Don’t get scammed by your next vacation rental – here’s how

The vacation rental had “great pictures” but no reviews on Airbnb.com. Maybe that should have tipped off Melissa Mesku when she found the house during a popular convention week in Austin.

When she checked in, Mesku discovered the camera had lied.
Read more “Don’t get scammed by your next vacation rental – here’s how”

Airlines sue travel clubs for appropriating logos

It starts with a postcard saying that you’ve won an airline ticket. To collect your prize, you have to attend a brief presentation. And that’s how they getcha.
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Can you fix American Airlines’ loyalty program?

Joyce Zaritsky’s case is almost certainly impossible to solve. But you know me – I’m a sucker for seemingly intractable problems.
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What’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

Christine Volk’s question may be one of those imponderables that can only be asked but never answered: In the travel industry, what’s the difference between a “shoppable” and “bookable” rate?

If you said there’s none, then you must not buy airline tickets. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll pull up a fare that’s cached on an airline site or online travel agency that displays as available, but actually isn’t. To customers, these phantom prices smack of a bait-and-switch scam, and since the customer is always right, they are.

Here’s what happened to Volk: She recently booked a flight on Virgin America, and at the bottom of the page she found the upsell — a “35 percent off” offer on an Avis or Budget rental.

“I checked on the rates for Budget and they were a good deal,” says Volk. An 18-day rental at Boston’s Logan Airport came to $601, including taxes.

That is good.

“I clicked on the ‘confirm reservation’ button and got a message that the reservation could not be completed,” she says. “I tried several times. Same problem.”

Volk then contacted Budget and was told that the rates were — and I quote — “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

So what was bookable? The rate Budget offered her was $400 higher.

That looked suspicious, so I decided to check with Budget. A representative responded to my question promptly:

Any rate that is retrieved or “shopped,” can be reserved or “booked.”

We have looked into this matter, and we cannot seem to replicate the problem Chris Volk experienced. In fact, we received the $601.94 rate and were able to complete the reservation.

We would be happy to make the reservation for the traveler. Please let me know if we can be of assistance.

Problem solved? Not exactly.

I returned to Volk with this information.

“The statement above from Budget is quite simply a lie,” she said. “Customer service rep after customer service rep was unable to receive the $601.94 rate.”

Really? I asked to see the correspondence.

Volk sent the emails between her and Budget. She identified four separate excuses for not receiving the rate.

Excuse #1 — A rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team know about your disappointing experience. On behalf of our entire Budget team, I apologize that the charges displayed through Virgin Airlines website differed from Budget’s rates.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience or confusion this rate issue may have caused. This issue is caused when a rate code has been loaded into the reservation system as “shoppable” but not “bookable.”

Unfortunately, due to this error, you can view the rate, but the rate is not actually available to be booked at the location selection.

Excuse #2 – Someone else already confirmed that rate, so it is gone.

Dear Christine Volk,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team.

Certainly, we apologize for the confusion, a rate may be shoppable for a customer but not bookable when they have reviewed the rate, however someone else has already confirmed and selected the particular rate for the vehicle they are looking to rent. This generally happens when using a 3rd party website to book vehicles, where there may be a delay in retrieving the data from the Budget.com site.

To avoid this type of confusion we suggest booking directly through Budget.com.

Excuse #3 – We can’t duplicate it.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for contacting us through the Budget website.

We apologize that you are not able book a reservation using the discount number through Virgin Airlines. Please provide the discount number that you are trying to use so that we may see if we can duplicate the rate that you are seeing. You will be advised of our findings once we have all the information.

Excuse #4 – Maybe it’s you.

Dear Ms. Volk,

Thank you for the screen shots. We have tried to duplicate the rates that you are seeing on Viriginamerica and are finding higher rates than what you have sent.

Please keep in mind that rates are not guaranteed until actually booked no matter whose website you are on. Each rate has a certain amount of vehicles set aside for that rate when that amount of cars are reserved on that rate then the rates will go to the next rate available.

You might want to clear your cache as this could be what is causing the problem.

