Vacation scams: what you need to know

Vacation scams and travel-related fraud are on the rise. Here’s what you can do to protect your travel investment.

Ten billion dollars a year: That’s how much the Better Business Bureau estimates vacation and travel-related fraud costs consumers each year. Vacation companies mysteriously “disappear” with travellers’ money, or offer sub-standard services or accommodations. “Fabulous deals” quickly turn into costly ventures or disappointment. While travellers are starting to plan their summer vacations con artists are preparing for their busiest season. Here’s how to outsmart the scammers:

Learn to spot the scam
There are a variety of scams currently making the rounds via email, faxes, postcards, mail and phone calls. Many of the offers look professional and sound real, so it’s often hard to pick out the deceptions. These situations should raise a “red flag”:

• The offer is unsolicited (i.e. you didn’t sign up for promotions or don’t know the company).
• The offer seems too good to be true (beware of anything “free”).
• You are “specially selected” to receive an offer or you won a contest you didn’t enter – especially if you have to pay to receive the prize.
• An unknown caller or unsecured website requires your credit card number (before you can see the details in writing).
• You have to pay for the vacation more than 60-days before you leave. (Most credit card companies have a 60-day limit to dispute a charge).
• The salesperson uses high pressure tactics, such as forcing you to book immediately in order to take advantage of a discount.
• You’re invited to become a travel agent to receive discounts and free offers.

Travel discount clubs, vacation certificates and time shares are also suspect. You can even find fraudulent companies through internet ads and professional-looking websites when doing your pre-trip research. Ignoring the offers is usually the best course of action.

While not every offer you receive is fraudulent, it doesn’t hurt to exercise some healthy skepticism. If the deal is tempting, and you think the company is legitimate, there are ways to protect yourself if you proceed.

Check up on the company and the offer
A little research is your best defense. Consider: if you were going to buy a computer or home theatre system, you would likely take some or all of the following steps:

• Talk to someone who knows the product (salesperson or family and friends).
• Read consumer reviews.
• Compare prices and quality to get the best value.
• Get the full details in writing.
• Consider the warranty and return policy.
• Make your purchase from a well-known company with a good reputation.

Chances are you will make a large purchase from a legitimate, well-established business after doing some research rather than making an impulse buy based on an email or phone call. Approaching your “travel investment” with the same diligence can help you avoid the traps.

Start by researching the company or resort through independent sources. Ignore the company’s website (which could also be false) and try to verify its information elsewhere. Can you find its address through directory information? Is it registered with or accredited by tourism and travel associations? The Better Business Bureau (BBB) also has an online look-up tool that provides reports on the company’s standing and track record of consumer complaints. You can also check up the company’s reputation with a simple online search to see where it shows up in consumer reviews and forums. Caution: Steer clear of overly-positive reviews that could be planted by the company itself.