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State can do little about travel scams

Florida officials find it difficult to catch up with travel boiler rooms that skip town after hawking tropical vacations, a newspaper reported today.

"By the time we get hold of them, they're gone," said Will Harter, of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "They've scammed a lot of people before we close in."

Since 1989, nearly 4,500 customers from all over the country have complained to officials in Tallahassee about travel voucher sales abuses, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

Most travel certificates are good for a vacation in Orlando, or Fort Lauderdale and a cruise to the Bahamas. They cost from $300 to $500, not including airfare.

In an investigation of the Florida travel certificate industry, the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale found that:

Three men convicted of fraud in Florida have been affiliated with the ventures. Several others have faced civil investigations of their sales tactics.

At least 170 Florida vacation brokers, 55 in Broward or Dade counties, ignored state laws requiring them to post bonds to protect consumers from default.

Customers from all over the country have routinely accused Florida travel-certificate sellers of illegal sales strategies, but few firms face tough penalties.

Victims often complain of hidden costs, trouble scheduling their trips, or high-pressure sales tactics used by telephone sales agents. Many distributors buy the certificates wholesale and resell them through phone rooms at a big profit.

Many travel hucksters move fast, using fake names, changing addresses often, even operating in several states at once.

"By the time they have accumulated enough complaints to understand that it is a big problem, it is six months later and the firms are gone," said Jerry Allred, a Pensacola prosecutor.

Buyers who complain to as many state and county agencies as possible may get refunds. Some vacation sellers would rather cut a small refund check than draw scrutiny.

Should the firm refuse to cooperate, however, there is little the state can do except to advise future callers of the situation. The state cannot order a firm to refund money.

Consumer officials can seek court injunctions against travel concerns that fail to register with the state and post a bond of at least $10,000.

Since 1986, at least 37 travel sellers have signed agreements with the Florida Attorney General's Office promising not to violate consumer fraud laws, records show.

Most have gone out of business. The few that remain still draw complaints from buyers, records show.

Some Florida officials said travel con artists get away because they prey largely on people living out of state. Bringing these witnesses to the state for a trial is costly. Public servants also pay more attention to people who can vote them out.

Most of the problems stem from certificate dealers. But traditional travel agencies, which arrange tours and book space on airlines and hotels, also can shut down without repaying customers.

Florida officials logged more than 400 complaints about travel agencies during 1990 and 1991. Most cited failure to deliver travel services, refund money, or fraud, records show. Thousands of more complaints were filed against certificate sellers.

Customers in 22 complaints filed in 1990 or 1991 cited travel agencies for going out of business.

State officials concede that dozens of Florida travel agencies have been felled by recession travel cuts and the Persian Gulf war and that buyers can get stuck.

A bill before the Florida Legislature would tighten registration requirements and monitoring of companies selling vacation certificates. Failure to comply with the law would draw fines of up to $5,000 for each violation.

The proposal also would require about 3,000 Florida travel agents, most of whom do not sell certificates, to register. These agents also could face fines for cheating customers.

But the bill stops short of requiring all agents to carry a bond that would pay back consumers in the event a firm shuts its doors.

Nikki Beare, a lobbyist for the American Society of Travel Agents, said the group is not opposing registration of agents, in the hope that it will promote public trust of the industry.

But she hinted that travelers seeking too-good-to-be-true bargains keep scam artists afloat.

"We try so hard to get people to pay attention, but nobody will listen," Beare said. "Unfortunately, the public goes along, wanting something for nothing."