BEDFORD, TEXAS -- The pitch comes via mail, e-mail or the telephone. The lure is a free cruise or a vacation in Florida or Las Vegas. All we have to do to claim our "prize" is call a toll-free number or attend a seminar. Almost always, too, there is a sense of urgency: Act now, we're cautioned, or miss this once-in-a-lifetime bargain. Resist the temptation. Toss the literature in the garbage. Delete the e-mail. Hang up the phone. Say no if you're invited to a presentation. It's simple. Smart. Painless. Yet so many of us take the bait, unable to erase from our minds the hope -- or fantasy -- that this may be the real deal. And before we recognize what's happened, the dream turns into a nightmare.
The "free cruise" costs hundreds of dollars in taxes, fees and service charges, is seldom available at a convenient time and may not include a companion. Suffice it to say we won't be sailing on the newest and grandest ship. The Vegas vacation is in a motel removed from the Strip and doesn't include airfare. We could do better through a travel agent. Worse, we're coaxed into writing a check or providing a credit card number -- an investment that can mount to thousands of dollars -- for additional "benefits," perhaps an identification card said to elicit discounts on airfare and other travel expenses. Discounts that turn out to be no better than we could obtain on the Internet.
We're especially vulnerable during the holiday season, too, because we like to think that good Samaritans abound this time of year. But use common sense: Is it likely that someone we don't know wants to treat us to a Caribbean cruise just to be nice? What's the motivation?
Don't underestimate the persuasive powers of some promoters either. Once we indicate even the slightest interest, they're the hunter and we're the prey. Earlier this year, I sat through one seminar where the audience was attracted, as is typical, by the promise of a free cruise, then subjected to an hour's discourse swimming with overtures about becoming an instant travel agent (with classes offered but not required), receiving an ID card and saving up to 70 percent on trips.
This "club membership," as it was described, would cost us $5,995 -- due immediately -- but we would recoup that amount many times over. Or so we were told. Most attendees weren't offended; they were spellbound -- distressing, yes, but a tribute to the seminar leader's technique given that man and women who have devoted a lifetime to the agency profession are struggling to survive in today's complicated travel environment. It's not a business to enter blindly. Otherwise, why are so many bailing out? And if the idea is to pretend to be a travel agent ... beyond the ethical implications, that approach is unlikely to generate cheap trips.
Eventually, with this and countless other promotions, we see the light. Or the agenda. Indeed, nary a month passes that a reader doesn't call or message me to say, "Tell me I didn't just make a big mistake." But by then, it's usually too late.
Deana Wade, director of Investigations and Consumer Affairs for the Houston area Better Business Bureau, hears the same plea of frustration many times over. And for those who have difficulty saying no to unsolicited advances by mail or phone, or to seminar leaders, she offers this advice: "Know who you are dealing with. Carefully check out the business. Check that they are licensed by the proper agencies. Become as educated as possible."
"By far, do not do business when you feel pressured. Take all the information, read over it, understand what they are saying and doing. Take all the time you want. And if you don't understand, go back and ask more questions. If they want your money today, they'll want it tomorrow," Wade says. And by tomorrow, you'll have time to evaluate -- or investigate -- any promotion. Or to find the trash basket.
Among suggestions: Do not give credit card or bank account numbers to any unknown telephone solicitor offering a vacation package. If you do, chances are your account will be charged and you probably will never be able to use the voucher you receive. Understand that any "vacation-for-two" offer is not "free." In all cases consumers have to pay a deposit and/or purchase an airfare or "membership" in a club. With regard to any trip, make sure you understand what is included in the price and what is not included. If you are told something that is not in any printed material you've been given, ask for the statements in writing.
The American Society of Travel Agents cautions, too, about companies that sell questionable ID cards. An ASTA statement reads: "Organizations making these offers are known throughout the travel industry as 'card mills' because they routinely offer credentials by the thousands in the form of an identification card that is sold for a significant fee. In turn, these cards would presumably be accepted by every segment of the travel industry. Many suppliers of travel, however, do not accept them." This company's policies are a direct violation of many federal laws, and are designed to target the elderly.