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Beware Postcards Promising Free Trips and Tickets

A postcard carrying the logo of an online travel agency that isn't involved with the promotion.
Source: BBB
A postcard carrying the logo of an online travel agency that isn't involved with the promotion.

Baited mousetraps are landing in mailboxes around the country in the form of postcards and letters promising two round-trip airline tickets plus a hotel room or a free cruise if you call a toll-free number right away.

These "award notices" often include the names of major airlines and well-known hotels. But the real companies have nothing to do with the notices.

"These are invitations to a high-pressure sales pitch for an expensive membership in a travel club," warned Jeannette Kopko, senior vice president for communications at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Dallas.

That membership can sell for as much as $10,000. Kopko said those who join often have difficulty booking trips and they don't always get the promised savings.

BBB offices across the country received more than 2,000 complaints about these travel offers within the last year.

"This is not the way to take the vacation of your dreams," cautions John North, president and CEO of the BBB in Dayton, Ohio.

Richard Parent of Rockwall, Texas, contacted the BBB after he went to the presentation and wound up buying a travel club membership for $4,000.

Parent and his wife had agreed they were not going to buy anything, but the salesman offered them even more freebies: a free cruise, plus a weekend getaway with free airfare and hotel room. Every time they said "no thanks," he kept lowering the price, until they finally signed the contract.

"Why we agreed to it, I'll never know," Parent told NBC News.

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In his complaint to the BBB, Parent said the "very high-pressure sales pitchmen conned us into signing a contract for travel services too good to be true."

He contacted the company and asked to cancel his membership, but they never responded. Parent tried to reverse the charges with his credit card company, but was denied.

"I'm hosed," he said.

Sketchy cruises

Diana Hill of Mesquite, Texas, got a postcard promising "a complimentary cruise and two airline tickets," if she attended a presentation.

She went and resisted the sales pitch and at the end collected her cruise voucher for showing up.

When she tried to book the cruise, she was told there was a charge of $815 per person to cover taxes and fees. She questioned the charge and was told the cruise was "complimentary, not free." She did not pay.

"It's not like we read the postcard wrong," she told NBC News. "It was intentionally designed to confuse."

Web of players with changing names

The Dallas BBB investigated deceptive travel club offers, and in a report released last month, laid out the network of companies behind the postcards.

One company sends out the notices; another company books the appointments. When you go to a sales pitch you are dealing with a distributor. Your club membership is managed through a separate company. And if you try to use the travel voucher, you're dealing with a gift fulfillment company.

Law enforcement has investigated travel club membership promoters, but their efforts are stymied by how the companies frequently change their names and addresses.

"There are so many different entities involved that it's not always easy to tell who you're dealing with, how they work together and who is responsible for what," said Kopko. "You run into a brick wall trying to get calls returned and someone to step up and deal with the problem. It's easy for them to pass the buck."

_Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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