Avoid Travel Troubles
According to a recent forecast by the U.S. Travel Association, the total travel expenditures in the United States are projected to exceed $815 billion in 2011. Industries that experience such volume are typically targets for fraud, however the number of complaints filed with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service, Division of Consumer Services, in the 2010-2011 fiscal year involving "Travel/Vacation Plans" fell to its lowest level in 9 years. In fact, the 1,682 travel-related complaints filed during this period represent a decrease of more than 62% from the staggering high of 4,475 reported during fiscal year 2005-2006. The Division directly attributes this level of success to a strategy of combining quality consumer education with effective regulation and a strong mediation and enforcement program. Continuing this strategy will undoubtedly help Commissioner Putnam accomplish one of his top priorities since taking office: providing Florida's residents and visitors the highest level of consumer protection possible while promoting a positive business environment.
Whether you're dealing with an independent agent, a small local office, or a large international franchise, most sellers of travel do everything possible to provide you with professional service and enjoyable travel experiences. On the other hand, unethical sellers of travel cheat the public and create problems for travelers and agents alike. An educated consumer who exercises discretion and common sense can minimize the risk of falling victim to these unscrupulous con artists.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Division of Consumer Services has been charged with protecting consumers from unethical sellers of travel. In large part, this is accomplished by requiring all non-exempt sellers of travel to register each year and include their registration number (sometimes referred to as either an "ST#" or a "TI#") in all advertisements and contracts. Even those who have been determined to be exempt from registering are still given an "ST#" or a "TI#" and must provide certain information to the Division before conducting business. As an additional layer of consumer protection, some sellers of travel are also required to provide financial security in the form of a bond or a letter of credit.
When traveling outside the U.S., always be sure to inform your bank and credit card companies as to the countries you plan to visit, the dates you'll be there and when you plan to return. This will allow them to watch for suspicious charges and should ensure that you are not improperly denied the ability to use these accounts during your travels.
While travel fraud can take many forms, consumers are typically targeted through mail, telephone, faxes, email, or the Internet. The following tips are designed to help you avoid becoming a victim and ensure a positive travel experience:
- Know Who You're Dealing With – Find out if the seller of travel is registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and if there have been any complaints filed against them. This can be done by inputting the name of the business or independent agent into our Business / Complaint Lookup or by calling 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) and asking for the information from a member of our Consumer Assistance Center staff. Even those that are exempt from registering should be in this database. If there are complaints on file, be sure to find out how they were resolved. Ask friends or co-workers for referrals. Dealing with a reputable, local travel company is usually the best way to protect your vacation investment.
- Take Your Time – Beware of high-pressure sales tactics and pitches that require immediate payment or an immediate decision. Be especially wary if a business offers to have someone meet you to pick up your money.
- Read Before You Sign – A signature on a contract indicates that you acknowledge and accept the terms and conditions of the contract. Read the entire contract thoroughly, ask questions and do not sign it if you have doubts about anything. Take notice of terms like "subject to availability," which means you may not get the accommodations you want when you want them, or "blackout periods," which are blocks of dates (usually around holidays or peak season) when no discount travel is available.
- Verify Arrangements – Get the details of your vacation in writing and a copy of the cancellation and refund policies before making a purchase. Get names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the lodgings, airlines, and/or cruise ships you'll be using. Don't accept vague terms such as "major hotels" or "luxury cruise ships." Consider contacting these businesses directly to verify arrangements. Prior to signing any contract, you may want to ask the hotel management about their knowledge of and relationship with the travel company itself.
- Use a Credit Card – If you don't get what you paid for, you may be able to dispute the charges with your credit card company. Never give credit card or checking account numbers over the telephone, unless you initiated the call and are certain of the company's credentials. Some travel businesses may claim they need your account information for identification or verification. They don't. These account numbers should only be used to bill you for goods or services that you have agreed to purchase.
- Free Doesn't Always Mean Free – Be skeptical of unsolicited postcards or telephone calls announcing that you have been selected to receive a free vacation. There are airlines and other well-known companies that sometimes operate contests with travel prizes. However, there are also companies that offer "free" trips as thinly-veiled ploys to obtain credit card information (also known as phishing) or to bait people into buying their products or services. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
- Travel Insurance – Travel insurance or trip insurance can be a good way to minimize the risk of losing large amounts of money if something unexpected were to prevent you from taking your trip. Before purchasing travel insurance, you should read the fine print to be aware of any coverage exclusions and to verify that the company providing the insurance coverage is licensed in the State of Florida. To verify licensure, visit www.MyFloridaCFO.com.
Report travel-related scams Remember…we're here for you! Consumers looking for additional information or wishing to report any issues with a seller of travel or an independent agent representing a seller of travel should contact the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Division of Consumer Services. Either visit us online or call 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) from within Florida, 850-410-3800 from outside of Florida or 1-800-FL-AYUDA (352- 9832) en Español. A member of our Consumer Assistance Center will be happy to answer any consumer-related questions you may have or direct you to the best resource for assistance.