Outsmart the scammers

One of the oldest tricks in the travel scam catalogue is the bait-and-switch. Make sure that what you are paying for is exactly what you’re going to get upon arrival or check-in. And get it in writing.
One of the oldest tricks in the travel scam catalogue is the bait-and-switch. Make sure that what you are paying for is exactly what you’re going to get upon arrival or check-in. And get it in writing.iStockphoto.com
/ Source: Forbes Traveler.com

Writers like to think they’re immune to the scams that plague ordinary travelers. But wandering scribes are just as susceptible to stings and swindles as anyone else. During a trip to England several years ago, I spied an advertisement in one of the London papers promoting a hotel-and-meals package in Yorkshire that looked too good to be true.

Arriving in the old medieval town of York a few days later, I checked into a wonderful city center lodge full of bygone ambience and good cheer. At dinner that evening I promptly announced to the waiter that I was there on the special package and asked how that worked with the meals. With an absolutely straight face he told me I could choose from either side of the menu. Given that the dishes on the right side looked a lot more appetizing than those on the left, I spent the next three days merrily making my way down that side of the meal card.

Then at checkout, I was presented with an enormous (and unexpected) restaurant bill. Turns out the meals on the right side of the menu were not part of my too-good-to-be-true package. And the hotel refused to swallow the charges or admit it was their error. I had fallen victim to the old bait-and-switch, one of the oldest travel scams in the business. Months later — after letters to my credit card company, the British and Yorkshire tourist boards, and the Phoenix-based Best Western organization that marketed the hotel that had ripped me off — I was still without recompense.

Bait-and-switch is one of numerous scams that make travelers wish they had never left home. And the ubiquity of instant communication has made it easier for con artists and dubious travel agents to prey upon those of us who like to move around. Some scams are incredibly sophisticated.

The California Department of Justice recently announced the arrest of Orange County travel agent Ralph Rendon. “The suspect allegedly ripped off dozens of senior citizens who wanted to travel to Cuba for religious and cultural purposes,” says California Attorney General Jerry Brown. The scam targeted Jewish and Greek Orthodox seniors trying to congregate with people of their own faith on the Caribbean island. After the 34 victims forked out five-figure deposits, Rendon announced their trips were being blocked by the Treasury Department and refused to refund their money. According to state investigators, he used the money to lease a brand new Mercedes, pay his rent and hire a divorce attorney.

Selling counterfeit merchandise is another huge travel scam, especially for anyone visiting Asia, the source of so many bogus goods. There was a day in the not-too-distant past when a fake Rolex was the height of Third World travel chic. But nowadays the knockoffs can be downright deadly.

“Sunglasses, handbags, DVDs — every product in every industry is liable to be knocked off these days,” says Caroline Joiner, executive director of the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “I often tell people that if your product isn’t being counterfeited, then you probably have a brand that isn’t worth much.”

Nobody’s going to get killed by a counterfeit handbag, adds Joiner. “But consumers are at risk of buying counterfeit products that pose a real danger.” At the top of her list are knockoff pharmaceuticals cut with everything from harmless filler to motor oil, highway paint and glue. She also cites bogus electronics with faulty wiring or potentially hazardous batteries, as well as shampoo and perfumes that contain harmful amounts of bacteria. “I’ve seen things like fake diabetic testing strips, surgical mesh for repaired abdominal walls during surgery and even an entire Ferrari that was counterfeit.”

There are all kinds of money scams, from hotels that charge exorbitant commissions to change currency to money changers passing you bills or coins that are no longer in circulation. As a young backpacker doing the Eurail tango, I often changed money on the street trying to get a slightly higher exchange rate. During one of those black-market transactions, the fellow who ducked away “for a minute” to convert my dollars into local currency never came back. Needless to say, I started changing in kiosks and banks.

“I was back in Moscow a few years ago and saw with nostalgia they were still trying to pull the ‘wad of money’ trick in Red Square,” says veteran travel scribe Robert Reid, author of the Lonely Planet guides to the Trans-Siberian Railway, Central America and Myanmar. “Some goon rushes by you and drops a wad of dollars—could be more than a thousand — and another goon steps in and picks it up, offering to share it with you. If you take the offer, the other goon will track you down and demand all of the money. I kinda find it cute that they think it can still work — sadly it probably does.”

