If you know there is no such thing as a free lunch, clearly, you must be aware that there is no such thing as a free vacation.
With school vacation right around the corner and families looking for great travel deals to fill the time, R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin is warning consumers not to be fooled by offers of free or greatly discounted vacations.
“February school vacation is a great time to play in the snow but it’s a bad time to get snowed by crooks and scam artists,” said Kilmartin. “When the kids are out of school, many families like to get away to the slopes of nearby New Hampshire or Vermont or visit Mickey and his friends in the better weather of Florida or California. Though these trips can often be the high point of a family’s year, they can also be expensive and, as we all look for bargains, scammers are looking for us.”
If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. What sounds better than an email or a phone call saying you’ve just won an all expense-paid trip to paradise? Those solicitations tend to increase as holidays and school vacation weeks near, he warned.
The Office of the Attorney General, Consumer Protection Unit, reminds consumers to follow a few simple and common sense rules to make sure you’re not taken in by scam artists when planning your family get away.
°If the free vacation offer comes by email, start by looking for clues in the message. Is the sender’s address from outside the United States? Is it from a well-established vacation resort or is it just an unrelated email address? If you contact the resort, will they verify what you have received?
°Verify who the email or call is from, ask questions, and get contact information. Scam artists are less likely to provide their name, company, phone number and website than legitimate businesses.
°Don’t ever book travel plans through a company that doesn’t give the company’s street address or phone number, or if you can’t get anyone on the phone to answer your questions.
°If they ask for payment or a reservation fee, up front, it is most likely a scam. Legitimate businesses do not ask for upfront payment for a free vacation, but scammers do, and they usually ask for wire transfers that can never be recovered.
°Do not give out personal or financial information over the Internet or telephone until you have confirmed it is a legitimate offer.
Legitimate resorts will never ask you to send personal information such as bank accounts, credit card numbers or social security numbers to them by email, but scammers often will and they will use this information to steal your identity or empty your account.
°If you receive a suspicious email, letter or phone call you can always check with the Better Business Bureau or contact the Office of Attorney General, Consumer Protection Unit, to verify that it is legitimate.
If you decide to book a vacation, there are important steps you should take to protect your investment:
°Stick to trusted travel agents and travel websites to purchase your vacation.
°Verify and clarify. Once your travel agent/site has booked your
arrangements, make sure to get all names and phone numbers of places you will be staying, flights you are taking or car rental agencies you will be using. Double check the arrangements yourself and make sure that everything is confirmed for the dates and times you had planned on.
°Purchase travel with a credit card rather than a debit card. Credit cards offer more options for recourse should the travel company attempt to defraud you.
°Be extremely cautious of nearly free, all-inclusive vacation packages. Often the amenities and perks advertised are not as they appear. There may be additional hidden charges or buyers may be forced to sit through lengthy, high-pressure sales presentations.
°Always read the fine print before purchasing. Before you purchase, get a copy of the company’s cancellation and refund policies in writing, and ask “what if.” Legitimate businesses will always provide a written contract guaranteeing your reservation.
°Consider whether or not to buy travel cancellation insurance in case something comes up.
“The bottom line is that you must do your homework before you purchase a vacation or provide personal information to an unknown source,” added Kilmartin. “The Office of the Attorney General is here to assist the public from avoiding being misled or defrauded. Through awareness, education and enforcement, we can protect each other and put the scam artists out of business.”
For more information or to file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Unit, go to www.riag.ri.gov  or call 401-274-4400.