That great travel deal might be too good to be true
How's this for a great deal? You've been awarded two free airline tickets to anywhere in the country you choose. Notifications congratulating the winners started showing up in area mailboxes in September.
Travelers who tried to take advantage of the offer got taken for a ride all right, but not on any airline.
As you may have already suspected the letter's a scam, and the subject of a nationwide alert from the Better Business Bureau.
But work by the KATU Investigators has - for the first time - connected the bogus bargain to an entire network of shadowy companies, operating in at least three states and one step ahead of public scrutiny.
It starts with an official looking letter from US Airlines promising you two round-trip tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. The ticket is worth nearly $1,300. However, you have to act now, the deal will be over in a few days and they've been trying repeatedly to reach you so you don't miss your chance!
"I saw this notice that said, 'Award notification - urgent.' And there was a deadline of October 3rd," says retired Portland resident Larry Wittenberg. "Well, it was October 2nd. We take Rhodes Scholar trips, we take AAA trips, maybe it has something to do with that? How's it going to hurt me to go to this appointment? So we set up a time and date."
But as Larry found out when he followed up on his notification, the letter was just the first in a series of misleading claims.
There is no such airline. And the vice president named on the document is one of several showing up on duplicate letters sent around the country, all trying to get consumers around the country to buy into a secretive travel club offering so-called "deals" on vacations.
Not that you'd notice on first glance - besides the letter head, there's a boarding voucher, authentic-looking right down to the staple mark and scanning instructions.
But Larry, who worked for the Salem Police Department troubleshooting residents' complaints, says that's when the shell game began. Far from being a straightforward offer of free tickets, the sales person he contacted started making demands.
"When they said a driver's license and a credit card, a bunch of bells went off in my head. And I'm going, 'This is a scam.' And I said, 'Who is this?' because nowhere on the notice I got in the mail was there a name of an organization."
The name, Larry learned, was *not* US Airlines after all. "I finally got the name of what they called themselves, which was Travel Deals Express, I went on the internet."
We did the same. Online, Travel Deals Express has all the trappings of a legitimate service provider. But click closer, past the logos of familiar vacation partners. Click on "our locations" and what do you get? Not found.
We did find a lot in common with the sales pitches made by another - now discredited - company called "Travel Deals," which changed its name to "Travel Smart" when the media in Connecticut got wind of the too-good-to-be-true offerings. Some of those involved in that scheme were connected to a notorious case in New Jersey where would-be travel operator Daryl Turner was arrested last year on charges of setting up nearly a dozen shell companies to scam customers out of millions of dollars.
Had this same hydra of deception turned up here in Portland? We wanted to find out - and so did Larry. He agreed to go to the appointment for us, which was being held at a Beaverton hotel. But that lead to another surprise and another company: "They had a banner up that said Vacation Smart International," explained Larry. "That also sends off bells. You get called by Travel Deals Xpress then you are dealing with Vacation Smart International. And I go, this doesn't add up."
And after all that, Larry was turned away because he didn't bring his wife - both of the household's decision makers had to be present to hear the pitch.
"Then that person can't make the excuse that I have to check with my husband or check with my wife in order to pay you $4,000 for this exclusive membership in the travel club," he explained.
But a half-dozen other couples went in, Joyce Rolloson and her husband among them. She explained what she was told: "They have a travel agency down in Florida that they say has all these travel people and you give them a call and they work on all the special deals," according to Rolloson. "They buy in bulk, according to them. And then they sell it to you, their member. We were thinking this would get us out travelling more, because the opportunity would be there to save money."
All the information is echoed on the Vacation Smart International website - with the additional reassurance that some 300,000 people have taken advantage of the offer. But such exclusive access doesn't come cheap. Says Joyce: "They started out at $12,000 and [we] got it down to $4,200."
After hearing the eye-popping price tag for what began as a free travel award - and the tangle of companies behind it - we wondered what kind of value was really being offered and by whom.
But non-members can't access the deals to compare prices or see who they're buying from.
So we examined business licenses and website registries for information about Vacation Smart International, based in Torrance, California.
Here are some of our findings: First, that claim of 300,000 customers to date is quite remarkable for a company that's only been in business since March.
What's more, the same claim, using the exact same language as Vacation Smart, turns up on a defunct website belonging to Travel Smart, the name of the company implicated in those scams on the East Coast.
Was there a connection between all these companies? And what about the false US Airlines advertising? We decided to ask Vacation Smart's owners to comment. They refused to go on tape - or even be identified - but they did issue a statement through their lawyer, disavowing any connection with the scandal tainted companies back east, despite the similar websites and sales pitches.
They also deny responsibility for the US Airlines promotion, blaming it on the marketing company they hired- Arizona-based MDP - which was presenting itself as Travel Smart Express, but promising to fire them if their own investigation turns up any wrong doing.
Finally, regarding their core travel service - it turns out VSI is acting only as a sort of middle-man for Florida-based Reservation Services International, a company that had been in business for 30 years and had a top-notch rating with the Better Business Bureau.
End of the story?
Clicking closer once again - this time on the RSI website - reveals some troubling things. Their Twitter account link is broken. The company Facebook link leads nowhere.
And while it's true that R-S-I has an A+ rating in Winter Park, Florida, R-S-I was kicked out of the B-B-B in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the end of last year, for "engaging in activities reflecting poorly on the BBB or its members."
R-S-I's current listing already has 13 complaints.
But the most interesting - or suspect - piece of information of all?
A note on that A+ rating page, under Products & Services.... stating that customers found that the *special* travel rates offered were no different than what they could book themselves.
In their statement to KATU, VSI said that customers had a 3-day rescission period where they could get their money back, which is all in accordance with Oregon law. But remember Joyce? The woman who paid $4,000 for her membership? She was told she couldn't do anything for a week while the paperwork was processed. Of course by then it may be too late to get a refund.
We've already shared our findings with the Oregon Department of Justice and urge you to contact the office if you have concerns about travel deals. We also tracked the VSI sales teams setting up shops in northern Kentucky, Athens, Georgia, Boise, Idaho and Fort Collins, Colo.