how to avoid the scams of summerIf you've ever fallen for a travel scam, you're not alone. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission got 15,386 complaints last year related to travel, vacation or timeshare plans.

Like offers for free vacations that aren't really free after you pay the hidden fees. Nonrefundable deposits to secure cut-rate rentals that don't exist. And trip packages to see a favorite sports team in a championship that don't include game tickets. Sound familiar?

Then there's the New York charity volunteer who got a cruise voucher at the group's holiday party, and spent thousands to upgrade it, only to find out the purported travel agent never booked the trip. Or the two travel companies in Pennsylvania now being sued by that state's attorney general's office for allegedly misleading customers in one case and taking payments for trips never booked in the other.

And those are just cases that get reported.

The news isn't all bad, though. "Most consumers today are doing their research online," John Breyault, National Consumer League's vice president of telecommunications and fraud public policy. "By and large, consumers tend to have a lot more hands-on work with their vacation planning," with the potential of saving consumers money by cutting out the travel agent.

There are ways to spot red flags when planning a vacation. Breyault shared some tips with Consumer Ally:

• Online rentals: Sites like Craigslist don't claim responsibility for content, so be wary of any rental listing with a rate that seems way too low. The aim of scam artists "is not to rent the house, it's to get someone to send a deposit for a nonexistent rental," Breyault says. Get a phone number and confirm the house is available before agreeing to the deal. Check the address through a search engine like Google and make sure it's the same house.

• Timeshares: If you're tempted to buy a timeshare, pinch yourself before signing anything. "There are a lot of gotchas out there," he says. "There are certainly plenty of timeshares that are legitimate," but read the fine print to avoid buyer's regret. Check out this story for more on timeshares.

• Buying airfare or booking a hotel package: If you see an airfare much cheaper than advertised elsewhere, watch out. Try going to another web site and booking the same deal. If the first deal was real, the prices will be similar on other sites. Web sites like Kayak.com search a wide variety of different sites, from discounters to the airlines themselves.

In general, warns Breyault, "There's a fine line between getting a good deal and something that is too good to be true." Once you settle on a vacation, pay for it with a credit card if possible. That way the charge can be disputed under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Debit cards and wire transfers don't have the same protections.

The FTC, more cautiously, advises not to give out credit card or bank account numbers over the phone unless you know the business. A legitimate business will wait to allow you to think over a deal and not pressure you into a snap decision.

Always get the vacation details in writing, says TravelSense.org, a consumer site run by the American Society of Travel Agents. And check up on the companies or travel agents themselves -- legitimate companies will be listed with the local Better Business Bureau or be members of professional societies like ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents. Your state's attorney general's office also can tell you if there are complaints about a company or individual.

Doing a little bit of checking might have saved charity groups in western New York from being taken by Joseph Ehrenreich of Pendleton, N.Y., sentenced recently to a year in jail for fraud after admitting he tricked charities into believing they could auction vacations arranged by him.

Ehrenreich claimed to be a member of the International Airlines Travel Agents Network and the Cruise Lines International Association -- he wasn't a member of either group, says the New York attorney general's office.

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