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By: Dave Gordon

Now that winter is upon us, many families start planning their winter vacation get away – a time when, free of worry, they can finally take a load off, and recharge. Unfortunately, it’s also the time of year when scam artists (as if what they do is an ‘art’) come out in full force, preying upon innocent tourists, who may not realize they are victims of rip-offs until it’s too late.

You will likely begin planning for your trip by looking for the best airline deals. Sadly, that might be the first place you get scammed. Not exactly a great start to the perfect vacation….

Trust your gut: Beware of online sales that seem too good to be true, especially from so-called “discount rate” websites. Don’t be like one person interviewed for this article, who believed that she was hoodwinked by a travel website that promised to find her the lowest fares.

In concordance with what appeared to be a routine purchase, the site warned that there would be no refunds, no exchanges, no transferable tickets, and no changes possible. The customer clicked “yes” and moved on to the next page.

Then the customer was asked whether they might want to pay less, by broadening the search to include stopovers and plane transfers that could mean up to six hours between flights. Again, the customer clicked “yes,” and moved on to the next page.

Payment was processed, and the site spat out a return ticket for the requested travel days – but there was just one problem. The agreed-upon stopover would land precisely fifteen minutes between flights – in a different terminal altogether.

What if the initial plane was late? Wouldn’t it take more than fifteen minutes to disembark from the first plane? How would she get to the other terminal before the second plane took off? Those were the questions the customer was now infuriatingly asking herself.

Without a doubt, she’d be stuck at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with no way to make it to St. Louis. So she did what anyone might do in her situation; she wrote an email of complaint to the company to rectify the problem. Unfortunately, in a twelve-line letter, “customer service,” curtly reminded her that she did, after all, agree that there would be no refunds, no exchange and no changes. There was nothing they could do about it now.

She wrote another email, insisting that her ticket was unusable, but another version of the same letter was issued. Taking it a step further, she complained to MasterCard, through which the purchase was made. The credit card company agreed that the “economic contract” she’d signed with them was built upon the concept that they’d always sell her a usable product. Her flight en route to
St. Louis was null and void if she wouldn’t be able to follow through with her plans.

Luckily, she received a full refund from MasterCard. But the service agent there had sobering words for her. Apparently, she was one among many who had been bamboozled by the same company by way of problems just like this. She hadn’t been the only one to demand a refund for an unusable ticket.

Admirably, this customer persisted in the quest to get her money back, despite getting rebuffed by two letters from the website. One can only wonder how many people never bothered to report the scam to the credit card company, deterred by the same correspondence.

As for the website itself – those who ran it may have been counting on their “no exchanges, no refunds policy” to scare away any complaints. Perhaps they thought frustrated customers might shrug, believe issues like this were a freak occurrence and purchase the other part of their ticket elsewhere. The seat for the second leg of the journey could then be resold to another customer, and then another customer, as the algorithm of the website endlessly sold off the same stopover seats, as programmed. As shady as it sounds, companies like these dodge the legal bullet by providing just enough full tickets to look legitimate, and few enough “errors” to make it look like a blunder. Then they simply hope that the number of customers who fall for the scam far outnumber those who report it.

The truth of the matter is, any place of business can hoodwink a customer, and hotels are no different. According to an Economist article from June 17, 2016, online reviews of hotels are “rarely honest.” The article urges readers to ask: “Is the person writing the review who he says he is, and not the owner of the hotel boosting its rating?”

Keep in mind, any business – and that includes hotels and airlines – can boost their profiles by paying to be at the top of Google searches. They can also pay bloggers to insert glowing reviews of their establishments. Finally, companies can pay aggregator sites – websites dedicated to listing accommodations, among other amenities – to place them on the top end of their list, or at least within the first few clicks. Those with little time, patience or motivation will be quick to jump to the links that first catch their eye.

Remember, an aggregator site may not necessarily be run by a kind-hearted soul with time on their hands, eager to tell you about some of the wonderful hotels in their city. Rather, it may simply be an advertorial site, where all content is approved and fine-tuned by the company paying for it.

Watch out for shady discount coupons, too. The naïve tourist, believing they’ve scored a deal, might visit the place of business only to find out there are invisible asterisks to the “special.”

Whether the coupon is handed out on a street corner, or found in a newspaper, magazine or tourist brochure, it’s best to call the company to find out what the “catch” is, before giving them your business.

One anonymous hotelier conceded that there is hidden fine print underneath a discount coupon of ten percent that was placed in a regularly published tourist guide of Los Angeles. The vaguely worded “based on availability,” written in tiny lettering at the bottom of the ad, is rarely seen by excited customers. And if it is seen, it’s misunderstood or inadvertently forgotten. The phrase basically means that the concierge can choose at his own discretion when to grant the discount (i.e.: almost never).

Though they’ve been hoodwinked, once the tourists are at the door, luggage in tow, after a long drive or long flight, they invariably shrug, too fatigued to go elsewhere. Instead, they cut their losses and check in. Few indulge in any quibble over the twenty dollars they may have saved – just as the hotel had counted on.

Investigative journalist Conor Woodman is no stranger to scams – he’s seen these and much worse take place. Recently, he spent five months in ten major cities, going undercover to film scam artists for National Geographic Channel’s Scam City show. With hidden cameras, he caught garden-variety street criminals red handed, store proprietors trying to pull a fast one, and a myriad of other cheats. His findings cement one of the obvious, but oft forgotten rules for a tourist: Hold your purse tight to your body, or tuck your wallet deep into your front pocket, to minimize theft. Don’t, for one second, take your eyes off of your belongings.

Looking for a guided tour of your destination city? Best to leave it to the experts, and not be taken in by someone advertising himself on a street sign, no matter how professional it looks. As Woodman notes, in Rome, many of the tour operators overcharge ridiculously, and fake their way through a “history” lesson that Google could have done better.

A similar scam happens in Israel, where the tour guide, usually a local Arab, will tell the tourist a certain (otherwise reasonable) price for a walking tour. At the end of the tour, the guide will insist that the tourist pony up a “tip” that’s usually much larger than the initially agreed-upon tour fee – to take back the otherwise lost tourist back to where they started.

Like tour guides, cab drivers have their own way of stealing from tourists. In his documentary series, Woodman showed a Rio de Janeiro taxi driver using a quick-switch slight of hand to try to convince the passenger that they paid a smaller currency denomination, and still owed more for the ride. According to the driver – who later fessed up when caught by the hidden camera – nine out of ten dumbfounded passengers fall for the trick, believing they inadvertently gave the cab driver the wrong bill. Of course, this trick isn’t confined to Rio. Tourists should always count their change, and examine it carefully to make sure that it matches the amount they are due back, to avoid any counterfeit schemes.

And finally, there’s the scam that happens when you’re not even around, while you’re 25,000 feet up in the air or while you’re checking into your hotel room. It happens because criminals have been tipped off that you’re on vacation for a long period of time. They see an empty, car-less driveway, piled up newspapers on the porch, an uncut lawn, a stacked mailbox, and house lights turned off. Safeguard yourself by making sure these items aren’t overlooked. Have a friend or relative visit your home each day to deter break-ins. Because even though you may enjoy an incident-free vacation in which you build a lifetime of memories, you do not want to return home regretting the trip.