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October 22, 2013

Travel deals too good to be true

SundayLife! looks at the types of scams travellers can fall prey to and how they can protect themselves

Jennani Durai

Singaporeans are travelling more and further afield, but with the proliferation of online booking and daily coupon-deal sites, they are at risk of falling victim to fake deals or false advertising.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has already received 1,008 complaints against the travel industry here between January and September this year.

At this rate, the annual figure may exceed last year’s total of 1,436 complaints, as well as the 1,396 made in 2011.

The top three reasons for complaints are a travel provider’s failure to honour an agreement, refunds not received and unsatisfactory services, says a spokesman for Case.

Ms Patricia Auyeong, group acting chief executive of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), says scams often involve an extremely attractivelypriced holiday package.

“The most common type of travel scam is one where unscrupulous individuals lure customers with the prospect of very cheap packages, ask for upfront payment and then disappear with the money while the customers are stranded with no hotels or air tickets,” she says.

“Another type of scam is, after paying for the deeply discounted product, customers have to pay a significant amount of additional fees at destination to take advantage of the cheap deal.”

Earlier this month, business executive S.Y. Tan filed a police report against a travel agent who had sold her and her family a iscounted three-night stay atWSingapore – Sentosa Cove. The hotel did not receive payment from the agent and charged Madam Tan more than $7,000 instead.

While not all complaints about the travel industry involved a “scam”, travel experts advise Singaporean travellers to take extra precautions when booking hotels and travel packages promising “unbelievable deals”.

Case executive director Seah Seng Choon warns travellers to watch out for unsolicited e-mail, telephone calls and faxes “offering hard-to-believe deals on travel to desirable locations”.

He adds: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Ms Auyeong agrees, saying that travellers should be mindful that a cheap package may not necessarily be a good one. “It’s always wise to check the terms and conditions, and to do an online check on whether the company is reputable. The phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ comes to mind here,” she says.

She adds: “Even if a tour is actually formed, the itinerary, flight timing or even hotel accommodation may be less than ideal. There are cases where consumers may be taken on ‘compulsory’ shopping tours which can charge exorbitant prices.” Mr Seah advises travellers to check that their travel agent is accredited and to buy travel insurance before going.

Mr Robert Khoo, former chief of Natas, agrees and says travellers should always make sure they are dealing with licensed travel agents.

“You can see a travel agent’s licence displayed in the store. If not, you can always ask to see it and ask whether they are members of accreditation programmes or associations such as Natas,” he says.

“If they are licensed by the Singapore Tourism Board, then you can do something if you get scammed. You can go to the board and get information on them.”

Mr Sam How, general manager of Asia-Euro Holidays, suggests checking the travel agent’s authenticity by searching for it through the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority at www.acra.gov.sg

He adds that travellers can approach the tourism board, Natas or Case to check on an agent’s registration or record. “If it is a registered travel agent, someone somewhere is accountable to you,” he says.

Mr Seah adds that it is important to read the fine print and to put verbal agreements in writing.

“As it is not easy to enforce verbal agreements, it is prudent to put them in writing. Watch out for vague promises that you will be staying at five-star resorts or riding on luxury cruise ships at cut-rate prices,” he says.

“Most travel companies can confirm group tours only two weeks before departure as such tours are subject to group size. So if a company promises that a particular group tour can be confirmed on the spot, get it down in writing.”

Ms Auyeong says that Natas encourages customers to do their own research and come up with an estimate of how much a tour package should cost. They should then check with the travel agent on the reason for the unbelievable price, she adds.

“If you are not convinced or comfortable with the offer, it is best not to focus on the price and look for packages that best suit your needs. Consumers should not make rash decisions and succumb to pressure-selling to take advantage of cheap deals,” she says.

Rental apartment that does not exist

CASE 1

Two weeks ago, Mr Lung Kai Loon and his wife Doris, both in their 50s, arrived in New York City to find out that the apartment they had booked on US-based apartment rental website 212Suites.com did not exist.

It was their first time renting an apartment. Usually when they travel, they book their hotel accommodation through websites such as booking.com.

All their communication with 212Suites.com was done through e-mail.

The couple paid a deposit of nearly US$500 (S$620), which they wired over, for the two-week rental of a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.

The person they were communicating with asked for their credit card details for the balance payment of US$1,800, but Mrs Lung did not give it, saying she would settle the rest when she arrived.

