Moms

Don't get taken in by travel scams

Psst. Yeah, you. Come here. Got a second? You like to travel?

Wanna go on vacations for half-price? All the time? You like concierge service? 24/7.

What? Oh, all you gotta do is go to a 90-minute travel presentation. That's it. You game? Come on! It's great. OK!

That's how it begins. In the case of one travel club that put on presentations on Bridge Street in Fort Worth, hundreds of people paid thousands of dollars each. In return, according to the Texas attorney general, they got nothing.

The company operated as SeaLand Travel Club, Royal Palms Travel and All Inclusive Excursions.

Owner Adrian D. Miller, formerly of Grapevine, signed an agreed judgment with the attorney general in August. He agreed to pay $30,000 to the state and $20,000 in attorney fees. He also promised not to engage in any future fraudulent activities.

Customers may get a little back from the state, but their best bet is to seek a settlement with the company, which continues to work with customers who filed complaints. The company says in the judgment that it has refunded $300,000 and knows it will refund more.

Travel club memberships have been a prime source of consumer complaints for a decade. Companies promise great deals. Often, consumers don't get them and file complaints. Companies get in trouble with the law and close. Consumers lose their money and learn hard lessons.

It's repeated over and over. But it doesn't have to be that way.

The Watchdog has important information that could help put an end to travel club deceptions.

Buried deep in the legal judgment are promises by Miller to no longer engage in certain business practices.

His lawyer, William Lewis Sessions, says both sides worked on the guidelines.

"Candidly, my client feels good about that," Lewis said. "They want to be a positive model." He said Miller was out of town and unavailable for an interview.

The guidelines are the attorney general's latest prohibitions on deceptive practices by travel clubs. They could also help consumers and businesses protect themselves -- not only in the travel club business but also in any other area where money is involved.

I've rewritten them from the original legal language and added comments:

Beware of travel clubs that fail to clearly and conspicuously disclose their correct business identity and ownership. (A club hides it name so you can't easily look it up on the Internet before you visit. But always look up the company before signing any contracts.)

Same goes for any sales presentation in which a company's name is not clearly displayed and explained. (What else is it hiding?)

A red flag goes up when a company fails to disclose in documents to consumers that the travel club may not always provide prices that are lower than those published on the Internet or elsewhere. (How can anyone promise the lowest prices all the time?)

Same applies to any legal contracts that attempt to deceive consumers into believing that their membership entitles them to lower prices than those published elsewhere. (That is a promise that ought to get all kinds of companies in trouble.)

Sales staff must not promise that the examples of accommodations, cruise lines, carriers, resorts, hotels or amenities shown in sales presentations and sales literature will be available to purchasers of the plan. (In other words, don't fall for the brand names. In this company's case, it didn't have permission to use the name and logo of Carnival Cruise in promotions but did anyway.)

Written disclosures should be made to potential buyers that what the company offers may not always be available to members. (Promised trips and half-price deals never materialized.)

All statistics offered in sales materials must clearly and conspicuously give the source and date of the information cited. (A way to stop companies from making stuff up.)

Beware of these words used in sales presentations to describe relationships with other well-known companies: affiliation, association, authorization, connection, partnership. (They try to imply a close relationship with the better-known company. Just because they say it doesn't make it so.)

Don't let these phrases confuse you: deep discount, deeply discounted, pennies on the dollar, greatly reduced rates or similar phrases. (The first price you're told is too high. The final price is much lower. But it's still too much.)

Look for other warning phrases that are never as good as they sound: gift, promotional gift, prize, incentive, complimentary gift. (The company doesn't tell you that the "free" trip will cost you hundreds of dollars in taxes and other fees. Or it doesn't tell you that the gift costs you money.)

Beware also of promises for trips where the company fails to disclose a restriction on available dates to redeem travel vouchers. (I'm still waiting for that Vegas trip I was promised by a different company in 2005.)

Be skeptical if you hear promises that someone else can negotiate better deals for you. (Professional travel agents --yes, they still exist -- are best suited for that.)

The Texas attorney general's office asks anyone who did business with Royal Palms Travel, SeaLand Travel Club and All Inclusive Excursions to file a complaint as soon as possible. Two defendants have not settled, so a portion of the case remains open. Call the attorney general at 800-252-8011.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber

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