Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / Expert Opinion / Fraud Facts: Watch out for fraud while planning vacations

Fraud Facts: Watch out for fraud while planning vacations

Gina Bliss

Last month, Carnival Cruise Lines had a public relations disaster when its ship, Triumph, had an engine room fire that left the ship without power.

While that was going on, I had a lot of questions. Why did it take so long to get the passengers to shore? Isn’t there a better way than towing the ship with tug boats with all the passengers on board? Why were there food shortages? Last, but not least, why don’t toilets work when the power goes out?

There are good answers for all my questions. In a situation like this, passenger safety is the first priority. Leaving passengers on the ship was deemed to be safer than trying to transfer that number of passengers to other ships. While there was plenty of food on board, the ship lost refrigeration in a tropical climate and perishable foods spoiled quickly. And, cruise ship toilets operate on a vacuum system that requires electricity.

Reports indicate that the Triumph’s crew handled things very well and attended to passengers’ comfort as best they could while managing expectations with good communication. Carnival did a good job with bad circumstances, but it still has some trust issues with the public.

It comes as no surprise that lawsuits have been filed against the company that owns the Carnival Triumph. What was a surprise to me was the nature of the contract you sign in order to buy a ticket for a cruise. It’s standard industry practice that the cruise line reserves the right to cancel any cruise, there are restrictions on where and when you can sue, restrictions on punitive damages, restrictions on claims of emotional distress, restrictions on your privacy (your bags can be searched anytime), and limits on the company’s liability for your lost or stolen items.

Experts predict that lawsuits against Carnival aren’t likely to gain any traction, but if they do, Carnival will settle.

Cruise vacations, besides being subject to various disasters, can be included in some types of vacation fraud.

Fraudulent vacation packages are marketed by phone, email, fax, and Internet and mail advertisements. They include features such as advance fees, hidden charges, additional fees, substandard accommodations and no ability to get a refund when you’re not satisfied. It could be a rental or timeshare that doesn’t exist when you get there. You may have to endure a high pressure timeshare sales pitch as part of your “package.”

Vacation fraud has a long history because who wouldn’t like a great vacation for a bargain price? It’s easy to lure victims with big promises. The sales pitches are good, and people are convinced to pay now. They are convinced to pay a “processing fee,” and give bank account information for that purpose. The company may send you information on the offer you accepted, but it may be very different from the oral representations you heard.

You can take steps to avoid being scammed on your dream vacation:

• Beware of unsolicited offers.

• Always pay with a credit card. If you feel the charge was a scam, you can dispute the charge with the credit card company.

• Do not pay any advance fees or processing fees. You should never have to pay before seeing information in writing or receiving a prize.

• Be concerned if you’re told your credit card was declined and now a wire transfer is needed. There won’t be any way to recover the funds.

• Don’t be pressured. A legitimate business will allow time for you to make a decision.

• Do not believe a telemarketer who claims to need your credit card number for verification purposes.

• Ask for the names of the travel agency, hotels, airlines, cruise lines and restaurants in your package. You can contact them directly to confirm.

• Ask about cancellation policies and refunds.

• Get everything in writing and watch for hidden charges.

Many of the former passengers of the Triumph have praised the crew for their high level of service under such difficult conditions. Some are already planning their next cruise. I’ve never been on a cruise, and I haven’t ruled it out. An Alaskan cruise might be nice.

Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at EFP Rotenberg LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting. She may be reached at (585) 295-0536 or by email at [email protected].