Some travel agencies con students, elderly

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on fraudulent trips marketed to, among others, college students.

FTC spokesman Mitch Katz said 21 federal, state and local governments filed suit against 25 companies in the FTC’s Operation Trip-Trap.

Katz said these companies market their trips to students, and he said the fraudulent trips are not limited to a specific season.

“Most of the people that were targeted were the elderly and students,” Katz said. “These trips aren’t just limited to spring break. (Students) need to be careful around the clock.”

At an Aug. 3 press conference, Jodie Bernstein, the director of FTC Bureau Consumer Protection said data the bureau has compiled “placed travel fraud in the top 10 categories of complaints.” She said the companies the FTC is targeting misled their consumers in terms of what the trips actually offered.

“They did this by overstating the amenities, telling travelers they had won trips when they hadn’t, hiding extra charges in `all-inclusive packages,’ or charging for products and services they never delivered,” Bernstein said at a press conference, according to a statement released by the FTC.

Vicki Walker, a Democratic state representative in Oregon, is familiar with travel scams. She said her daughter, Sara, was promised an exciting trip when she was a high school student. Walker said parents of the students were shown a video of what the trip to Mexico was like. But she said when parents left the room, the students were shown a different video.

In reality, “the emphasis of the trip is focused on alcohol and sexual games,” Walker said.

She said the travel company, Cerkrenik-Anderson Travel Inc., told parents a company representative would be on the trip, but the company representative did not come on the trip.

Walker said when the plane took off en route to Mexico, a wet T-shirt contest took place in the cabin. When in Mexico, the company harassed kids to buy bracelets to buy food, even though they promised free meals, according to the company’s brochure, she said. The security staff at the hotel shook down the students more than once, Walker said.

“It was just disgusting,” she said.

She said she found out about what was happening on the June 1998 trip when her daughter called her from Mexico. Basically, her daughter did not get what she paid for, Walker said.

Katz said students should check background information on the travel company to ensure the company is legitimate. He said many of these companies operate under different names. Indeed, Walker said, the travel company she dealt with operated under two different names. Katz said students should also be aware of something that is offered for free, especially when a company sends a representative to college campuses and offers free items.

Walker said the pilot of the plane was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration for 60 days and the violation was placed on his permanent record.

STA Travel, which operates a branch in the Marvin Center, is an internationally known company and is also approved by the Airline Reporting Corporation, Branch Manager Jody Melichar said. She said travelers should be aware of companies, especially if they are small and have not been around a while.

“A lot of the spring break companies are very shady,” she said.

Melichar said customers have told her stories about other travel scams of which they were victims. Also, she said, with the rise of the Internet, fraud is more rampant.

“Some of the (fraudulent) companies were marketing on the Internet,” Katz said.

Walker said one of the trips the company sold was a “booze cruise,” which caused the deaths of some of the teenagers who went on the cruise and fell off the ship because they were drunk.

As for Sara Walker, Vicki Walker said the company her family dealt with is still in business, even though “they’re in a lot of trouble.” She said the company had to pay $25,000 in fines already, promised not to sell any more of these deals and are still being sued by the federal government and different state governments, including Arizona. But she said her family is working with the government and so far has decided not to file a civil suit against the company.

In addition, Walker said, she sponsored a law in Oregon that forces travel companies to disclose a variety of information about themselves. She said she would eventually like to see the company she dealt with be forced out of business.

Katz said National Travel Services Inc. in Washington, D.C., is being sued.

A call seeking comment from the D.C. company was not returned.

“We’re not giving up on going after fraudulent scams,” Katz said.

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