By Travel columnist
updated 3/4/2005 6:43:48 PM ET 2005-03-04T23:43:48

Scams are all around us and unfortunately, travel scams tend to be near the top of the heap. It seems that for every legitimate travel offer there is one that isn’t.

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According to the National Fraud Information Center, the average loss to fraud in 2004 was $803 per incident — up from $468 two years before. While travel is not at the top of the fraud list (that is reserved for online auctions), it is number two in frequency of complaints. Be sure to steer clear of the folks who are only out to separate you from your travel money.

Don’t be a victim of these 5 top travel scams.

1. Discount travel clubs
Usually a bad idea. If your travel club is asking for more than a few dollars for membership, they are probably scamming you. They will offer a discounted menu of trips (of course it is discounted — they said so didn’t they?), only available to members. For this membership, you get the privilege of booking the trip, probably a substandard product and a newsletter. They get your money plus the commission paid by the travel supplier. It’s a great asset to anyone’s cash flow. Travel clubs should be geared towards social engagement and any dues or membership paid should be reasonable and cover only the true costs.

2. Become a travel agent
This is a scam that is running rampant now. Once you pay a fee to a company, it will issue “credentials” allowing you access to travel agent freebies and discounts and commissions on selling travel. First off, the days of freebies and discounts are done — trust me, they are few and far between. Secondly, in order to sell travel and be recognized by a supplier, you need to be affiliated with either a travel agency or be registered as an independent seller of travel with either the Cruise Lines International Association or the Airlines Reporting Corporation. Believe me, this is a perfect example of the old axiom, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

3. Deceptive pricing
Know the real price. Know the final price. Look at any major airline ad and you will see their too good to be true fares. The problem is the fine print. The ads are for a one way fare based on round trip purchases. Presto, your cost has doubled. It seems the airlines are more adept at creative pricing than flying their own planes. From frequent flier redemption to unavailable seats, to bogus two-for-one offers, they know all the tricks. But be careful, while the airlines are masters of this scam, they do not have a patent on the practice. Be sure you read all of the fine print before you hand over the credit card or click on the “buy” button.

4. Timeshares
People marketing timeshares are slick. They are not afraid to lie, cheat, or steal to make a sale. Most timeshare offers are made while you are already on vacation and your guard is down, but many are from contest entry forms where you fill out a form while waiting for your Chinese take-out. Very simply, never agree to a meeting or a presentation. Ask that any information be sent to you. Once in a presentation, you have put yourself in physical and fiscal danger. A client of ours just returned from Mexico where he thought he agreed to extend his stay to try out a timeshare. When he returned, he found that his credit card had been charged $37,000 and he was a proud new owner of a timeshare — Spanish contracts tend to be confusing if you are not fluent in the language.

5. Out of business
If you want to make a donation, do it to a charity for Tsunami Aid and not some corrupt or failing business. Cruise lines, tour operators, airlines, and yes, even travel agencies, have all gone under and left the consumer holding the bag.

While life offers no guarantees, you can hedge your bets a little.

Check out the company
Are they members of a professional organization such as the American Society of Travel Agents, Association of Retail Travel Agents, or the Cruise Lines International Association? Do they belong to a local Chamber of Commerce? These are all indicative of someone who is serious about doing business with you.

How long have they been around?
Question the experience and tenure of the employees. Are there any complaints with the Better Business Bureau? Don’t pay with cash or checks. Remember, just because someone says they have the best deal, does not mean it is so. Anyone can open an online store in less than ten minutes for less than $200? It will take less time than that to recoup the investment tenfold.

Do your due diligence
ASTA’s consumer site, TravelSense offers more tips for keeping your travel purchases safe from the con artists. If you suspect you have been a victim of travel fraud, notify ASTA’s consumer affairs office, or call the National Fraud Information Center’s hotline at (800) 876-7060, and check with your local law enforcement agencies to see if they can help you.

Be careful out there. Scams are everywhere and they prey on you when you are least expecting.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail himor visit his Web site.

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