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Fake vacation travel deals take consumers for a ride

It’s vacation season, but not for the scam industry.

Making the rounds are questionable offers for greatly reduced travel deals, prompting the local Better Business Bureau to warn of a version that does most of its marketing by fax machine. The company will send you a flier that will, for example, promise you three days and two nights in Orlando, Fla., for $159.98 – plus free airfare.

The firm claims to have an office in Albuquerque, but the BBB has been unable to verify that, and repeated calls to the listed phone number by the BBB and the Journal were not returned.

Those who filed complaints said the cost of their dream trip rose significantly after they made the initial payment – in one case from $320 to $1,639 – and the company denied requests for a refund. Also, consumers said, booking a trip took months because they were routed to other businesses for additional paperwork.

“Better Business Bureau encourages consumers to use caution when they receive a fax offering a vacation package,” said Brian Baca, president of the BBB serving New Mexico and southwest Colorado. “Offers that come via fax have a higher likelihood of being fraudulent.”

In this case, and in many others involving fake or misleading travel deals and vacation rentals, the initial offer is meant to be enticing enough to get your attention. You will likely be directed to a website that might look legitimate, but remember that it’s very easy to create a website with names and photos of real hotels and condos or homes that are purportedly for rent or for sale as a time-share.

You’ll probably be asked to wire money – either a deposit or the full amount, but if the deal is bogus it’s possible the place you thought you had booked doesn’t exist or isn’t available. You won’t get a refund.

Here are some tips to help you avoid these summer scams, courtesy of the BBB and the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Check the BBB’s website, bbb.org/new-mexico-southwest-colorado, to see whether there have been complaints against the company and how it has been rated by the organization.
  • Do a general online search for the owner, plus words like “review, scam or complaint.” You might find comments from customers that would raise a red flag for you.
  • Another warning sign: your online search turns up the same ad listed under a different name or with different contact information.
  • Make sure the address listed for the property really exists and isn’t just fiction.
  • Get a copy of the contract before you send any deposit money. If the property is within a resort, call the front desk and confirm specific details about the location and the contract.
  • Consider using a credit card to book your rental. If there are any problems, you’ll have better protection. If you have paid by credit card for what you think might be a misleading or fake offer, get in touch with your credit card company as soon as possible.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into wiring money. If a marketer or property owner requires payment via MoneyGram, Western Union or Green Dot cards, chances are, it’s a scam, the FTC says.

Xcel Energy, which serves a portion of eastern New Mexico is warning customers to be wary of phone callers threatening to cut off their electricity service if they don’t make a payment over the phone.

Wes Reeves, an Xcel spokesman, says Xcel customers who are behind on their bills will receive a printed disconnect notice in the mail and not a warning by phone. In other words, if you get the phone call, know that it’s a scam and report it to Xcel at 1-800-895-4999.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor and can be contacted at emarks@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3842. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the state Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-678-1508.

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