Action News Alert: Summer Travel Scams

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Cleveland, OH (WOIO) - Planning on travelling this summer. We've got some new scams to tell you about in a 19 Action News Consumer Alert!

The con artists have been waiting for us all winter and they come out of hiding in droves, during the summer travel season.

Every year they come up with something new.

We're not talking about the pick pockets or cabbies that take you the long way to your destination. That's old school.

These guys are getting crafty at stealing your money and ruining your hard earned vacation.

10 New Travel Scam Alerts for the Upcoming Vacation Season

Something old, something new: Here's the lowdown on the most common travel scam tricks awaiting the unwary traveler: Internet ScambustersTM #339

1. Fake car park attendants. Previously prevalent in Italy, this travel scam now pops up in many big European cities, where parking can be notoriously difficult.

The trick can take many forms. You may just drive onto a piece of wasteland where other cars are parked or you may enter a big, official parking lot.

Either way, a "parking attendant" approaches you and hands you an official looking ticket, usually demanding a fairly exorbitant fee. You're tired, frustrated and there's a language problem, so you just hand over the cash.

Later, you discover you're either parked illegally or there's another fee to pay -- this time, the real one.

Action: You put yourself at risk if you don't know who owns the place where you're parking or what the real arrangements are for payment. Check them out the best you can. You can ask the attendant to show credentials -- but avoid confrontation.

2. Phony travel guides. You may have seen this trick in the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

At a famous venue, a local offers to show you around for a fee. This may be a fairly obvious and transparent ruse, where he's just trying to make a quick buck.

But some scammers pose as agents for official guides, taking your money and telling you to wait at a particular spot. Of course, they never return and there's no official guide.

Action: Guidebooks and online sites will tell you the arrangements for official, paid tours.

3. Bad cola, bad karma. In the Indian subcontinent, be wary of drinking unknown beverages when you opt for a familiar Pepsi or Coca-Cola labeled bottle at a roadside cafe, known as a "dhaba."

What you might get is a carbonated drink that looks (and even tastes) quite like the genuine item. But the only genuine things are the bottle and the cap.

The drinks are made by gangs of street-wise youngsters, who collect thousands of used bottles and caps.

The drinks are usually mixed and bottled in unsanitary conditions in derelict buildings. Drinking them is definitely unsafe.

Action: Even though many dhabas sell genuine colas, you may want to play safe by not purchasing from them and buy drinks at your hotel.

4. Rental car repair rip-off. In this world travel scam, most common in Eastern Europe, you return your rental car, but when the attendant tries to move it, it won't restart.

They make up a story about what's wrong with it (usually, they've just flooded the carburetor) and blame you. The "cost" of putting things right is often the same as any security deposit you might have paid in advance.

If you didn't pay a deposit, they demand money now and may even try to confiscate your luggage until you hand over the money. They're banking on you being in a hurry, and become aggressive if you refuse to pay.

Action: Return your car with plenty of time to spare and ask to see the manager or owner if there's a problem. Ideally, though, rent your car from a reputable-name agency with whom you can dispute the issue when you get back home.

5. Downgrading your hotel. This is an old travel scam that's suddenly reappeared in the past year.

You check in at your hotel and are dismayed to learn that your room is in another nearby establishment that's usually nowhere near as nice. The practice is called "walking."

Most likely, the hotel has overbooked but it's also possible someone at the hotel is on the take.

Action: Try refusing the switch -- hotels nearly always have empty rooms in reserve. Ask to see the manager or contact whoever made your travel arrangements. If you are prepared to accept the alternative, ask for compensation.

6. Free holiday awards. Although a well known travel scam, we can't miss out mentioning the "you've-won-a-free-vacation" scratch card trick because it's probably the number one scam on many European and Caribbean beaches this year.

There are numerous angles but the scam boils down to two things -- you'll either have to pay a "processing fee" to get your otherwise free vacation, which is really non-existent, or you'll be asked to attend a tedious presentation where they try to sell you timeshares or expensive vacation add-ons with high pressure sales tactics.

Action: Every one of these cards is a winner -- that ought to be enough to tell you what to do, but we'll say it anyway: Treat these the same way you would an email that says you've won a lottery -- trash them.

