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Travel agencies facing charges

Federal regulators sue three Florida companies over deceptive practices. A fourth is under investigation by state regulators.

Federal and state authorities announced actions against 25 travel companies Tuesday, accusing them of luring consumers with flashy vacation offers and failing to disclose the full terms and costs of their trips.

The Federal Trade Commission filed suit against five businesses, three of which are in Florida, asking that they stop their deceptive practices and seeking refunds for bilked consumers.

Two other restitution orders have been filed on behalf of the Transportation Department, and an additional 20 companies face charges by state regulators.

Between July 1998 and July 1999, the FTC received nearly 2,500 travel-related complaints worth more than $610,000 in alleged consumer losses. Of those complaints, nearly a third were against companies in Florida.

But the problem may be much more pervasive: The American Society of Travel Agents estimates that $8-billion to $10-billion is lost each year because of travel scams.

The five companies targeted by the FTC are First Impressions Inc. of Fort Lauderdale; All Around Travel Club Inc. of Lauderdale Lakes; ASQ Inc. of Las Vegas; Cerkvenik-Anderson Travel of Phoenix; and American International Travel Services Inc. of Deerfield Beach.

Cerkvenik-Anderson's general counsel, Brian Burt, denied the charges and said the commission was "painting with a broad brush" in including the business in its complaint. Messages left with other companies were not returned.

In addition, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner Bob Crawford suspended American International's registration to take on new customers and subpoenaed business records of Air-Land-Sea Reservations Inc. of Fort Lauderdale as part of an investigation into its sales practices and refund policies. Since 1996, 122 complaints have been filed against Air-Land-Sea.

In one typical travel scam, consumers receive a fancy-looking travel certificate in the mail claiming they have won a free hotel stay. When travelers call to claim their prize, they may have to pay the price of a plane ticket at a huge markup.

A similar scam involves trips in which consumers must tour a time-share condo while on vacation.

Charlene Kuhaupt of Mesquite, Texas, expected a "nice adventure" after reviewing the glitzy promotional videos and brochures provided by American International for her week-long Caribbean vacation.

Instead, she got hassled for refusing to attend a promotional meeting for time-share condos, was told she would have to pay extra for a cabin aboard her cruise ship to the Bahamas and discovered her hotel food and drink vouchers were valid only at certain times of the day.

"They told a little bit of truth and covered up the rest to make it look like something it was not," Kuhaupt said.

Avoiding travel scams

Tips from the Federal Trade Commission on ways to protect against fraudulent travel schemes:

BE WARY OF "GREAT DEALS" AND LOW-PRICE OFFERS. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices.

DON'T BE PRESSURED INTO BUYING. A good offer today usually will be a good offer tomorrow. Legitimate businesses don't expect you to make snap decisions.

ASK DETAILED QUESTIONS. Find out exactly what the price covers and what it doesn't. Ask about additional charges. Get the names of the hotel, airports, airlines and restaurants included in your package. Consider contacting these businesses directly to verify arrangements. Ask about cancellation policies and refunds.

KNOW WHO YOU ARE BUYING FROM. If you decide to buy, find out the name of the travel provider _ the company that is getting your reservations and tickets. This company usually is not the telemarketer.

GET ALL INFORMATION IN WRITING BEFORE YOU AGREE TO BUY. Once you receive the written information, make sure it reflects what you were told over the phone and the terms you agreed to.

DON'T BUY PART OF THE PACKAGE, THE AIR FARE OR HOTEL STAY, SEPARATELY FROM THE REST. If the deal is not what you expected, it may be difficult to get your money back for the part of the package you purchased.

BE CAREFUL WITH PAYMENTS. Don't give your credit card number or bank information over the phone unless you know the company. Don't send money by messenger or overnight mail. Some scam artists may ask you to send them a check or money order immediately. If you charged your trip to a credit card, you may dispute the charges by writing to your credit card issuer at the address provided for billing disputes.

CHECK OUT THE COMPANY BEFORE YOU BUY. In Florida, travelers can call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' hotline, (800) 435-7352, to make sure a travel company is registered and to check its complaint history.