Travel Scams Spike During Spring, Summer Months

Watch Your Back! These Scams On The Rise

(The author is a Reuters contributor.)

By Mitch Lipka

April 12 (Reuters) - When it comes to large migrations of people during the U.S. spring break and summer vacations, the travel scams can come from most any angle. College students and families are targeted. So are grandparents back home.

"There's a scam for every demographic," says John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League.

In Florida, one of the nation's traditional spring break destinations, consumer officials are used to getting a surge in complaints. "As you can imagine, most of the scams around spring break actually start long before the customer packs for the trip," says Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Then the problems continue when they get where they're going.

"We often see complaints during this time of year related to travel companies or sellers of travel who have been promoting destinations or vacation experiences that the consumer eventually find less appealing than advertised," he says.

More than 7,000 complaints were lodged with the Better Business Bureau against travel bureaus and agencies in 2011 - making that one of the top complaint categories.

Gearing up for the typical warm-weather surge in travel and travel-related scams, several attorneys general, along with Western Union and MoneyGram - two main conduits for wiring cash - are warning consumers about scams they could face.

One scam that comes up repeatedly takes advantage of when a grandchild - typically a young adult - is away from home. An astute crook will look for tip-offs on social networks when someone who fits the profile is traveling - a reminder that revealing personal information can be used for no-good, says Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations with MoneyGram. Crooks can also easily obtain personal information from student IDs and driver's licenses left on beach blankets or bars in vacation spots.

"I don't think (consumers) realize the amount of time that bad guys can devote to this," says Garner, a former Secret Service agent. "Really, any information, especially that young adults and teenagers provide, is useful to these guys. These guys are relentless."

In the "emergency scam" or "grandparent scam," the fraudster will reach out to the grandparents of the young person who is away and either pose as the grandchild, someone close to them or someone in a position of authority asking for money to be wired to post bail or get them out of some dire situation.

Another scam that crops up more often during times when a lot of people are traveling comes in the form of an email (from an account that has been hacked) from a friend or relative who tells a woeful tale of either being mugged or otherwise losing all their money while on vacation. The punch-line, of course, is a request to wire money.

Instead of sending the money, Garner says, determine for yourself the authenticity of these communications. "Pick up the phone and call. Don't trust the email," she says. "If they don't answer, get the number of a friend who should be with them and contact them."

Tools that can be put in place to avoid problems caused by a gap in communication includng planning when to touch base as well as providing alternate contact information, including hotel phone numbers and cell numbers of companions. Also, overseas travelers can register with the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which can help travelers to be reached in the event of an emergency back home. (Editing by Beth Pinsker Gladstone)

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