Another scam I’ve been stung by is the hotel that isn’t quite what it advertised — and sometimes nowhere close. I’ve booked rooms at beach hotels that were nowhere near the beach and airport hotels that were miles away from the terminals. “My advice is, do your research,” says Brooke Ferencsik, senior manager of media relations for the popular Trip Advisor Web site. “The more educated you are about a given hotel, the better off you’re going to be.”

The flipside of that coin, says Ferencsik, is choosing a hotel on the basis of a great location or a snazzy Web site without reading reviews that may paint a much darker picture. Unsuspecting travelers can get scammed into rooms only a few notches above a pig sty, places like the Hotel Carter in New York, which recently topped TripAdvisor’s list of the Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels in America. A manager at the Hotel Carter — who requested anonymity — said, “We know about the list. We’re doing OK. We’re still busy,” adding, “But we get many e-mails saying that it's not fair or not true or something like that.” Then there’s the centrally located Park Hotel in London, which one TripAdvisor reviewer dubbed a “typhoid cubicle.” (The general manager of the hotel could not be reached for comment.)

Despite the phenomenal growth of airport security over the last seven years, getting scammed at the TSA checkpoint is still a distinct possibility. Often it’s just a crime of opportunity — somebody who decides on the spur of the moment to snatch your iPod or cell phone from one of those ubiquitous plastic bins. But there are thieves, working solo or in tandem, who make a living off airports. They stand behind you in the TSA line and snatch items from your carry-on as you're passing through the metal detector. Or, they may be in front — one member of the team takes forever passing through the scanner while his or her partner walks away with your laptop that's already gone through the X-ray machine.

There have been several well-publicized cases over the past year in which victims were able to remotely activate the camera on their stolen laptops and identify the culprits. But you can’t rely on stupid crooks.

Steve Lott, head of North American communications for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests several ways to keep from getting ripped off at airports. “I always recommend keeping an eye on your handbags and carry-ons at all times,” he says. “Don’t go through the metal detector before your bag does. If you require secondary screening, always ask a TSA agent to get your bag from the belt and bring it with you to the screening area. Be vigilant and avoid distraction. And before you leave the TSA screening area, always double-check that your valuables are in place.”

Expensive electronics aren’t the only thing that thieves are after. They can also pocket your identity without you even knowing that it’s been taken. Sifting through items that many travelers leave lying around their hotel rooms — driver’s license, airline tickets, address book, diaries, expense reports or anything else that may contain sensitive personal information — hotel workers and anyone else who gains access to your room can successfully hijack your persona for financial or other means. The simple solution is securing everything with personal information in the room safe or a lockable piece of luggage.

Identity theft also proliferates online. Be wary of using cybercafés or even hotel business centers for commercial transactions involving credit cards, and if you communicate personal financial information via e-mail on a public computer, always verify that you have signed out of your e-mail program before leaving the computer.

One of the least financially damaging scams is one of the most irritating — the infamous resort fee — that extra charge (normally $20 to $30) that some luxury hotels add for the privilege of using things that should be free or that we are unlikely to use. Although no one is sure who invented the resort fee, it’s often associated with Hawaii and its ritzy beach hotels.

“It’s an easy way for hotels to capture extra revenue from a captive audience,” says Alex Salkever, founder and editor of the Hawaiirama travel news and reviews Web site. “Once you get to the front desk, it’s not like you can turn around and leave.” The problem, says Salkever, is hotels that don’t disclose their resort fees ahead during the reservation process. “A few are good deals,” he adds. “One resort offers kids meals for free as part of the resort fee and that strikes me as a bargain. Most, however, are rip-offs.”

Cyberspace is rife with travel scams. Just this past winter, San Diego college students — planning a summer volunteer trip to teach English to orphans in West Africa — bought their tickets online from a discount airfare Web site based in Delaware. They paid online using their credit cards, but never received an e-ticket or electronic itinerary. By the time they got around to asking for a refund, the Web site had completely disappeared and nobody was responding at the travel agency’s telephone number.

“I don’t understand how someone can do something like this to other people,” one of the students lamented to a local television station, especially when the agency knew they were going to be doing volunteer work “and we didn’t have money to throw away.”

Maybe they can no longer fool all of the people all of the time, but savvy scammers know there are still plenty of travelers out there who they can trip up at least part of the time.