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Try to avoid these travel scams

Each year brings fresh tales of people traveling thousands of miles to attend an event only to discover that they didn’t exactly get what they paid for — if getting anything at all.
/ Source: Forbes

Looking forward to cheering on your favorite college basketball team? Better check your itinerary before you head out the door.

That's because entertainment and sports events are a natural attraction for scam artists. Anyone is a potential victim, but out-of-towners are especially vulnerable. Each year brings fresh tales of people traveling thousands of miles to attend an event only to discover that their package tour didn't include tickets or that the tickets they paid for by sending cash or money orders never really existed.

Big-time concert tours, including Elton John and U2, and headline sporting events such as the NCAA Final Four and the Rose Bowl have been targeted in recent years by scammers offering unbelievable deals on tickets to anyone naive enough to send them the money upfront.

The Super Bowl used to be rich soil for scammers. Unscrupulous travel agents accepted thousands of dollars for packages that included flights and hotels but no tickets to the event. The U.S. Department of Transportation came down on Super Bowl scammers with new regulations and tough enforcement. But the specter of getting ripped off still looms — the local media in both Pittsburgh and Arizona issued travel package warnings last year for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

"You want to know what you are buying," says Tim Kelly, team leader for Aviation Consumer Protection in the Aviation Enforcement Office at the U.S. Department of Transportation. If the travel package is supposed to include admission tickets to the event you are attending, Kelly's advice is to "ask the operator at exactly what stage in the process will I receive physical game tickets or event admission. Do everything you can to get the tickets in hand before you leave home." Kelly also recommends paying with a credit card rather than cash or money order because of the built-in refunds that most card companies offer if goods or services are not delivered.

Counterfeit merchandise is another travel scam, especially for anyone traveling to Asia, the source of many bogus goods. There was a time when a fake Rolex was the height of Third World travel chic. Today's knockoffs — specifically fake medications — can be downright deadly.

Nobody's going to get killed by a counterfeit handbag, says Caroline Joiner, executive director of the Global Intellectual Property Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "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 (with fake luxury branding) that contain harmful amounts of bacteria.

"I've seen things like fake diabetic testing strips, surgical mesh for repairing abdominal walls during surgery," she says, "and even an entire Ferrari that was counterfeit."

Financial follies
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.

"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 travel writer Robert Reid, author of the Lonely Planet guides to the Trans-Siberian Railway, Central America and Myanmar. Someone "rushes by you and drops a wad of dollars — could be more than a thousand —and another [one] steps in and picks it up, offering to share it with you. If you take the offer, the other [one] will track you down and demand all of the money."

Another frequent scam is the hotel that doesn't live up to what's advertised. Beach hotels that are nowhere near the sand is one of the more common tricks. But one that's often overlooked — much to the detriment of air travelers — are "airport hotels" that are nowhere near the actual airport.

Every city has them, but some examples are more egregious than others. The Ramada Inn Miami Airport North is actually seven miles from Miami International. The Country Inn & Suites at Denver International Airport is nine miles from the field. The Hampton Suites LAX Van Nuys is near an airport all right — a general aviation field in the San Fernando Valley with the code VNY. The real LAX is 18 miles due south, a drive that often takes more than an hour in freeway traffic.

"My advice is do your research," says Brooke Ferencsik, senior manager of media relations for TripAdvisor. "The more educated you are about a given hotel, the better off you're going to be."

Hotel parking valets are sometimes another menace, especially those tempted to steal valuables from cars in their charge. You also have to be careful about where they park your car. Drivers automatically assume their vehicles will be moved into the hotel lot. But in the case of smaller hotels, they may not even have lots. Your car could get parked on the street. And if the meter runs out or the vehicle gets towed from a red zone, the owner is stuck with the ticket, not the valet or hotel.

"We like to think that hotels and other organizations with a reputation screen their valets carefully," says Joanne Helperin, senior features editor at But while researching an article on valets, Helperin discovered there is very little consistency when it comes to screening the people who park cars for hotels, restaurants and other establishments. "Some people require a background check," she says, "and some require nothing at all."

Helperin advises people not to leave valuables in their car. "If you have to leave something in the car, leave it in the trunk covered or carry it with you," she says. And if something should go missing? Don't hesitate to complain no matter what the blurb on the back of your valet ticket says about liability. "If something is taken from your car or damaged they are still liable. Don't let them point to the back of the ticket and say it's not their problem. It is their problem. It's very important that you file an incident report and make the hotel management aware of it. As with everything else, documentation is the key."

Airports aren’t immune
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 cellphone from one of those ubiquitous plastic bins. But there are thieves, working solo or in tandem, who make a living off airports. They can be poised behind you in the TSA line and snatch items from your carry-on as you are going through the metal detector. Or they can be in front of you: One member of the team takes what seems like forever to get through the scanner while his or her partner walks away with your laptop that has already gone through the X-ray machine.

There have been several well-publicized cases over the past few years in which victims were able to remotely activate the camera on their stolen laptops and identify the culprits.

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," says Lott. "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."