With Memorial Day and the summer months coming up, many business people are planning vacations and business-related trips to conventions, seminars and trade shows. So before you pay for your vacation or business trip, you should be aware of vacation and travel-related scams and know how to avoid them.
While most travel agents and tour operators are honest and reliable – and you can check them out with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) – be advised that there are unscrupulous travel agents and crooked telemarketers that will take your money and run.
In two separate cases, one in California and one in New York, two travel scam artists were sentenced last month to prison.
In New York, a travel company owner was sentenced to one year in prison for engaging in a scheme to sell cruise packages to non-profit organizations without booking their trips.
Joseph Ehrenreich pleaded guilty to Scheme to DeFraud in the Second Degree and paid $130,000 in restitution to his victims.
According to the New York Attorney General’s Office, Ehrenreich victimized volunteers, employees and supporters of several non-profit groups.
“This individual took advantage of Western New York charities to line his own pockets,” said Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. “He tricked them, saying they could auction off expensive trips to help their bottom line, but it turns out the trips were bogus, leaving the charities high and dry.”
Ehrenreich offered businesses and charities a program where they could pay to have unlimited access to cruise vouchers. The client organizations would then distribute the vouchers as fundraising tools, marketing incentives or employee rewards.
Ehrenreich would also convince his victims to upgrade their vouchers, which costs them thousands of dollars more. He required his victims to make immediate payment by check or cash to “hold’ the reservations. He would not accept credit card payments.
After he received payment, Ehrenreich issued invoices with phony cruise line confirmations. When his victims called the cruise lines to confirm their reservations they discovered that Ehrenreich never booked any of the cruises.
On the other coast, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced that Delia Socorro Tellez was sentenced to 24 years in prison for scamming more than a dozen victims via lotto and travel scams.
Tellez was convicted of 24 felony counts – four counts of grand theft, eight counts of first-degree residential burglary person present and 12 counts of theft from an elder. The charges involved 15 victims.
In addition to her lotto scams, Tellez, who at one point was an unlicensed travel agent, held meetings at Catholic churches throughout Los Angeles County where she marketed trips to Jerusalem via fliers.
According to the LA County prosecutors, Tellez’s victims paid more than $3,000 per trip. Tellez sent her victims itineraries, the address of a travel agent and then disappeared.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers some good tips below on how to spot and avoid travel scams:
- Verify and clarify. Call to verify your reservations and arrangements. Get the details behind vague promises that you’ll be staying at a “five-star” resort or sailing on a “luxury” cruise ship. When you have the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the airlines, car rental companies, and hotels you’ll be using, confirm all arrangements which each vendor for yourself.
- Put it on paper. Get the details of your vacation in writing. Get a copy of the company’s cancellation and refund policies, and ask “What if…?” Consider whether some form of travel cancellation insurance may be appropriate.
- Use a credit card to purchase your trip. If you don’t get what you paid for, you may be able to dispute the charges with your credit card company. However, don’t give your account number to any business until you’ve verified that the business is reputable.
- Avoid a travel club flub. Ask questions before joining a travel club. Sometimes, a “free trial” membership can result in unauthorized charges on your credit card. Find out what you’ll get for your money and how you can cancel.
- Slow down if you’ve won a “free” vacation. Scam artists may tell you you’ve won a “free” vacation, but then claim to need your credit card number for “verification.” Tell ’em to take a hike. If the promotion is legitimate, you never need to pay for a prize.
While two travel scam artists were sentenced to prison, be advised that there are still many crooks that are looking to cheat you.