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Top 10 Signs of a Possible Travel Scam

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Everyone looks for breathtaking travel bargains, and perhaps a few will pan out for you in your lifetime. But there are scores of scam artists out there who prey on your instinct to save money on travel.

Pre-payment usually is required for travel products. That is why scam artists often concentrate on travelers. The Internet provides growth opportunities for such illegal and unethical activity.

What follows, in no particular order, are 10 red-flags that frequently signal a scam-in-the-making.

1. Advance Payment is Required Without a Written Contract

Travel payments often are made before a trip, but you are entitled to a written contract stating the product(s) for which you are paying. This is true whether it's a deposit or payment-in-full. Scammers often attempt to gain your trust with friendly phone pitches that result in credit card transactions. Reputable vendors will always spell out their offers in writing.

2. Transactions by Courier Service Rather than Post Office

Anyone who insists on transacting travel business using only a courier service should be treated with suspicion. It's quite possible they're trying to avoid mail fraud statutes.

3. Transaction Can Only Be Carried Out by Telephone

There are reputable travel firms that do business only on the Web, but if you encounter a vendor that will only book by telephone, ask questions: Why is that your policy? Will I get a written contract to examine before I make my payment? What is your office address? Frequently, you'll get evasive answers--a signal it's time to hang up the phone.

4. Offer is for a "Limited Time Only"

We're not talking about airfare sales and other special offers here. They expire, and sometimes you must move quickly to meet the deadline. But an offer of deep discounts that must be booked immediately is suspicious. Triple your suspicion level if you must pay immediately for a departure date at least 60 days in the future, because that's the time limit for disputing credit card charges at many banks.

5. Different Names for Travel Provider and Seller

Why would these names be different? Frequently, a telemarketer or some other agent has been employed to make the sale. It's very likely this go-between is far more interested in pleasing the vendor than the consumer. They get paid for closing deals, not for customer satisfaction. It's also possible the names are different to avoid responsibility for the product. Either way, it's not good news.

6. Hotel Names, Airlines or Other Vendors Not Disclosed in Writing

Online auctions like Priceline and Hotwire do not disclose vendors until after your bid is accepted. That's part of the risk you take in saving money with those services. But if you're booking a trip in a conventional way, there is no reason whatsoever for withholding this information. If hotel, airline, or car rental information is not disclosed, end the discussion and shop elsewhere.

7. A Price Far Below Market Value

This one must be applied on a case-by-case basis. There are rare mistake fares that should be booked, but $199 for a one-week vacation in the Caribbean clearly is not going to be profitable for the vendor. Why make the offer? Perhaps you're a prime target for a high-pressure sales pitch. Maybe the fine print says $199 is a base price from which add-ons will be assessed after you've paid. No vendor wants to lose money without gaining some other advantage in the process.

8. Offers to Make You a "Travel Agent"

Scam artists offer to certify you as a "travel agent" and gain access to all sorts of free trips. It's true some travel agents get these perks, but the offers go to established people who are strategically chosen. No one is required to offer any travel agent a free trip. Some of these offers send you course materials, others just require a "fee" for "certification." Both are a complete waste of money. If you want facts on becoming a travel agent, consult professional organizations like ASTA.

9. Hints of "Split Pricing"

Split pricing is the practice of offering below-market pricing and then adding charges for items that appeared to be included in the first quote. Reputable firms will offer vacations "starting at" a certain price, and show you all the upgrades. Scammers bury their pricing structure in the fine print. Don't find out too late that your bargain tropical vacation involves a hotel 10 miles from the beach or your ski chalet is 30 miles from the slopes.

10. Frequent Use of Words Such as "Complimentary" and "Free"

Offers peppered with these words frequently are trying to distract you from some other reality. Your job is to find that hidden agenda, or perhaps just reject the offer immediately. Let's face it: Very few people on this earth offer complimentary items without some string attached. That string might be a time-share sales pitch or the obligation to buy something. Don't let that obligation damage your travel budget or rob you of precious vacation time.
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