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Vacation scams with costly catches abound

You’ll probably pay for that ‘free’ trip in the end

Offers of “free” vacations and airline tickets abound. But the old adage “nothing is free” should be considered when taking advantage of offers that sounds great but nearly always have a catch.

Harold Palmer, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi, said he personally got caught up in one of the more recent “free” travel scams. Palmer got a call from a telemarketer who claimed his name was given to them by his credit card company. The proposal was for membership in a discount travel club that provided a free airline ticket to anywhere in the U.S. in return for trying the discount travel club for 90 days.

“If you did not see a significant savings, you got your money back,” Palmer said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll try it. For free air tickets, how could I go wrong?’ The airline tickets are free, but you had to book a minimum of a three-night stay in a very overpriced hotel. So I did my checking, and at this hotel I could fly there, book my own reservations and save money instead of doing the free air fare.”

Palmer said after checking it out, he determined that this is the latest travel scam. There are no savings whatsoever, and the “discount” prices are higher than regular prices.

Particularly at this time of year when people’s thoughts turn to summer vacations, there is a lot of telemarketing activity promoting free air travel. Palmer advises that if a consumer gets such an offer, ask about restrictions. He said consumers should ask point blank: What strings are attached? Usually the free air travel requires an overpriced hotel stay or requirements for extended stays at a hotel.

Another promotion is an offer to buy one airline ticket and get one free. The catch is that the airfare being purchased is at the highest class rate. If you shop around, you can usually buy both tickets for less than you would pay for one “free” ticket with one paid ticket.

“In our comparison, the offer of one free ticket for purchasing another round-trip ticket to Washington, D.C. was $850,” Palmer said. “However, if we shopped around, we could get tickets for $208 per person. So, both people could fly for a total of $416 versus buying ticket one ticket for $850 and one flying free.”

Another common way to lure in unwary consumers is drawings at restaurants, stores or trade shows for a free trip. Palmer said usually everyone signing up is a winner.

“Believe me, you have not won anything,” Palmer said. “This usually involves someone wanting to sell you time-share units. If you have won this free trip, why do you have to have a valid credit card or why do they want to check your credit if you have in fact won something? These are the questions you ask yourself. Ask why they want to verify your credit card.”

The general experience is that the vacation includes a very high-pressure sales pitch. The whole objective of the free trip is to sell a time share condominium or retirement home lot. Palmer said you would think people would be wise to these kinds of offer by now, but it is still going on using different twists to put a fresh face on the scam.

Palmer said that unless someone has very strong sales resistance and can keep their credit card in the wallet, it isn’t wise to accept one of the free trip offers. Resisting sales pressure can be very uncomfortable. Palmer said he went on one such trip, and found that it wasn’t difficult to say “no” and that the sales people were still pleasant after being turned down. But he has received numerous complaints from people who reported back very unpleasant experiences.

Sometimes people will sign a contract just to get the sales person off their back with the intention of later cancelling the contract. But the contracts, which are usually written to greatly favor the company and not the consumer, are enforceable. Many subject the signer to long-term payments.

“Don’t think you can sign the contract just to get the trip and cancel later,” Palmer said. “You can’t do that. It is a valid contract. Most of those are very long contracts and you are obligated. The people that are promoting them make a lot of promises that they are going to add this and that. Then if they don’t sell enough, they can’t fulfill the contract.”

Because of casinos, the Mississippi Gulf Coast is now one of the top motor home destinations in the U.S. Consequently, there are a lot of promotions in Mississippi for motor home campsites. The contracts are almost always one-sided contracts and do not include provisions for the signer to cancel the contract if the company doesn’t fulfill its promises. Palmer advises that consumers make sure there is a cancellation provision to prevent being locked into a long-term contract that turns out to be a bad deal.

“We have seen people who have paid on them for years and never used them,” Palmer said. “They were high pressured to sign a contract. A lot of people lose money this way. You’re talking about senior citizens that have no way of replacing that money. That’s the tragic thing. If a younger person loses $5,000 to $6,000, they have time to recoup the loss. If they are in their late 60s to 70s and lose that much money, they have no way to replace that because they are on a fixed income. That’s why people need to be extremely careful when looking at campgrounds offers, time shares and other promotions. If it is a good deal, it will be a good deal tomorrow. So sleep on it before signing a contract.”

The Mississippi Better Business Bureau can be reached at 1-800-955-5100.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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