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StarBulletin.com

Travelers should be wary of scams


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POSTED: Tuesday, April 28, 2009

ECONOMIC hard times are prompting many Americans to search for good deals in planning their vacations—and in doing so, they are becoming more vulnerable to tourism scams. Expectations that fraudulent practices would skyrocket this year are coming true, and law-enforcement agencies should be poised to respond.

Fraud against visitors to Hawaii has increased by 19 percent from last year, according to Jessica Lani Rich, executive director of the 12-year-old Visitors Aloha Society of Hawaii. In past years, car break-ins have been the most common reason for providing help to a visitor with a round-trip plane ticket, but that may be changing.

Nationally, the Better Business Bureau estimates that travel scams and clever, but legal, tricks cost consumers more than $10 billion last year. That includes airlines tacking on last-minute fees for taxes and baggage not covered by frequent-flier miles and for late itinerary changes.

Upfront scams are more egregious and should result in criminal charges when discovered. Dawn Musgrove of Alaska told the Star-Bulletin's Allison Schaefers that her family's rental of an Oahu condominium last December that never materialized cost it $11,000, including hotel rents.

Musgrove now knows never to send cash or use a debit card to arrange for accommodations on the Internet. The family has filed complaints with the Honolulu police, the Hawaii Better Business Bureau and the state Department of Consumer Affairs. The Denver-based operation was recommended by a travel agent and did not have a BBB complaint history, she said.

Hawaii-related travel fraud works in both directions. Wayne Abe, an unlicensed Honolulu travel agent, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2005 after pleading no contest to bilking nearly 100 residents out of $800,000 by selling them bogus tickets to the mainland. A common practice of scammers is to ask for the traveler's credit-card number. After the card fails to be approved, the online booking agent asks that the money be wired to the booking company.

Josh Williams, vice president and part owner of Florida-based Rooms101.com, warns travelers to be wary of prize trips. “;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 says. “;If you didn't enter a contest for a free vacation, you didn't win one.”;

Williams also warns against providing information, such as a credit card number, to someone who initiated the call. And the age-old warning: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.