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Stay safe, scam-free at the Winter Games

The 2010 Winter Games don’t officially begin until February 12th, but the Olympics-related scams are already well underway.
Image: Olympic Venues Whistler Village
Skiers descend to the main village in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.Bonny Makarewicz / EPA

The parents of Team USA bobsledder Steve Mesler had it all figured out.

Through an Internet contact, they paid $8,000 to rent a condo at Whistler. The plan was to watch their son compete in the Games, but it ends up the person who took their money doesn't have any property to rent.

Police say the same scam artist bilked two women out of $2,500 wired as a down payment on a rental property in Vancouver.

The 2010 Winter Games don’t officially begin until February 12th, but the Olympics-related scams are already well underway.

“This sort of thing happened during the Olympics in Beijing and in Salt Lake City,” said Mark Fernandes of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) serving Mainland British Columbia.

And it’s not just accommodations and travel packages. “We expect there to be a rise in fraud relating to counterfeit tickets and bogus Olympics souvenirs and collectibles too.” Fernandes said. That’s why the BBB is joining law enforcement, tourism agencies and consumer protection groups in urging anyone heading to the Olympics to do their homework and follow some common-sense safety rules.

See the Games — the real ones
If you haven’t bought tickets yet, don’t give up. U.S. residents can still find entry for some events through the authorized U.S. ticket reseller CoSport and through official ticket auctions and the fan-to-fan marketplace set up by the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). Tickets may not be cheap, but you will know they are official.

Tickets available through Web sites such as Craigslist and eBay may look legitimate and have all the correct markings, but you may learn otherwise once you try to get into an Olympics venue. “Although we’d hate to do it,” said VANOC’s Caley Denton, “we’d have to turn you away.”

If you do decide to buy tickets online, BBB suggests you at least ask to see a receipt or the paperwork showing where the tickets came from. If the seller says tickets were originally purchased from VANOC or CoSport, have the seller log onto his or her account and print out a proof of purchase.

People also must be wary of buying tickets for events that don’t exist. BBB’s Fernandes said a popular scam is to sell tickets with incorrect dates and venues. “So check the schedule and make sure you know what you’re buying,” he said.

Secure souvenirs
The same advice goes for souvenirs and collectibles. Officially-licensed Vancouver 2010 merchandise will have a tag with a specially designed hologram on it as proof that the item is authentic. But plenty of fake, unofficial, counterfeit and unlicensed items will surely show up for sale online and in town.

The B.C. city, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and its surrounding areas offer visitors culture, cuisine and class.

If you want to take home collectible items that may someday increase in value, both VANOC and the BBB suggest that in addition to buying something with an official hologram tag, you research the value of the memorabilia you’re buying and purchase your items from authorized stores and kiosks.

If you’re buying anything online, use a credit card so you have the option of a chargeback.

Sleep tight
If you’ve already booked a hotel, condo, bed & breakfast or some other type of accommodation, it’s essential to confirm your reservations before leaving home.

Still looking for a place to stay? Begin your search with the Games’ official Destination Planner, which lists properly-licensed hotels, B&Bs, private homes and even cabins available on cruise ships.

If you book through a travel agent or a third party wholesaler, be sure to ask if they are licensed. “Even if they tell you they’re licensed,” said Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith of Consumer Protection BC, “do your own check on our web site. If you’ve booked with a licensed vendor and do not receive the travel services you paid for, you may be eligible for reimbursement under British Columbia’s Travel Assurance Fund.”

If you decide instead to try looking through online classified ads for apartment and home rentals, keep in mind that the city of Vancouver (and some surrounding municipalities) has issued temporary licenses allowing local homeowners to rent out their homes during the Olympics. “The legitimate ones are those that looked into this and got the license,” Fernandes said. Beyond that, he suggests you walk away from a rental if the price is suspiciously low; if the supplier doesn’t offer a contract or a chance to inspect the home or and if you can’t pay with credit card but are instead required to send a hefty deposit through a wire transfer service such as Western Union or MoneyGram.

(The bobsledder’s parents could have used that advice. The good news? They’ll still get to cheer for their son on at the Olympics: a family that learned about the Mesler’s misfortune is loaning them a house in Whistler — for free.)

Not everyone who gets scammed can count on publicity and the kindness of strangers to make things right, so make sure you do your homework.

Stay out of jail
If you have real tickets a real place to stay, you can focus on having a great time at the 2010 Games. However, you’ll still need to pay attention to personal safety. “Remain aware of your surroundings at all times,” said Megan Wolfram of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, “especially when traveling in crowds, which provide an ideal feeding ground for pickpockets and other petty thieves.”

A prime venue for pickpockets may be the Vancouver public transit system, where ridership is expected to balloon from 800,000 daily riders to more than 1 million, Sgt. Tom Seaman of the Transit Police Service said.

“It’s not just world-class athletes that will be coming to the Olympics,” Seaman said. “World-class pickpockets will be coming too, so we’re asking people to be alert and aware and to protect their belongings.”

Transit police will have an increased presence throughout the bus and SkyTrain system and will be handing out thousands of wallet-sized cards with tips on how to stay protected.

Government officials have also made special plans for helping out foreign visitors who end up involved in criminal incidents such as impaired driving, simple assault or other offenses that are categorized as minor crimes. During the Games, special “tourist courts” will be set up to fast-track out-of-town visitors through the system.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to and authors the . You can follow her on .