(CBS) It's estimated that 41 million Americans will hit the road, rail and sky during the upcoming holiday season.
But with the cost of travel on the rise -- especially airfares - passengers are easy prey for a host of scams -- cheap offers hard to pass up, but too good to be true.
On "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," CBSNews Travel Editor Peter Greenberg identified several such scams, and shared pointers on how to keep from falling prey to the crooks.
'Tis, Greenberg observes, the season for holiday scams. People are in a giving mood and, sadly, there are some others out there in a dedicated -- taking mood.
According to Greenberg:
Not surprisingly, many of the scams are online.
Some seem legitimate. But there are some warning signs. For example, you want to travel to Europe and a travel site offers you a hotel or apartment rental at a great price in a city you want to go to. It seems perfect, except you can't pay with a credit card. They want a bank or wire transfer. DON'T do it. It's a scam.
Or you get an e-mail that says you've won a free hotel stay in the Bahamas. There's an 800 number to call to "collect" your prize. But when you call, you're told that the agency handling the "winners" also has to book your air travel to the island. Before you know it, your "prize" just cost you $1,600 or $2,000 in airfare, and the hotel where you're staying is nowhere near the beach and, in some cases, you're then subjected to a draconian timeshare presentation.
Then there are breaking news-related travel scams. Last April, when the volcano erupted in Iceland, thousands of travelers were stranded, which became an opportunity for scammers. When many travelers returned home, they found an email offering "compensation" from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. All they had to do was provide some personal details, including their passport information and credit card details, so money could be deposited into their account. There is no such entity as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and any time you are asked to provide credit card details to receive something, there's an overwhelming chance it's a scam.
Also, during the holidays, you can often be targeted using familiar e-mail addresses of your friends. It's happened to me, when I received an e-mail purporting to be from friends saying they were in Barcelona and had had their wallet stolen and that they're in a hotel, unable to pay their bill. This is a travel scam that uses details taken from social networking sites (such as Facebook) to send phony distress e-mails to family and friends. And of course, these e-ails ask that money be wired or transferred..
And as the holiday season approaches, let's not forget football scams! Each year at this time, lots of people get duped by travel scams related to big-ticket sporting events. College bowl games are a particular vehicle of the travel scammers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation usually issues an alert around Super Bowl season that not all tour packages include tickets to the game. The Better Business Bureau issues similar alerts, advising the public to exercise caution when purchasing game tickets.
Let's say you receive letter or e-mail, or see an ad selling a "Super Bowl tour package" or "Olympic travel package." But all you're getting is airfare and a hotel room. Guess where you get to watch the event? From your hotel room!
The Department of Transportation's Truth in Ticketing rule came in 1994, after hundreds of Wisconsin fans were ripped off at the Rose Bowl. They paid for their trip and hotel rooms, but the "package" never included game tickets. The rule requires travel promoters who advertise Super Bowl packages that include tickets have either have the tickets in hand or a written contract to receive them. If a travel operator sells a package that includes game tickets and then fails to provide them, the customer is entitled to a full refund, including airfare and hotel.
In 1997, more than 80 Patriots fans were left empty-handed in New Orleans when several travel companies failed to provide tickets as promised. Attorney General Reilly later sued the company and required them to pay partial restitution to consumers.
In 2008, hundreds of people -- fans, relatives and friends of athletes -- paid nearly $50,000 for non-existent tickets to the Beijing Olympics.
This past year, FIFA really cracked down, requiring spectators to pick up event tickets in South Africa, rather than receiving them through the mail. In addition, only three FIFA-authorized companies could sell tickets in the United States: Great Atlantic Travel, Cartan Tours and Destination Southern Africa.
Tickets for the London Olympics in 2012 will go on sale in March 2011. U.S. residents will be able to purchase tickets and hospitality packages through the National Olympic Committee or through an Authorized Ticket Reseller (ATR). Register your interest at here to be alerted as to which agencies will be authorized.
Avoiding Travel Scams -- Getting a Good Deal Without Getting Ripped Off
Since we're in the travel season, it seemed like a good time to focus on avoiding travel scams.
If you've been working too hard, the thought of a free (or ultra-inexpensive) vacation might sound pretty appealing -- and scammers know that.
Travel scams are becoming much more common, and potential travelers need to become more wary.
Here are ten things you really need to know to avoid getting taken by travel scams:
1. If you are offered a travel deal by email, it's almost certainly a scam. Just about all bulk email travel deals (or free vacations) are scams. If you are offered the travel deal by phone, be very skeptical. If you're unfamiliar with the company, get its name, address, and local telephone number. Check their track record if you can. (Unless you can find a legitimate local or regional office for the company, it's probably bogus.)
2. "If it sounds too good to be true..." Wouldn't we all love to believe that we just won an all-expense-paid trip to the Baha or a weekend at Disneyland? Listen for the details -- or read the 'fine print.' In many travel scams, your airfare may be free, but there could be a clause in the contract that says you must stay in particular accommodations -- which turn out to be outrageously expensive.
Another type of 'too good to be true' pitch is winning a contest or lottery. If the agent claims you've won a contest, get more details. Public contests and lotteries have rules and regulations -- and you normally have to 'enter' to win.
If you didn't enter, you didn't win anything. You'll just be asked to pay lots of fees. Don't -- it's a scam. If you've won a legitimate contest or lottery, it shouldn't cost you anything to get your winnings or prize.
3. Never give your credit card number over the phone unless you made the phone call and you know that you're dealing with a reputable company. And you should never have to disclose any other personal details, like your checking account or social security number.
4. If you think you are interested in the offer, always ask what's NOT included: 'service charges,' 'processing fees,' and taxes are typically added on after the fact -- and you'll be expected to pay for them. Ask for specific details, too. Many travel scams are based on really vague information -- for example, they'll use phrases like 'major airline' without naming it.
5. Know that you can only dispute credit card charges within 60 days of acquiring them. So while it's a good idea to pay with your credit card (so that you can dispute the charge if it turns out you've been scammed), be wary of travel deals in which the 'availability' is more than 60 days away.
6. Never dial a 900 number to reach a travel agency or club. No legitimate company requires you to pay for a 900 call to phone their customer service desk.
Also, beware of calling numbers with 809, 758, or 664 area codes. Many phone numbers seem ordinary, but are actually like unregulated 900 numbers located in the Caribbean -- and you could be charged exorbitant per minute rates.
7. Make sure you get copies of everything -- for example, your receipts, your itinerary, and the company's cancellation and refund policies.
8. Don't give in to high pressure tactics that perpetrators of travel scams use to push you into making rash decisions. They may use lines like, "This offer expires at midnight" or "This is the last day that we'll be making this offer."
This doesn't give you time to check into the background of the company making the offer, and they know it.
If it's such a great deal, why should they pressure you to decide without checking it out?
9. Don't ever make a payment before you receive all the information -- or even worse, some travel scams require you to pay to get the information.
Legitimate travel businesses will make sure you have all the details before you have to pay for anything.
10. Ask for references -- and contact them. Then be wary of references who simply seem to be parroting everything the travel company has told you.
These tips should keep you from being taken by travel scams in the future. If you think you may have already been scammed in the past, your state Consumer Dept. or Attorney General may be able to help.