something glamorous (you can have a condo near the beach for a fraction of the price!), and to every person's weakness for a "good deal". The problem is, if it sounds too good to be true, it almost always is. Here are some frequently asked questions about travel scams and their answers.
How can I spot a travel scam?
The basic rule for detecting all scams is the same: ask yourself "is this too good to be true?" and "why me?". If the offer is simply too good to be true, it almost always is. Here are some other guidelines to consider when evaluating an offer:
- They want you to pay in some way before you'll receive your prize: that includes shipping and "handling" fees. If someone was really just going to give you a million dollars, do you really think they'd short change you on the shipping?
- They want you to pay via couriers or wire transfers: always try to pay by credit card, because credit cards have built in fraud protection and you can dispute charges. Scammers will often want you to pay via courier or wire transfer because once the money is gone, it's really gone.
- The offer is extremely time sensitive: while many legitimate offers have a "limited time only" catch, there's a difference between "only valid this month" and only valid for the next 24 hours.
- The price is just way too low: something that is 10% cheaper than through well-known reputable companies may be reasonable, but an offer to sell you travel services for substantially below the price other companies offer is fairly implausible.
- You need to disclose personal financial information: obviously if you are planning to eventually purchase something, information such as your credit card number may be required, but anyone asking for other information, such as Social Security information, bank accounts, etc, is almost assuredly a scammer.
- They inform you that you were "specially selected": many scammers try to appeal to your vanity, and want to make you feel special. No one sits around looking for certain special people to sell to; real businesses want anyone who will pay, so beware of people who try to butter you up.
- The travel description is big on hype and small on details: be very careful of offers that promise nondescript things such as a "major hotel" or "international airline" without being specific. After all, a tiny airport that has one flight to Canada can legitimately be called an "international airport", even if it only has 2 flights a day.
- Beware the hard sell: almost all scams rely on hard-sale pressure tactics. They require that decisions be made on the spot or your once in a lifetime opportunity will be lost. Hard sells also tend to appeal to your need to do what other people are doing, your desire to feel special, and try to lure you in with a simple sounding plan that in fact has many strings attached.
I received an offer for a free vacation, how can I tell if it's legitimate?
First, keep in mind that the chances of being offered, out of the blue, a truly free vacation are next to zero. Being offered a reasonable discount by a major travel agency or online travel service is one thing; being offered a free or nearly free vacation is something else altogether. Here are some of the ways that these "vacation certificates" or "coupons" try to trick you:
- They bombard you with beautiful images and flashy descriptions, but don't offer you the names of the actual hotels, airlines, etc that you would use.
- They give no specific date, or prices for the travel services.
- They use official sounding words like "certificate", "seal of authenticity", and "guarantee" and use imagery meant to mimic the federal government such as coloring the offer in red white and blue, using images like the eagle and giving things official sounding names like the "American Institute of Foreign Travel".
- They hide all the real terms in tiny print, confident that you'll never read it.
If there is no such thing as a "free lunch" in the world, there certainly aren't "free vacations", there's always strings attached. Businesses aren't in the habit of just handing out money and vacations.
This airline price seems too good to be true, how can I tell if it's legitimate
Always check the fine print. Although major airlines won't commit outright fraud, they are still likely to hide information from you in the fine print, such as:
- Quoting you one-way prices, even if there are few, if any one way tickets available.
- Offering you a two for one deal, but pricing the one ticket so high that it's really no better and may be worse than two cheaper tickets.
- Quoting prices for routes that have extremely limited seating and conditions, such that you will almost never actually get that price.
- Limiting the way you can use your frequent flyer miles to such an extent that they become virtually useless to you (such as making flights only available during the week while you are working, and requiring that you stay in a partner hotel for a steep price).
I've been offered a ticket on a "charter" airline, what does that mean and is it legitimate?
Charter airlines can be legitimate, but they can also be extremely unreliable. The Department of Transportation regulates charter airlines, so consider investigating the airline with them to see if they have been around for awhile and are financially stable. Many charter airlines have literally gone out of business over night, leaving passengers stranded, and many charter airlines play fast and loose with the rules, so really do your homework before booking a flight on a charter airline.
I'm a college student and I see all these great deals for vacations advertised to me, are they real?
Some companies cater to students and offer "discounted" trips legitimately, but there are many companies that are either outright scams or "fly by night" operations that may close down next week.
One of the best ways to verify a company is to contact the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET). CSIET verifies companies and requires them to submit to an independent certified public accountant and provide documentation. You can verify a company by visiting them at www.csiet.org.
While I was traveling I kept seeing offers for timeshares, are they a good deal?
Timeshares can be a good deal, but only if you're ok with the significant restraints placed on them and you're aware of all the fees attached to them. Unfortunately, most time share deals are not a good deal in the long run and here's why:
- Many timeshares have significant time-period limitations: if you are comfortable with being locked into a time period that may be off-season or not ideal for travel, then timeshares can work out. Many timeshares are extremely rigid with their time allotments, and require you to decide on your slot well in advance.
- Many timeshares have large fees: don't just look at the annual payment expected, you need to dig a little deeper and find out all of the fees that go along with the timeshare. Even if you understand the fees and are ok with them, many people fall victim to fee hikes. It's an unfortunately regular practice for timeshares to increase their fees dramatically, by as much as 100% in a few years. In the end, it may not be any cheaper than renting for a week, and it's not nearly as flexible.
- Reselling a timeshare can be difficult: there are traditionally more timeshare sellers than buyers for the reasons listed above. This means that you may be stuck with the fees and increases, because you are simply unable to resell your interest in the property.
- Many timeshares use hard-sale tactics: unfortunately, many timeshares result to deceptive practices to lure you in. Promises of free items get you to attend a seminar, and then trap you there for hours while they try every hard-sale trick in the book. It may have sounded like they were going to give you something for free by just sitting there and listening, but instead there were many terms associated with the offer in the fine print, so that even if you sit there, until you actually buy something or give them something, there will be no freebie.
Despite all of that, there are legitimate timeshare providers, so do your research before even considering it. Don't just drop in for a hard-sales pitch, and don't make the decision on the spot. Do your research and carefully consider all the details, including flexibility and fees, and decide whether it really makes financial sense to you.
I recently signed up for a time share but have reconsidered, is there anything I can do?
Some states have mandatory "cooling-off" laws to counteract the hard-sale techniques employed by many timeshare providers. These laws let you cancel the deal, even if you signed a contract, if you act within a few days. If your state does not having a cooling-off law, then your likely recourse is to sue the timeshare provider for deceptive practices. Be aware, though, that this can cost a lot of a money and will take a considerable amount of time. You'd essentially be alleging fraud, and proving fraud can be difficult. Consult a lawyer to see if you have a viable claim and then consider whether it is worth it to you.
Where can I report travel scams to?
There are a variety of potential sources to report travel scams. Here are some government agencies to consider:
- The Federal Trade Commission
- The Department of Transportation
- The Federal Communications Commission (if the offer was by phone)
- The U.S. Postal Service (if the offer was by mail)
- State Consumer Protection offices
There are also private organizations that may be able to help:
- The Better Business Bureau
- The National Fraud Information Center
- The American Society of Travel Agents
- The U.S. Tour Operators Association