SALT LAKE CITY — When the weather warms and families come out to play, they're not the only ones gearing up for a great summer vacation. Scammers slither out in force and they have some pretty incredible ways of separating would-be vacationers from their money and ruining plans.
The Deseret News has combed the web to find the scams that readers are most likely to encounter. There are also some "iffy" practices, whether or not they are actual scams. But be alert and summer play time will be a lot more enjoyable. These suggestions are taken from the Federal Trade Commission, The Better Business Bureau, Experian and others reliable sources:
• Avoid or at least be cautious with "discount travel" companies and offers from third-party companies. Some push consumers to be impulsive, then take a credit card or debit card number and may either not provide the level of service promised or not come through with service at all. If you're not familiar with a company, look for reviews, warnings and other information, or vet them with a consumer protection source like the Better Business Bureau. Try a web search of the company's name and the word "scam" to see if anything interesting or disturbing appears.
• "Free" vacations offers are quite apt to be a money-dropping illusion. If you're asked to pay a big fee up front or provide your credit card number, it isn't really free, is it? Keep your credit card digits to yourself in this case.
• The FTC says if you get cold-called with what seems like a good offer, check with the attorney general's office in the company's home state and with local consumer protection agencies. Google them, too. If they won't wait for you to check them out, you don't want to do business with them.
• The FTC says a travel club that pressures you to sign up "right now" or miss out is one you should walk away from right now. "Travel clubs often have high membership fees and limited choice of destinations or travel dates."
• Responding to robocalls that kick off vacation planning are a bad idea — and "almost always illegal if you haven't given the company written permission to call," says the FTC.
• The U.S. Department of Transportation lists approved public chartered flights. Look it up. Also, check the charter's reputation with local travel agents or ask the American Society of Travel Agents. Read online reviews from another source. Again, check before you pay. If the charter doesn't like your delay, tough.
• Phishers are everywhere. One scam involves calling or emailing with the good news that you've won airline points. You need only verify your eligibility by offering personal information or a credit card number. Says BBB, "If you do provide the requested information, no additional points will be rewarded, you will lose money and be at risk for identity theft."
Thousands of travelers use Airbnb with great results, but some rental services don't deliver as advertised. Those services typically offer great discounted rates on beautifully portrayed (in word or photo) properties, and the "owner" insists on immediate down payment, probably by bank wire. Says Experian, the traveler finds the "property in a deteriorated state, or they find the property is owned by someone else and isn't available for rent at all." It's a good idea to look up reviews on a property, though that's not a guarantee you won't get burned.
To address this problem, Airbnb holds payment until after the renter checks in. And HomeAway has secure payments and guaranteed refunds. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports says to never pay for your vacation housing by wiring money or with money orders or cashier checks. They lack adequate consumer protection.
• The Better Business Bureau notes how easy it is to copy photos online, so be aware what you see may not be what you get. Put the address of a hotel or rental property in Google Maps and see what the property at that address actually looks like and how it compares to the picture that made you swoon. The person on the other side of the transaction can wait until you do that.
• Be leery of travel-booking sites that bundle airfare with hotels and offer you two prices for hotels, one which you can cancel and the other discounted but non-refundable. In some cases, it works like this: As you're ready to pay, you're told to call and talk to an agent to verify everything. The agent "runs the purchase" and tells you, sadly, that the cost of airfare, which was not fixed, went up. When you decide to cancel, she notes that she can cancel the airfare portion, but you are on the hook for the hotel cost because you selected the cheaper, non-refundable hotel rate and both transactions processed together. The dilemma then is whether to pay the higher airfare rate you would not have accepted when choosing the package or walk away from a hotel you paid for but you'll never see.
• And once you have settled into your place, don't let your guard down. If someone slips a menu under your hotel door, ask the hotel if it's legit. Fakers happily answer your call, take your order, gather your credit card information and leave you with nothing but a bad taste in your mouth.
• If you travel abroad, take time to know the currency exchange rate for the dollar and don't make the exchange just anywhere. Some "street-based storefront currency exchanges" charge a higher rate, figuring foreign travelers won't know the actual rate. Experian says to use only commercial or government banks and financial institution currency exchanges or accredited currency exchange stores.
• Don't be diverted from official taxi stands at airports and other transportation hubs. In France, for example, recently, a family was met by a "transportation official" at the entry point to the taxi line at an airport and was sent to a different door to get the cab itself. Thinking it was routine, they went — to find themselves a short time later charged $200 for a $50 fixed-rate cab ride, with no way to fight back because they hopped in that cab voluntarily. That reportedly happens in multiple countries, so go through the designated door and find the correct line, then stay in it.
• The BBB warns of a fake same-name bus service in Vietnam, where scammers use legitimate tour bus company names to defraud travelers. The result is poor or nonexistent service and money lost. You can also end up pressured to use a hotel with which the fraudsters have partnered.
• In some big cities, someone on the street may hand you a "free" CD or a flower, then loudly demand that you pay for it. In other countries, you may be given a different "free" trinket, but the scam is pretty similar.
Some more advice:4 comments on this story
Don't ever wire money or use a prepaid debit card to prepay a vacation. The experts warn you will probably get nothing for your money.
Watch for hidden fees. Always ask about mandatory resort fees, for instance, which may be assessed when you arrive and which can raise the cost of a hotel room considerably. One protection is to carefully read the fine print before you book.
Get all the details in writing, including not just those of the vacation, but the details of how to cancel, get a refund, what happens if there's a serious weather issue or you can't go because your appendix ruptured, etc.