7. Credit card problems. This is our catch-all for numerous tricks you need to be on the lookout for this year. These are the key ones:

- Try not to let your credit card out of your sight when you're using it in an unfamiliar place. Out of sight, the number and the crucial security code printed on the reverse could be written down.

- Don't be taken in by a trader in a foreign country who offers to bill your card in dollars, thereby saving you a foreign exchange fee from your card issuer. The trader will almost certainly use an extortionate exchange rate and you'll end up out of pocket.

- Check how much your credit card issuer charges for foreign transactions. Some charge nothing, others as much as 3% of the value of the transaction.

8. Don't hit that CashSend button. This is a new one that's cropped up in South Africa and may appear in other parts of the African continent.

ATMs are equipped with a button labeled "CashSend" which enables users to transfer money to other people, even those who don't have a bank account. They can withdraw it from another ATM.

This is a legitimate banking convenience but tricksters apparently can set up a transfer on an ATM before you use it. They then stand behind you and urge you to hit the CashSend button to speed up your withdrawal.

Action: Just don't hit that button!

9. Paying for paper tickets. When you book a flight online, you usually have the option of just using an "e-ticket" (basically a printout of your booking confirmation that you take to the check-in desk) or having an old-fashioned paper ticket mailed to you for an additional fee.

Usually, this is $10, which is what the International Air Transport Association says it costs.

But some unscrupulous travel agents and organizers are charging up to $40 or $50 for this questionable privilege.

Action: Don't take paper. But if you do, make sure you know what the fee is before committing yourself to buy. If the fee is too high, consider taking your business elsewhere.

10. And for fun, we decided to end with a popular urban travel scam legend. Of course, not all travel scam stories are true -- though the people who post them online swear they are.

A very popular one doing the rounds in a big way this year is the kidney theft tale, in which a young traveler has one drink too many at a party to which he's been invited by a stranger.

He passes out and wakes up later in a bath full of water, alongside of which is a cell phone and a note warning him not to move and to call a particular number.

When he does, the person on the other end asks if he has a cut on his back. He checks, and he does. He's told one of his kidneys had been stolen and that an emergency medical team will have to be sent out to save him.

Action: Not true, of course.

1. "I ran outta gas" scam

"Excuse me Sir/Ma'am, my daughter and I were touring [insert name of the place your visiting], and on the way home our car ran out of gas, and we need to get back to [extremely wholesome small town] for my father's funeral. All I need is $40 for gas, and if you give me your address, I promise I'll send it back to you. Oh, and I'm a Christian."

Obviously, if you give this "clean-cut" person your money, you'll never see it again, and we sincerely doubt the cash will be spent on gasoline. ;-)

This is a popular scam in major American cities, especially New York, but one that's easy to avoid. You can simply refuse to give the person money.

But, because many scammers are very convincing actors, you may feel guilty. In that case, do what several colleagues have done: offer to walk to the nearest service station with the person to pay for his "much-needed gasoline." Chances are, he will hem, haw, and then run for the hills.

2. The "Coin Scam"

A "derelict" approaches you at a phone booth, or while you're on your cell phone, showing you a mounted collection of "rare coins." A name and phone number are on the mounted display, as well as an offer of a reward if the coins are ever lost and recovered.

You call the "owner's" number, and the grateful person offers you $500+ to return them to his house. While you're speaking to the "owner," however, the "derelict" starts muttering about spending the coins at a local liquor store or actually tries to put them into a vending machine.

It's hoped you'll pay good money to the "derelict" to give you the coins so you can collect the reward money. Only later (oops) do you discover that the "owner" isn't real and his address is a fake. Oh, and the coins are worthless, too.

This is an easy scam to avoid, because it appeals to greed. Just walk away.

3. Fake Airport Limo Service

There are a number of variations on this scam, which starts when you're approached by a "limo driver" who says he's just gotten off duty and could use some extra money.

In most cases, you'll reach your destination, but the driver will take the "scenic route" -- meaning he'll travel miles out of his way to boost the fare.

A less common, but more frightening situation, is when the limo driver takes you to your hotel (after settling on a flat fee), but then holds your luggage hostage in the trunk. In other words, if you want to see your luggage again, you have to pay extortion money.

This is another travel scam that can be easily avoided: NEVER accept a ride with anyone but a licensed, metered taxi driver. Real taxi drivers have licenses that can be read and reported if any "hanky panky" takes place.

Speaking of taxis ...

