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Tuesday, September 23, 2003
The Free Vacation Scam
"Congratulations! You have won a free, 4-day, 3-night vacation for two in beautiful, sun-drenched Bermuda." Sound too good to be true? It is. When you get a postcard or letter in the mail (or an unexpected phone call from an unknown company) promising a complimentary vacation in an exotic spot, someone is probably trying to make you a victim of the free vacation scam. Don't fall for it.
If you are first contacted through the mail, you will be asked to call the company to claim your vacation. But there's always a catch. In the most common form of this scam, to be eligible for the free vacation you will be required to pay a service charge or to purchase a membership in a travel club, and that may cost you as much as $200-$300. Don't pay it. And do not, under any circumstances, give the company your credit card number or even just its expiration date.
If you do join a travel club that happens to be run by a con man, here's what you can expect. You will receive a travel packet describing your vacation. But there will be many restrictions on when you can take your trip. You may also be required to pay an additional handling charge of up to $100 to book your reservation. The travel dates you prefer will very likely be unavailable. If you complain, you may be offered an upgraded plan for still another additional fee.
If you are one of the few people who actually receives a vacation, you will most likely be booked into substandard accommodations. Most people who join a fraudulently operated travel club will never receive anything. Ultimately, as the law closes in, some vacation scam operators will close down, move on, and set up operations elsewhere and bilk other unsuspecting consumers of their money. You will be left without the promised vacation and a much smaller balance in your bank account.
Many recently detected vacation scams have operated out of Florida, Houston, and the Los Angeles-Orange County area. But such operations can originate anywhere in the country and can be easily recognized by their common characteristics, as outlined above.
If you have been victimized by a free vacation scam or fraudulent travel club, or if you receive a suspicious solicitation from one in the mail, please contact your postmaster or the nearest Postal Inspector.