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Scam Alert

3 Classic Cruise Ship Rip-Offs to Avoid

How to spot and avoid high-seas vacation hoaxes

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En español | With the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster fresh on the minds of millions of Americans, don’t be surprised if scammers try to turn it to their advantage. They love nothing more than a news event that they can use to cheat you.

See also: What does my travel insurance cover?

So, in the weeks ahead, watch out for calls and emails from crooks claiming they’ve been authorized to offer huge cruise discounts (on safe ships, of course) to make up for a surge of Costa Concordia-related cancellations.

In the meantime, beware, too, of the following three classic cruise rip-offs, which typically multiply during the winter months.

Costa Concordia cruise ship run aground- Cruise ship scams and how to avoid them

The Costa Concordia cruise ship runs aground in Giglio, Italy. — Photo by AP

1. The prize cruise. You’re told you’ve won a free cruise or have qualified for a fabulous cut-rate price, but you’ll need to provide a credit card number to pay a deposit or processing fee. You may even be asked for your passport or Social Security number to prove that you’re the entitled winner.

If you give your credit card number, you may be charged “port fees” and other incidentals that exceed what you’d pay for an entire booking through a legitimate cruise line or travel agent. Provide your Social Security or passport number and you risk future identity theft.

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And your supposedly free vacation may require you to book a second guest at an inflated price.

2. The hidden sales pitch. Some offers are designed just to get you to attend a sales pitch for a timeshare or an expensive and potentially problem-prone vacation club. You may in fact get a low-cost cruise, but past passengers complain of below-par accomodations – and high-pressure presentations that take not the promised 90 minutes but four hours or more.

3. The long-distance scam. Offers are sometimes nothing more than a ruse to run up your phone bill. To claim your prize cruise, you’re told to call a 900 phone number or one with an area code of 876, 868, 809, 758, 784, 664, 473, 441, 284 or 246. Those codes seem all-American, but are actually for foreign countries, with the clock running at $5 a minute or more. In the end, there’s no cruise, only a high phone bill.

Ensure bona fide bookings

Last year, the Better Business Bureau received more than 1,300 complaints about cruises. Here’s how to protect yourself:

  • Beware of buzzwords. ”Gotcha” cruise promises tend to use language like "you're eligible to win" or "guaranteed." One word that should never trick you: “Free.” It means just that — so don't pay deposits or service fees on the promise you’ll get them back later.
  • Find out who really sent the offer. If an offer comes from an unrecognized source, assume the worst. But legitimate cruise lines may send past customers emails or mailings about real low-cost offers. Before you respond, authenticate the address with an online search. Watch out for look-alike Internet addresses that are just a letter or two different from legitimate ones. Never click on attachments in unsolicited emails; they could unleash rogue programs known as “malware” on your computer. 
  • Get proper confirmation of your booking. If you book through a travel agent or other third party, make sure that you get two sets of confirmation numbers — one directly from the cruise line and one from the other agency. That will help in any disputes.
  • Pay with a credit card. That’s safer than a debit card or check and will allow for easier reimbursement or settlement of payment disputes if problems arise.

Also of interest: What if you get sick on a ship?

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