Bait and switch


POSTED: Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dawn Musgrove of Alaska and 21 members of her family traveled to Hawaii for a family reunion last December, but an Internet scam cost them $11,000 for a condominium that never materialized.

“;My throat is tight and I still have a knot in my stomach when I talk about it,”; Musgrove said from her home on the Kenai Peninsula. “;It really hurt a lot. We were going to get a water-softening system for our house and a new lawn this summer, but we're still paying off our credit cards because of the extra trip expenses.”;

The misadventure doubled the cost of the Musgroves' carefully planned vacation budget, nearly ruining the family's trip to paradise, she said.

“;We had to book five last-minute hotel rooms at the Holiday Inn and incurred unexpected meal expenses,”; Musgrove said.

While the Musgroves' story is particularly poignant, it is not an anomaly, said Jessica Lani Rich, executive director of the Visitors Aloha Society of Hawaii, a nonprofit dedicated to helping distressed visitors.

“;Crimes against visitors have risen by about 19 percent from the prior year,”; Rich said, “;and we've definitely seen more Internet fraud scams.”;

Thieves and scammers have become more opportunistic, and visitors have become more likely to bargain-hunt in the tightening economy, Rich said. Upfront money scams like the one used on the Musgroves are popular, as are bait-and-switch scams where visitors find that their accommodations do not match the advertised description, she said. Prize trips are another common scam, said Josh Williams, vice president and part owner of the Florida-based travel agency Rooms101.com.

Disaster also can make visitors more vulnerable to fraud or predatory pricing, she said.

After Thomas Sutter's wife of 49 years, Barbara, suffered a stroke on Maui, the family easily could have fallen victim to a travel scam, he said.

“;They flew us over to Oahu, and we had to extend our trip by several weeks,”; Sutter said. “;I was only concerned about my wife's survival. I couldn't really take a lot of time to sort through the travel arrangements.”;

Sutter found himself in an overpriced room in an industrial area, but VASH helped him negotiate a discounted rate at the Miramar Hotel.

“;Our original trip was $3,000, and if VASH had not have helped us, I think it would have been $10,000 easily,”; he said. “;With their help we got the cost down to about $5,000 or $6,000. That really helps when you are on a fixed income.”;

While VASH was able to make a difference for Sutter, not every visitor scam story ends well. The Musgroves have not recouped their cash and have filed complaints with the Honolulu Police Department, the Hawaii Better Business Bureau and the state Department of Consumer Affairs. And, after the family got home, their Internet scammer struck again, Musgrove said.

“;They got the bank to return the deposit that we put on our debit card,”; she said. “;They sent a dispute letter saying that we owed them the money for trashing the place—even though we never stayed there.”;

The moral of the story: If it sounds too good to be true, it is, Williams said.

“;A vacation in a five-star hotel or resort that is free or ridiculously priced is either a time-share gimmick or straight-out rip-off,”; he said “;If you didn't enter a contest for a free vacation, you didn't win one.”;

Travelers should deal with legitimate companies that have detectable histories, he said. Google is a good screening tool, as are the BBB and state regulatory agencies, Williams said.

But research alone doesn't work, Musgrove said. The family found its accommodations on ForRentByOwner.com, a site that was travel-agent recommended, she said. And, it did not have a BBB complaint history, Musgrove said.

Visitors should never send cash or pay with a debit card, Musgrove said. And, they should think twice before dealing with a private owner, she said.

Travelers need to be just as vigilant with their credit card information, Williams said.

“;If you didn't initiate the call, don't give your information out,”; he said.




Is it a great vacation offer or a scam?


        » If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

» A sweepstakes box is typically a lead-generation tool for time share.


» If a “;free vacation”; requires a refundable deposit, it's probably a time-share gimmick.


» Steer clear of renting from private owners if you cannot qualify them.


» Check the company's history with the Better Business Bureau or use Google to check it out, and avoid booking with companies that have a history of unresolved complaints.


» When looking for deals online, check that the seller's travel license number is clearly displayed. Reputable time-share or vacation ownership companies will provide disclaimer and disclosure information.


Source: Josh Williams, Rooms101.com