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Travel scams thrive on new technology

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About four years ago we wrote an article on travel fraud for this column. These scam artists are still with us, but they have greatly expanded in their scope and cunning with the Internet and telemarketing. Many Internet pages, of course, are perfectly respectable and provide the goods they offer as promised. But not all of them.

Telemarketing has become a bonanza for scam artists who will promise any kind of discounted or bargain travel package in return for your credit-card number.

The telemarketer or the 800 phone number found in magazine and newspaper ads are, more often than not, fly-by-night operators who ask for your credit card credentials for a deposit on a future trip or cruise, they may even offer an additional discount if you make full payment at the time of booking.

Then as the time approaches for your documents to arrive, you discover that the 800 number is no longer in service and the "agency" has disappeared, but only after charging your credit card for the trip and usually several extras.

The Internet is the preferred breeding ground for fraud, and travel is one of the favorite areas. The Internet is unregulated, it can be manipulated, and a skillfully designed home page can deceive you.

Because the Internet is anonymous and untraceable, you can easily lose your money with no recourse. If you make travel purchases from an Internet vendor that is not one of the few major travel sources, such as Expedia or Travelocity, you had best check them out with the Better Business Bureau before giving your credit card information.

There are some new scams around, too. An evening caller to your hotel room says he is the desk clerk and your credit card number didn't go through when you checked in and will you please repeat it.

A month later you discover a slew of charges on your credit card that you didn't make. The room clerk was an outside caller and only wanted your credit card number for illicit use.

Another scam that has duped thousands of victims is the quick and easy offer to become a travel agent. For a fee of $500 to several thousand dollars you receive a training kit and ID card which, you are told, will entitle you to travel as a travel agent at a substantially reduced rate and receive freebies galore.

The FTC reports that these victims either lost money or made no money and that this was a pyramid scheme. The days of big discounts and freebies for travel agents are long gone, and the travel suppliers are aware of these fake travel IDs.

"Win a Dream Vacation" is another attractive offer. Many of the entry forms you see in restaurant or hotel lobbies, or get via e-mail are merely a chance for someone to call you and pitch a time-share offer or sell you a cruise that ends up as a trip on a refurbished auto ferry.

How do you avoid these scams? First, do business with companies that you know to be reliable, if possible a local company of good reputation that will stand behind its product. If you are not dealing with a company you know to be reliable, look for these warning signs:

?Be suspicious of registration fees or requirements of pay for services in advance.

?Suspect travel offers that say you have been "specially selected."

?If the seller insists that you have to make up your mind immediately, reject the offer. What's good today will be good tomorrow.

?You cannot be made to pay for something you have allegedly won. A credit card or check is needed only to pay for services, not for identification.

If you're offered a cheap trip, do a little homework. Just because a hotel is in Hawaii doesn't mean that its on a beach or anywhere near one.

?Look for advertisers on the Internet or in the Yellow Pages that carry the seal of the Better Business Bureau.

?Work only with a bona fide travel agent, preferably one who's a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, Cruise Line International Association or the National Tour Operators Association.

If you suspect you've already been caught in a scam, contact the National Fraud Information Center, 800-876-7060, or on the Internet,

www.fraud.org.

This organization is a clearing house for fraud complaints from all over the country and will probably be aware of the validity of the purchase you've made.

Travel is a wonderful experience that everyone should enjoy. But be sure your trip isn't ruined before it starts by avoiding deals that sound too good to be true.

(Linda and Dr. Don Overend are co-owners of Ozark World Travel, a full-service travel agency serving the Springfield area since 1976.)

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