When the couple turned up at the website’s purported office in East 41st Street, they were told it was the office of another travel agency. They could not get through to 212 Suites’ supposed office number and when they decided to look for the rental apartment, it turned out to be an office building.

They ended up staying with their daughter’s in-laws.

Mrs Lung, a retiree, says: “We couldn’t believe it at first because the website looked so legitimate. We have never had a problem booking hotels online before and we never thought this would happen in a developed country.”

She and her husband, also a retiree, filed a report with the New York City police, who seemed “not surprised”, says Mrs Lung. “We haven’t heard from them since. A lot of these things probably happen.”

SundayLife! visited the website and found a legitimatelooking one listing about 130 one-to three-bedroom apartments in attractive locations in the city.

A badge on its home page stated that it is “verified by TripAdvisor”.

SundayLife! also found at least 100 posts on Trip- Advisor’s New York City travel forum decrying the website as a scam, something Mrs Lung says she was unaware of.

An e-mail request to 212Suites.com for comment went unanswered.

When contacted by SundayLife!, a TripAdvisor spokesman says: “The claim that any content on 212Suites.com is ‘Verified by TripAdvisor’ is false.”

To avoid being duped by dodgy booking websites, TripAdvisor recommends making all holiday rental bookings through TripAdvisor and its vacation rental companies, FlipKey and Holiday Lettings.

“When a traveller pays online through the FlipKey or Holiday Lettings payment platform, his booking is protected,” says the spokesman.

She adds that if a vacation rental company does not accept online payment options, TripAdvisor recommends a secure form of payment, such as a credit card, whenever possible.

She also advises travellers never to wire funds via instant wire services such as Western Union or Moneygram as “this form of payment has been associated with scams”.

In spite of feeling “angry and stupid” after that incident, the couple say they will continue to book holiday accommodation online, but on trusted websites.

“All our experiences before this one have been very good,” says Mrs Lung, but her husband says he now prefers to “speak to someone in person before booking”.

Mrs Lung says she will not take the authenticity of online travel sites for granted in the future and she will do thorough checks for reviews.

CASE 2

Budget airline instead of SIA

An attractive offer for a trip to Bangkok on daily deal website Deal.com.sg caught Ms Michelle Lin’s eye two years ago. The 23-year-old student immediately snapped up the voucher, along with hundreds of other travellers.

She bought the $188 deal for a fourday, three-night trip to the Thai capital through Connection Tours and was given a choice of five airlines and five hotels. She chose Singapore Airlines and the five-star Amari Watergate hotel and went to the travel agency to book the trip.

While waiting for an e-mail confirmation from the agency a few days later, she decided to Google it. “I found many poor reviews online about the hidden costs incurred and how they didn’t give buyers any of their preferred choices”.

She adds: “Many buyers posted negative comments on the deal website’s Facebook page to air their grievances.”

She decided to retract her booking and wrote to both the deal website and travel agency to ask for a refund.

She received an e-mail a few days later confirming her booking but she had been issued a flight on budget carrier Jetstar and a three-night stay at a small hotel called Tai Pan Hotel, half the price of Amari Watergate. She was asked to pay $300 more for associated taxes and fees not disclosed in the original deal.

“I felt cheated but thankfully, since I wrote in before the confirmation e-mail was sent, I managed to get a full refund on the voucher,” she says.

Mr Robert Khoo, former chief of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), says it is important for consumers to always get a black-andwhite commitment from travel providers on what exactly they are paying for.

“It’s quite common for travel agents o change hotels because sometimes, the promised hotel is full. If they give a hotel of equivalent quality, that’s fine, but to change to a low-cost hotel is too much.

“If you have proof that you did not get what you were promised, you can lodge a complaint with the tourism board or Case. And if it’s a lot of money, you can even sue the travel agent as it was a breach of contract,” he says.

If the errant travel agent is a member of Natas, the association will usually try to help resolve the issue, adds Mr Khoo.

In addition, packages usually list the airline and hotel name, or the information can be obtained by a call to the agent, says Ms Patricia Auyeong, group acting chief executive of Natas. “Refusal to disclose the airline and hotel is usually a red flag.”

Once the name of the airline and the hotel involved in the deal voucher have been obtained, travellers should call the specified hotel and airline to check that they indeed are offering this deal.

“This will help determine if the deal is legitimate or not,” Ms Auyeong adds. “Asking for credit card details or other sensitive information even before you make a commitment to buy the product is also a red flag.”

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times & straitstimes.com

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