Volk has made a reservation for $990 instead of the $601 she thought she’d get, which isn’t a terrible rate, but nowhere near as good a deal as before. She’d like me to follow up with Budget or Virgin America and secure the rate she’d initially been quoted.

I’m a little tired of these pricing games. If companies can track you online, if they know more about you than you know about yourself, then they should be able to quote you a bookable rate, shouldn’t they?

I understand caching, but that excuse is so 1998.

Should I mediate Christine Volk's case with Budget?

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Want to live debt free? 4 signs you might be getting ripped off

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
If you’re a regular reader of my consumer advocacy columns, you probably already know that the word “free” should trip all kinds of alarms.

If not, don’t worry, I’ll get you up to speed: If you see the word “free” in a product offer, run!

But “free” can be used in another equally important context. Promises to make you “debt free,” for example, can leave you even deeper in the hole. There, too, my advice is identical — don’t walk, flee.

Debt-free, or “last dollar” scams, are, after identity theft, among the most complained-about swindles in America, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). These scams are part of a broad group of cons that can involve selling you promises of a job, a government grant or some other money-making opportunity.
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3 secrets for dealing with the scammiest industry on Earth

Nomad Soul/Shutterstock
Nomad Soul/Shutterstock
When it comes to email, which industry do you trust the most?

If you guessed social media, congratulations. It topped the latest Agari Email TrustIndex, which measures the adoption of essential email authentication standards across several industries. It revealed the pains to which social networking companies like Facebook and Twitter go to prevent fraud. Given that these online communities are built on trust, no one was really surprised.

But how about the lowest score? That didn’t come as a shock to me either, since I spend a good part of my consumer advocacy practice swimming in its waters. But it might surprise you.

It’s travel.
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5 summer travel scams no one warned you about — but should have

Jirsak/Shutterstock
Jirsak/Shutterstock
Watch your wallet while you’re on vacation.

You’ve heard that advice before, haven’t you? With the summer travel season in full swing, you’re likely to hear it again, from friends, family and the occasional consumer journalist.

But the real danger isn’t from an overt scam like the “fake” front desk call at the hotel in the middle of the night or the spoofed Wi-Fi hotspot. It isn’t even the predatory timeshare salesmen that take money from you in increments of thousands of dollars.
Read more “5 summer travel scams no one warned you about — but should have”

Something’s still “phishy” about vacation rentals

Gilles/Shutterstock
Gilles/Shutterstock
If you think the words “vacation rental” and “phishing” are all but synonymous, you’re not alone. Just talk to Ann Schutte, who recently found a rental villa with a “million-dollar” view in Sedona, Ariz., through the rental Web site VRBO.com.

A woman claiming to own the property quoted her a $645 rate for five nights if she wired her the money. “After a number of e-mails back and forth, I agreed to the rental,” says Schutte, a property manager from Phoenix. “I received a contract. Everything looked correct on the contract. It even had the rental property address and logo. I signed the agreement, and wired the money through Western Union to the U.K.”
Read more “Something’s still “phishy” about vacation rentals”

Time share sales: hard sell or scam?

Jake Azman/Shutterstock
Jake Azman/Shutterstock
Even though Igor Pavlovic and his wife consider themselves experienced consumers, they say that nothing could have prepared them for the sophisticated and aggressive sales pitch for a Wyndham time share that they recently endured in San Antonio.

The couple had been lured into a formal presentation with promises of “free” dinner and show tickets. “Once we got there, two salesmen gave us a high-pressure sales pitch,” says Pavlovic, a retired information systems consultant from Palm Beach, Fla. “Of course we liked the offerings and savings, but there was no way for us to verify their claims.”

You can probably guess what happened next. The Pavlovics bought a time share and then tried to cancel it. Even though the salesmen had promised that they could get a full refund “at any time” before using the benefits, the contract said otherwise. Now they were on the hook for $18,000, which didn’t include $650 in annual maintenance fees.

“It was all a lie,” says Pavlovic. “A scam.”
Read more “Time share sales: hard sell or scam?”