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Don’t Let Travel Scams Trip You Up

AARP poll shows some older travelers don't take precautions to protect their vacation dollars 

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En español | People 50 and older spend an estimated $149 billion a year on travel, which means they're having lots of fun — but they also have a lot to lose in travel scams.

Scams can include con artists’ trying to sell vacations that either don’t exist or aren’t as advertised, offering to sell your time-share — for a fee — or hiding their identities as middlemen so they can get a cut of your cash. Travelers lost $68 million to various schemes last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, with a median loss of $800 per complaint.   

Still, many older travelers say they don't take basic cautionary steps to protect their budgets, according to a recent AARP poll on travel and affordability, which found that 22 percent of adults age 50 and up take no preventive actions against travel scams. Younger travelers are a little more wary: Only 9 percent of people 18 to 49 said they take no cautionary measures. Those measures would include using only well-known travel booking sites; always reading the fine print regarding cancellation and refund policies before booking; and using only credit cards (as opposed to cash) to pay for travel expenses.

Younger travelers were also more likely to say they worry about travel-booking scams — more than half (56 percent) of adults 18 to 34 expressed concern about potential fraud, compared with only about a quarter of adults 50 and older.

To help you plan your next big trip, get AARP’s twice-monthly Travel newsletter.

The discrepancy might be related to the fact that so much travel planning (and travel scamming) is now focused on digital platforms, says Patty David, director of consumer insights for AARP, “and older travelers are not as savvy about them as they should be.”

But being smart about your travel budget is not just about thwarting illegal activity. Some trip-planning choices can simply end up costing you more money than necessary, or spoiling your vacation because the reality falls short of what’s been promised. A few tips to keep in mind when planning your next adventure:

Use trusted sources 

Make your purchases for travel through trusted companies, such as well-known travel booking sites. If you’re considering using a site you haven’t heard of, research it first. 

And if you’re planning a trip to somewhere you’ve never visited, ask friends and family who’ve been there if they can give you recommendations (or, if none of them have been there, ask if they know someone who has). Maybe try your connections on Facebook or other social media. It’s hard to beat useful, firsthand advice from someone you trust.

'Check and verify’ when booking

When booking accommodations, know whether you’re booking directly with the hotel or through a third-party reseller — sometimes it can be hard to tell, even in an advertisement, says Rosemary Rosso, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection whose mantra is “check and verify.”

If you're trying to book with a hotel online, she adds, “The URL that’s given should be the hotel name-dot-com. If you call, ask expressly, ‘Am I calling the hotel? Are you a third party?’ ”

It may be fine to go through a middleman, Rosso notes, but the cancellation and other policies may differ from the hotel’s. Before you commit, ask questions: “What’s the cancellation policy? When will my credit card be charged?” And after booking, call the hotel directly to confirm it has your reservation.

Whether booking directly or not, ask about additional fees, sometimes called resort fees, which may be tacked on for things such as Wi-Fi or the fitness center (regardless of whether you use it). This is important when you’re comparing prices: One hotel might seem to offer a better deal until you dig a little deeper and find what you’ll really be paying.

And note that if you are a member of a hotel chain’s loyalty program, you won’t get points and perks unless you book directly.

Be (very) wary of cold callers

unknown caller ID

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Sometimes you’ll get a call or email out of the blue offering free or discounted vacations. Proceed with serious caution — especially if the caller asks for a fee up front or for sensitive personal information such as your Social Security number “in order to verify your identity,” as they’ll put it, says Rosso. “Don’t give them that information over the telephone. Just hang up. Huge red flag.”

Another massive red flag: You’re asked to pay by wire or prepaid card, rather than a credit card. That's like paying cash; you’ll have no recourse if something goes wrong.

Even without those warning signs, Rosso says, ask questions, like, “If I accept this, what am I going to have to pay? What kind of commitments am I going to have?” You may not want to spend an afternoon of your vacation listening to a time-share pitch. Get all the details in writing.

Take a step back (or say goodbye) if the person you’re speaking with either can’t or won’t provide specifics, like the address of the property they're touting. “The more vague the promises,” says Rosso, “the less likely that those promises are going to be true.”

If they do give you an address, look online to make sure it's an actual place, and find a picture. And check with state and local consumer protection agencies and online travel forums for complaints about the company — all before you make a commitment.

Avoid shady time-share resellers  

Be very wary if you hear from anyone who claims to have a potential buyer for your time-share. Don’t agree to anything over the phone or online until you’ve found out more. “Check and verify that the person is licensed where your time-share is,” Rosso says. “You should only deal with licensed brokers and agents — and be sure they give you all of the information in writing. If they say they can’t, then say ‘thank you,’ and hang up.”  

Ask the reseller how they’re going to advertise and promote your time-share, how often they’re going to update you, and about fees and timing, she adds. “It’s always best to work with a reseller who’s going to ask for fees after the property is sold. If you do have to pay in advance, make sure you find out the refund policy and get it in writing. It’s not absolutely a fraud, but it’s something to be careful about.”

See the FTC website for more information on travel scams.

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