The beginning of the summer vacation season is a good time for a reminder about travel and timeshare-related scams that can cost consumers thousands of dollars.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection are joining the Federal Trade Commission and other state attorneys general offices in a nationwide effort to educate consumers about how to avoid travel and timeshare scams.
Most households in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin have probably received solicitations promising free trips, or great deals on travel. In some instances, the contact is made through robocalls or text messages.
Often the sales pitch conveys the impression that the consumer must act quickly to take advantage of a great opportunity. Such come-ons are often used by companies engaged in fraudulent or otherwise illegal activity.
"Every year numerous Wisconsin citizens fall prey to fraudulent travel and timeshare schemes," Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said. "I encourage consumers to exercise caution in responding to travel-related offers, and to do their homework in checking out companies before they commit to spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on what may turn out to be a scam. My office takes travel-related fraud seriously, and will continue to vigorously prosecute unscrupulous companies that rip off Wisconsin consumers through bogus travel-related schemes."
"The old adage is certainly true: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is," added Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Ben Brancel. "If an offer sounds unbelievably good, look into it thoroughly to make sure you're not being scammed. If you think it's not legitimate, you can file a complaint with DATCP's Consumer Protection Bureau."
Despite often costing thousands of dollars, travel club memberships generate many complaints about limited destinations, unavailable travel dates, or exaggerated discounts that club members are unable to obtain. The Department of Justice is currently handling two travel club cases involving allegations of violations of Wisconsin's prize notice, direct marketing and fraudulent misrepresentation laws.
The following tips can help consumers spot potentially fraudulent travel offers:
- You receive a solicitation call, text or email from a company you are not familiar with, offering you a free vacation, discounted travel or other prize. Make sure you know the name of the company offering the travel service, and contact the attorney general or local consumer protection agencies in the company's home state to check on complaints. You also should conduct an online search using the company's name and words such as "complaints" or "scam." And be aware that almost all robocalls are illegal and can indicate a fraudulent business.
- You are told you won a free trip or other valuable prize but must pay money to obtain it. A legitimate company won't ask you to pay for a prize.
- You are asked for your credit card number. Even if they say it's just for "verification," "taxes," or "port fees," don't give out your credit card number.
- You are subjected to high-pressure sales tactics. It is common to be told that you must act immediately to take advantage of a travel club membership or other purchase opportunity. This is rarely the case with legitimate businesses. When in doubt, walk away.
- The promises are vague. Vague promises of a "five-star" resort or a "luxury" cruise can prove false. The more vague the promises, the less likely they'll be true. Ask for specifics, and get them in writing.
- You get a robocall about it. Robocalls from companies are illegal if you haven't given a company written permission to call you. That's true even if you haven't signed up for the national Do Not Call Registry, www.donotcall.gov.
Another major source of consumer complaints are timeshare resellers - companies that promise to find a buyer for a timeshare or acquire it themselves, usually for substantial fees. A common complaint is that the company takes the money, never finds a buyer, and won't refund the fee. Here are some tips to avoid being scammed by fraudulent timeshare resellers:
- Check out the company before you agree to anything. See if the attorney general at www.naag.org/current-attorneys-general.php, and local consumer protection agencies at www.usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer/index.shtml in the company's home state have complaints, then search online by entering the company name and the word "complaints" or "scam."
- Deal only with licensed real estate brokers or agents. Check with the Real Estate Commission in the state where your timeshare is located to make sure the company has a current license.
- Get all terms in writing before you agree to anything. That includes services that will be performed, timing of the sale, fees and commissions, cancellation and refund policies. If a company says you have to act now or you might miss out on a buyer, it's not a company you want to do business with.
- Consider doing business only with someone who gets paid after the timeshare is sold. Don't wire money or pay in cash.
- Be alert to a repeat scam. If you were scammed once by a timeshare reseller, another scammer might offer to help get your money back - for a fee. Be wary of requests to pay fees in advance, before you get your money back.
If you think you may have been the victim of either a travel or timeshare resale scam, report it to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection by calling the Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 422-7128 or filing a complaint at: datcp.wi.gov/Consumer/Consumer_Complaints/index.aspx.