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Don’t Ignore Scam Warnings

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“You have won a ‘free’ trip—just pay the taxes.” If you believe that, I have a few bridges I’d like to sell you. Sadly, too many folks do believe that or a similar claim. And very quickly they no longer have enough money to buy my bridges.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

For some reason, scammers tend to target travel. Maybe it’s because travel is so appealing. Maybe it’s because legitimate travel companies sometimes make such outlandish claims of “savings” that the public will believe just about any wild claim. For whatever reason, “You’ve just won a free refrigerator” doesn’t have the pull of “a free trip.” So travel scammers continue to prosper. I just received an email from a reader warning me of a current scam that’s typical of the breed:

“On March 19, my 90-year-old mother-in-law, who has dementia, was called by some crooks who told her she won a free trip to Barbados, for which she must pay $998 to cover taxes. She asked if her daughter (my wife) could use the trip and the scammer said yes and asked for her credit card. She believed nothing would be charged until the “free” travel plans were finalized and provided her card information. She shortly realized the mistake she made and contacted MasterCard within a few hours, but the money was already charged.”

Although the details vary, many travel scams are from the same script. Fortunately, if you follow a few obvious rules, you can avoid being gouged:

1. Never believe anyone who calls to tell you you’ve “won” something. Unless the caller is from an organization you know, and you’ve actually entered an official sweepstakes, the call is almost surely phony. Your chances of losing out on a legitimate great deal are, in mathematicians’ terms, “vanishingly small.”

2. Never believe a “free” travel offer claiming “all you have to pay are the taxes” or perhaps “handling fees.” You can be sure that even if you’d ever get to travel, those taxes and fees actually cover the full cost of what you finally get.

3. Never accept a phone offer claiming, “If you don’t buy right now, we can’t repeat the offer.” No legitimate travel deals require that sort of response.

4. Never give out your credit card number to some unknown person or organization that calls you “blind.” I even follow that rule with calls from my bank—I say thanks for the message, I’ll call you back on your regular number.

5. Always check out a pitch from an unknown source before you buy. See what the Better Business Bureau has to say and possibly refer to a few of the online “gripe sites.”

In theory, my reader’s mother-in-law should be able to recoup her payment through MasterCard. But credit card issuers are generally stingy with chargebacks, especially if the scammer actually delivered something to the victim—and especially if the scammer already has the money.

This report brings up another subject—an unpleasant one that you must nevertheless face if you’re a senior or are caring for an older relative. You’ve all read about the trauma older folks face when some younger family member has to say, “It’s time to give up your car keys.” What you don’t see as often is reference to the similarly tough time, “It’s time to close out your credit cards.” But I know the danger first hand: A dear friend had to file for bankruptcy because his wife, suffering from early Alzheimer’s, went on a huge credit card spree. Dementia and credit cards are a really bad combination.

To conclude on a happier note, the travel industry is full of good deals and bargains. There may not be such a thing as a “free lunch,” but inexpensive lunches are available just about everywhere. Take advantage of the good deals and never forget that deals “too good to be true” generally are just that.

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