The vacation deals sounded so enticing.
At a Bay Area food festival, Eun Vance and her husband stopped at a booth promising a free, four-day trip to Hawaii and other inducements. Intrigued, the couple signed up and drove to San Francisco to attend a 90-minute seminar by Paradise World Vacations. Dazzled by the sales presentation, the retired couple paid $4,000 for a lifetime membership that they believed would entitle them to future trips and discounts on European destinations.
That was in September 2012. Nearly three years later, the Lincoln residents say they have yet to take a Paradise-provided trip. And they contend it’s the company’s fault.
After some initial contacts by email, Vance said she has been unable to contact the company in the last year, despite repeated attempts by phone and email.
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“I couldn’t make contact with them. The phone numbers are wrong. Or there was an answering machine but they never returned our calls,” said Vance, a retired state employee who worked in accounting.
“They got our money and now they avoid us. They are ripping us off.”
With the summer vacation season warming up, it’s a ripe time of year for consumers to get lured in by unscrupulous travel operators. Nationwide, the Better Business Bureau listed “travel agencies and bureaus” as No. 18 among its Top 20 categories for consumer complaints in 2014.
A search for Paradise World Vacations showed unresolved complaints. Efforts to reach the owner by email and phone were unsuccessful.
Sites like RipoffReport.com cite numerous complaints about these types of voucher scams. Some consumers cite their inability to book a vacation or get callbacks from the companies they’ve paid for their travel.
The Better Business Bureau is all too familiar with these types of come-ons. “It’s called a ‘fall-off’ offer,” said Gary Almond, president of the Northeast California Better Business Bureau, based in West Sacramento. “The goal is to shake you off. … Make it so difficult that you wouldn’t possibly stick with it long enough to actually get a vacation.”
The discounts are often illusory and overstated, said Almond. “They’re saying you’ll save 60 percent on cruises, for instance, but they’re basing it on these really high-end cruises to Europe. Most people aren’t going on those. They make these claims about the savings you can get, but they’re just not there for most average travelers.”
Most people, he said, can find travel discounts and shop prices for the best deals on their own.
On its website, the Federal Trade Commission warns about travel fraud by shady operators who “promise a stay at a ‘five-star’ resort or a cruise on a ‘luxury’ ship. The more vague the promises, the less likely they’ll be true.” Instead, it advises, ask for specifics and get them in writing.
And, the FTC noted, don’t cave in to a fast-talking sales pitch: “The pressure to sign up or miss out is a signal to walk away.”
In Oakland, Lori Wilson heads the BBB office that includes San Francisco and 12 other counties. Paradise World Vacations, which no longer appears to have a San Francisco office, has a handful of unresolved complaints, she said.
“I caution everyone to be careful. Sales pitches and salespeople can be quite good,” she noted. “If you are interested in a vacation membership, you want to carefully read the terms and conditions, read the restrictions. … Ask for them ahead of time. If they won’t share that with you by phone or on their website, that’s a red flag. It might be a company you want to avoid.”
Vance, who has traveled widely to China, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia and other overseas countries, said she had to convince her husband, a retired chemical engineer, to sign up for the Paradise travel membership, against his skepticism.
Now, nearly three years later, she plans to file a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, which regulates sellers of travel. Asked if she expects to ever see any of the promised “lifetime” benefits from her $4,000 membership, Vance chuckles. In a word: No.
Her advice to anyone tempted by a “discount travel” offer: “Stay away. If you have money, give it to charity instead.”
Vacation blues: How to avoid travel scams
Offers for discount travel can come by phone, letter or email. Or you can be solicited at a sales tent or seminar. Some offers are legitimate; others are not. To avoid getting tripped up, follow these tips.
Read the fine print. Look at restrictions on travel dates, booking fees and other added charges than can add hundreds to that “free” trip.
Check it out. Before signing up, talk with friends, check social media, look at online complaint forums and check with your local Better Business Bureau. Google the company’s name to see any history of complaints.
Pay by credit card. If there’s a dispute, it’s always easier to get a cancellation or reimbursement via your credit card company. However, never give out your credit card information before you’ve verified a company’s reputation.
Three-day rule. By federal law, there’s a three-day “cooling off” period when you buy something but change your mind. It applies only to door-to-door sales or from a temporary business location. The salesperson is required to inform consumers upfront that it’s available and offer a full refund within three business days.
File a complaint. If you have a complaint about a travel company’s offers or vouchers, contact your local Better Business Bureau office, the state attorney general’s office or the Federal Trade Commission.
Source: Bee research