Free or bargain Dream vacation offers can quickly turn into nightmares if you answer a telemarketers siren call and fail to heed the warning signs.
Have you seen offers for free trips at restaurants and other businesses and thought about filling out the forms? If you have, think again. Everyone that fills one of these forms out gets a phone call or letter alerting them that they’ve been selected to receive a free luxury vacation. You’ll feel like a winner but the feeling won’t last long. The trip you’ve won won’t really be free or fit anyone’s idea of luxury.
This telemarketing scheme has been around as long as I can remember and it works very well. According to the FTC, telemarketing scams like this one cost consumers millions of dollars each month! The thing to look out for is how the word “offer” is used. When you either contact or are contacted by someone about what sounds like a prize the sales pitch begins. That’s because you’ve won a chance or been selected to be “offered” a dream vacation. Do you see where this is going? Your “free” vacation is about to become very expensive.
Telemarketing travel scams usually originate out of boiler rooms. These operations include skilled salespeople, often with years of experience selling dubious products and services over the phone, pitch travel packages that may sound legitimate, but often are not. Here are some of the techniques and pitches you might face when you speak with a sales representative:
- First you may be asked for your credit card number. Wasn’t this vacation supposed to be free? The moment your credit card number is requested you should consider hanging up. If you do pay for a vacation, you’ll be sent instructions regarding making reservations. Sometimes making reservations incur another fee. If so, alarms should be going off in your head. Some offers even require that you pay upgrade fees in order to get the vacation package with all the frills you thought you’d already paid for. You might even be hit up with port charges, hotel taxes and assorted service fees. By now you’re probably wondering where that “free” vacation wandered off to. In the end, your reservations may not even be confirmed or there could be conditions that are so restrictive that you never get to take your dream vacation.
- Oral Misrepresentations. Also known as lying. The particulars of the schemes vary, but all fraudulent telemarketers promise you a “deal” they can’t possibly deliver. All they want to do is make a sale. Unfortunately, you won’t know it until your money’s gone.
- High Pressure/Time Pressure Tactics. Also known as the hard sell. Scam operators often say they need your commitment to buy immediately or that the offer won’t be available much longer. They typically brush aside questions or concerns with vague answers or assurances. This tactic is an important part of the telemarketer toolbox. They do this so that you won’t have time to think about the offer they’re making and how ridiculous it is.
- Reasonable sounding offers. Rather than trying to bilk victims out of their entire life savings as many telemarketing scams do, travel scam operators often sell club memberships or offer vacations at cut rate prices. These vacation offers are designed to sound reasonable and appeal to anyone hankering for a cheap getaway. Scams like this can be tough to detect. Remember to look for hidden fees, restrictions and upgrade costs before you make a purchase.
- If you agree to a telemarketers terms and agree to make a purchase, make sure the forms they send you match the deal you agreed to. Some scams involve sending out follow-up paperwork and contracts that either bear little resemblance to what you agreed to or contain hidden details and additional terms you never accepted over the phone.
How to protect yourself from telemarketing travel scams
Unpleasant surprises can ruin a vacation, especially when they cost money. That’s why it pays to investigate a travel package before you buy. But it can be difficult to tell a legitimate sales pitch from a fraudulent one. Consider these travelers’ advisories:
- Be wary of “great deals” and low-priced offers. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies’ prices. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Don’t be pressured into buying. A good offer today usually will be a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses don’t expect you to make snap decisions.
- Ask detailed questions. Find out exactly what the price covers and what it doesn’t. Ask about additional charges. Get the names of the hotel, airports, airlines and restaurants included in your package. Consider contacting these businesses directly to verify arrangements. Ask about cancellation policies and refunds. If the salesperson can’t give you detailed answers, hang up.
- If you decide to buy, find out the name of the travel provider – the company that is getting your reservations and tickets. This company usually is not the telemarketer.
- Get all information in writing before you agree to buy. Once you receive the written information, make sure it reflects what you were told over the phone and the terms you agreed to. Making a phone call costs almost nothing. Printing brochures and other materials requires time, effort and money.
- Don’t buy part of the package – the air fare or hotel stay – separately from the rest. If the deal is not what you expected, it may be difficult to get your money back for the part of the package you purchased.
- Don’t give your credit card number or bank information over the phone unless you know the company. One easy way for a scam operator to close a deal is to get your credit card number and charge your account. Sometimes fraudulent telemarketers say they need the number for verification purposes only. Don’t believe them.
- Don’t send money by messenger or overnight mail. Some scam artists may ask you to send them a check or money order immediately. Others may offer to send a messenger to pick up your payment. If you pay with cash or a check, rather than a credit card, you lose your right to dispute fraudulent charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act. If you charged your trip to a credit card, you may dispute the charges by writing to your credit card issuer at the address provided for billing disputes. If possible, do this as soon as you receive your statement. In any case, the law gives you up to 60 days after the bill’s statement date to dispute the charge.
- Check out the company before you buy. Contact the Attorney General in your state or where the company is located to see if any complaints have been lodged against the travel firm or the travel provider. Be aware that fraudulent businesses often change their names to avoid detection.
- If in doubt, say “no.” Trust your instincts. It’s less risky to turn down the offer and hang up the phone.
- Never talk to telemarketers. This may seem extreme but it’s my favorite because it is a great defense against telemarketing scams. If you won’t even speak to a telemarketer, you won’t have to hear their pitch and you won’t make a purchase. You may miss out on one or two real bargains but you’ll avoid getting scammed every time.
Where to complain about telemarketing travel scams
Several organizations can provide additional information and help you with complaints. Your state Attorney General or the Attorney General in the state where the company is located probably has a division that deals with consumer protection issues.
The American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Affairs, at 1101 King Street, Alexandria,VA 22314, may be able to mediate your dispute with an ASTA member.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.