4. "Short Changing"

We've based this tip on information from a website sponsored by the popular European travel writer, radio and TV host Rick Steves.

Again, though this travel scam usually occurs in Europe, it could take place anywhere. So be cautious.

You pay your taxi driver what he's owed, based on the meter reading, but he deftly pockets your money and throws a smaller bill on the floor, or on the seat next to him. "Hey, you only game me 5 euros, not 20!" he says. Then you're expected to make up the "difference."

This scam also occurs in (usually smaller) tourist shops, where cashiers claim you gave them smaller denominations than you really did.

Solution: As you hand your dollars, euros, pounds, etc. to the cashiers, announce OUT LOUD what you are giving them, and make sure they confirm that they've just been handed the proper sum of money.

5. The "Gold" Ring

This is a popular scam among "gypsies" who frequent tourist destinations in major European cities such as Rome.

As you're admiring the Basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, you pass a woman with a sleeping child in her arms (sometimes drugged to stay asleep), who suddenly approaches you, announcing that she just found a "gold" ring. Would you buy it, so she can feed her poor starving child? The item could also be a wristwatch, necklace, whatever.

The point is: you want to help this poor woman and get a great deal at the same time. So you buy the trinket for a fraction of its retail value, and -- oops -- learn later that it's a fake.

A more popular -- and less guilt-ridden -- variation on this scam involves the many street vendors enticing you to purchase DEEPLY DISCOUNTED "designer" purses, scarves, watches, etc. in cities from New York to San Francisco.

They are (almost) all FAKES!

Travel Scams -- Here, There and Everywhere

1. Front Desk Credit Card Confusion Scam

Anyone who has tried to see a city in a day and a half or cram 2 days of work into a 12-hour business trip knows what that kind of marathon activity can entail.

Imagine that it's the end of your long day of frenzy, and you're settling in for the evening in your hotel room. You're drifting off to sleep when the phone rings. It's the front desk clerk asking for your help in verifying some information.

The "front desk clerk" (aka scammer) apologizes for the late hour, but explains that at shift change some forms were left unfinished. She needs to confirm that the form she has is yours, and that the information is correct.

She asks if the last four digits of your credit card are 5678. You groggily reach for your wallet and pull out the card. No, you say, those aren't the last four digits.

Hmmm, she responds, seeming perplexed. She then asks if you could just read the card number to her. You're sleepy so you don't pause before responding when she asks for the expiration date as well.

With a joyous Aha, she tells you that she has found your form. She thanks you profusely, apologizes again and assures you that all the information is now straightened out.

You hang up and drift back to sleep, not realizing that you have just been scammed by a con artist.

It might only be when your credit card is declined the next time you use it that you realize you've been scammed.

Action: Never give your card number out over the phone at a hotel. Ask for the name of someone to speak to and tell the caller that you'll come down in the morning to straighten it out. Don't offer to call the desk from your room and then feel safe giving the card number. For all you know, the thief is calling from a temporarily abandoned front-desk station.

2. Taxi Cabs or Scam Mobiles?

Once when leaving the main train station in Rome, Italy, a friend was heading for the Taxi Stand when she looked up to see an incredible line. She estimated that it would be at least a 30-minute wait. Our friend probably sighed, visibly. She was immediately approached by a nicely dressed man who offered her a ride and a bypass of the line by saying, "taxi?"

She could have taken the offer. But fortunately, we had told her about this scam beforehand.

Never take a taxi ride from someone who is not in an official, metered taxi cab. Doing so risks not just your wallet -- but your safety.

Scam artists have been known to pose as taxi drivers and take off with your luggage. They have also taken unsuspecting tourists to a deserted area and then robbed and/or assaulted them.

At the very least, even if you're lucky and avoid violence or theft, you'll still be charged at least 4 or 5 times what the rate should be for the taxi ride.

Any taxi cab should have the car number and company marked on the outside, a registration and driver information card displayed on or near the dashboard, and should either have on display or offer on request a list of charges.

Make yourself familiar with the rate list when you first get into the cab. If possible, make your examination of the rate list obvious. Both these actions will help prevent the driver from getting any "bright" ideas.

If you're not sure about where to catch a taxi or whether or not you were properly charged, ask at your hotel. If you think you were scammed, try to record identifying information about the driver and/or the vehicle so you can report it to the police.

