How to Avoid Holiday Travel Scams

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how to avoid travel scams

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There's always a chance that something will go wrong when you travel. Remembering the bag of gifts, your the passports and tickets, the right bottle of pills, even the dog sitter's phone number can reduce mishaps, of course. But what about the things that aren't on your checklist, like theft, grifts, assaults, and cons.

Before heading to the snow-covered highlands or sandy, sunny lowlands this holiday season, it's best to be aware of the vacation experiences not to have.

"There's really nothing new under the sun. It's about travelers not paying attention to their stuff or their environment," says Kevin Coffey, an active police detective with a side career lecturing about travel scams to corporate travelers and meeting planners. "During the holiday season travelers are particularly vulnerable. They have packages and money and stressful time commitments and distractions, and crime artists pray on that. It's easy for thieves to blend in and mark their target during these times, and there is a smaller chance they will get caught."

While being vigilant is one tact, being organized is another. Coffey suggests reconfirming flights and flight times before leaving, getting to the airport early and not stuffing your carry-on bags with too many items -- especially presents, as these will only have to be unwrapped anyway.

For consumers who get taken by travel agents who are not really travel agents or tour companies that disappear and close up shop in the middle of the night, travelers should check their state and local legislation. California has a Seller of Travel law that offers its citizens some protection from loss, if the tour or ticket was purchased from a registered, in-state travel company. A fund bolstered by fees paid by California travel agents and tour companies offers a system of restitution for travelers qualifying in cases fraud or mishap (there is a $50 deductible).

But the best advice belongs to common sense: check the company out before paying money; always pay with a credit card; allow plenty of time for decisions and don't respond to pressure tactics.

Here are 10 common travel scams to watch out for:

1. The Travel Agent
This scam has been around since the mid 1990s and offers would-be travelers agent credentials for the price of about $500. The credentials are supposed to bring incredible hotel and cruise discounts and a host freebies just for being a part of this bogus "agency." But the days of agent comps are as gone as brick-sized cell phones, and the only benefits here might be the jazzy sales motivation talks and the monthly newsletter.

2. The Free Trip
Whether you have won a trip to some island in the Bahamas or a gate pass to Disneyland just for clicking a pop-up box, chances are you will be asked to fork over $100 for an "admin" fee for a trip that does not exist.

3. The Up-front Cash-out
This really did happen -- to a Los Angeles Times travel editor. The editor had wedding plans set for a spot on the island of Oahu. However, a few weeks before the wedding she had to change venues and found, through research on the Internet, a perfect place near the original spot. She contacted the leasing agent, who asked her to quickly wire the funds -- nearly $5,000 -- to the venue "owner's" bank account in Texas, as time was short. After wiring the money, the soon-to-be-married travel editor requested the accompanying papers -- which never came.

4. The Front Desk
This con has been showing up a lot recently and almost happened to this writer as well. You're in a foreign hotel after a 20-hour plane flight and finally asleep in the horizontal position when the phone rings. It's the front desk and the clerk needs to confirm your credit card and expiration date. In the middle of a travel coma you concede to the request and wake up to find there was no such call from the administrative clerks at the front desk.

5. The Lady with the Baby
This happens in Europe more often than you would think: a woman carrying a baby in a blanket walks toward you and suddenly tosses the child into your arms. Nearby partners in crime grab your purse, wallet, camera, whatever can be snatched in the confusion and run away, leaving you to care for the doll or log you just caught.

6. The Newspaper in Your Face
Kids pass you in a riot of laughter, conversations and newspapers. While waving the newspapers in your face to block your vision and disorient you, the cagey youths run through your pockets and grab your bag -- and everything else they can grab.

7. Five for Fifty
This bait and switch is common in Turkey where the denominations in question look similar, but it is certainly duplicated to perfection in other destinations as well -- including the cash register at your local 7-11. You get into a cab, get an estimate for a fare, and pay the fare when you get there with a 50 note, which the driver drops and exchanges for a five, exclaiming that you gave him a five, not a 50.

8. The English Student
One of the most rewarding experiences of travel is spontaneous interaction and adventures with local residents. Indeed, this writer has discovered hidden dumpling houses in Shanghai, friendly hookah dens in Sana'a, even bohemian coffee houses in Addis Ababa with the help of friendly locals -- often students -- who want to practice their English. But chances are you will be paying for dinner for your host and several of his friends in the transaction, and even buying his family a few bags of groceries while you are at it.

9. Waiting for the Bus
Whether your adversaries are on bicycle, running through a crowd or offering a friendly dose of help in a bustling bus station, it's your bags they want -- not your smiling face. A common scene has travelers waiting for their ride on a street in Barcelona as thieves on bicycles grab a purse from a woman nearby. She screams. The travelers drop their bags and run after the purse-snatchers while cohorts in the shadows run for the bags. Similarly, you are struggling with your luggage at a train or bus terminal. A nice guy insistently offers a hand to help and helps himself to your belongings.

10. The Cut and Roll
This classic comes from Kevin Coffey: You are on line at the security gate at an airport. Suddenly, two people cut in line. One goes through the body scanner, while the other causes a stir with watches and pocket electronics that buzz and beep and hold up the line, making it impossible for you to go through at the same time as your carry-ons or even see what is happening on the other side. Meanwhile, the second guy picks through your handbag and tray and disappears into the terminal -- and out -- with your cell phone and your wallet.

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