Action: Never accept rides from individuals who don't have licensed, metered taxis.

3. Hotel "Representatives"

This scam is similar to the Taxi scam.

The voices will start as soon as you disembark from the plane, train, boat or bus: "Hotel?" or "Room? You need a room?" will begin floating towards you any time you arrive in a major tourist destination transportation hub.

Much like the taxi cab scam above, be wary of those who approach you offering hotel rooms. These scammers may wear a laminated badge, carry a notebook or even have brochures about their hotels. (Very likely, they made these on their home computer.)

They'll offer you a great rate, showing you the colorful pictures in the brochures, and then offer to take you to the hotel.

Once again, you're in danger of losing your luggage or your wallet, and violence can occur with this scam as well.

Alternatively, once you arrive at the hotel (tired and ready to go to sleep), the hotel clerk will apologetically inform you that the rate promised is magically all filled for the evening -- but they have rooms ready for you at twice the promised rate.

Once you wearily agree and head to the room, your "representative" will be handed a hefty tip by the clerk.

You're best off making your own reservations by phone and confirming rates with a credit card. Make sure you get a confirmation number that you can show upon checking in.

Action: If you arrive in a city without a reservation, avoid these lone representatives. Look for the nearest tourist information office or hit the nearest phone booth with your travel guidebook in hand.

Avoiding Travel Scams -- Getting a Good Deal Without Getting Ripped Off

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.

We've written about the '809 area code scam' extensively -- for more info, click here.

You can check out any area code here before you call it by clicking HERE.

 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.

AAA warns of travel scams


The old adage "if it's too good to be true it probably isn't true" does not always apply to the amazing travel bargains now being offered due to our nation's recession. The trick, however, is how to know which deals are real and which ones are scams.

"Today's travel rates have even the most seasoned travel professionals in awe. For the first time in my career of more than 20 years, I have stopped myself from using the old adage that a deal that seems too good to be true is one which travelers should consider with caution. Now the scammer's so-called deals and the real deals are closer than they have ever been," said Martha Mitchell Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Rates for European cruises, for example, have been especially low this year, according to AAA. While the low rates have been very popular and some ships are sold out, rates as low as $799 per person for a seven night cruise out of Venice (Royal Caribbean Cruise Line) are still available.  Alaska cruises are also on the list of great deals with some prices at $499 per person for a seven night cruise (Holland America), and that includes food and entertainment. "When you can take a high-quality cruise which includes gourmet food and wonderful entertainment for less than $100 per day, you are really getting a fabulous buy for your money," said Meade.

Las Vegas is also on the list, with extremely low rates in the area of $39 per night, for example, at the Riviera Hotel and Casino for mid-week stays. Mexico-bound travelers will see some of the most amazing deals of all, as that country entices tourists with rock-bottom rates in order to encourage them to visit in spite of security and flu outbreak concerns. One all- inclusive property, the Riviera Maya, is now offering a three night stay for $285 per person.

AAA Mid-Atlantic offers the following precautions to avoid becoming the victim of a travel scam:

  • Book only with reputable travel vendors.
    Be cynical about postcard, fax and phone offers that say you've been selected to receive a magnificent vacation, especially if the transaction can only be carried out by telephone.
  • Avoid companies that pressure you for an immediate decision. Be especially wary if you must pay immediately for a trip in advance that doesn't leave for at least 60 days - that's the time limit for disputing credit card charges at many banks.
  • Get your vacation details in writing before you pay. If the vendor gives you an evasive answer when you ask for trip, payment, and/or cancellation details in writing, AAA advises you to beware. This is likely a red flag that something is amiss and travelers are advised to go elsewhere.
  • Always use a credit card to make your purchase. You may be able to dispute the charges with your credit card company if you don't get what you pay for.
  • Never give your credit card over the phone unless YOU have initiated the call.

"Many scam artists offer trips that sound amazing, but they end up having substantial hidden costs or restrictions," said Martha M. Meade, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "It's always best to consult with a reputable travel agent before making your travel plans."

AAA Mid-Atlantic serves nearly 835,000 members in the Commonwealth of Virginia and a total of 3.8 million members in Washington, DC; Maryland; Virginia; Delaware; Pennsylvania; and New Jersey combined. It provides a wide range of automotive, personal insurance, travel, and financial services through its 50-plus retail branches, regional operations centers, and the Internet.

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