The Better Business Bureau has expressed concern over offers of free airline tickets sent to many Anchorage residences this year. A press release from BBB offices in Alaska and Washington on Thursday described a recent investigation into solicitations received by "thousands of Alaskans."
Alaskans received letters saying, "you qualified for an award of 2 round-trip airline tickets ... valid for travel anywhere in the continental U.S. from any major international airport" with a retail value of up to $1,190. The letter was topped by a logo similar to that of American Airlines, but without the word "airlines," and signed by "Sue Myer," identified as the vice president of an otherwise unidentified company. It included a toll-free number, but no return address.
The press release noted several items, termed "red flags," including that no company information was provided to potential customers and that the letters did not disclose the fact that recipients had to attend a 90-minute presentation in which they were subjected to "one-on-one high-pressure sales tactics" to buy a $9,000 vacation club package. In addition, it said, the letters do not properly disclose the fees and restrictions of the two "award" airline tickets.
Michelle Tabler, BBB's Alaska regional manager, said she became aware of the offer when people called her office asking whether it was legitimate. Then she got her own offer in the mail.
The envelope was hand-addressed and mailed with a stamp. (Bulk mailing with a postage meter would help identity the sender.)
She called the toll-free number and was asked questions about her age, demographics and marital status. When she said she was single, she was told that she didn't qualify for the airline voucher. She did, however, qualify for a cruise from Florida to the Bahamas and she was transferred to that number.
The person on the cruise call said she could have a supposedly free cruise with a companion, but they refused to give her any information unless she gave them her credit card number and charged $118 for "port fees." She was told it was a government requirement. She said she wanted to think it over and asked for a number that she could call back. No, said the man on the other end. You have to ask today. Tabler told him that the letter said she had until Aug. 1, which had not yet passed. He said it didn't matter. By calling she'd activated the process and had to make a decision then and there, he said.
Tabler declined and called the toll-free number on the letter again. This time she said she had a significant other and she was instructed to attend one of two seminars at the Anchorage Hilton Hotel on Aug. 2. She and her companion had to arrive 15 minutes before the presentation to fill out application forms that asked, among other things, how much they spent on vacations each year.
Once inside, Tabler said, "It was a rally, like a time-share thing." A speaker promoted a vacation package -- special $8,995, today only -- that included goodies like five-star hotels and golf vacations for an additional $50 a night.
"Then the hard-sell started," she said. A closer met with each of the seven couples on hand. Tabler believes the event was restricted to couples with both parties required to be present to preclude the possibility of someone saying they needed to check with their spouse.
"I told him that I needed to do some research. I said, 'How do I contact you? Do you have a card or brochures?' " Tabler asked.
No, the closer said. She'd have to make the decision right now.
"I pushed it as far as I could to get more information, but they would give us nothing with their name on it," she said. "He became quite nasty with me."
Tabler recorded her phone and in-person interactions. From the information she received it was impossible to tell whether the companies were co-owned or otherwise linked. They included Passport to Travel (the airline voucher), Caribbean Cruise Lines (the cruise offer) and Destination Vacation 360 (the travel club offer).
The company making the pitch at the Hilton insisted it was only a contracted intermediary, according to the BBB press release. "It claims to not have sent out the original letters and it claims no formal affiliation with the parent company that actually offers the memberships it is selling -- but fails to detail those relationships."
Tabler turned down the vacation package but did receive her voucher. The instructions for getting the putatively free tickets include:
• Fill out a validation form and send in a $4.95 processing fee.
• Wait 30-45 days to receive an activation packet with terms and conditions that must be filled out, signed and returned within 30 days along with a $50 per ticket "activation fee" -- by cashier's check or money order only.
• Wait another two-to-three weeks for processing before receiving a confirmation email with a link to the "reservation portal" where one can, finally, submit dates and other information about their proposed trip.
• Five or six days later, an acceptance email will be sent and "an agent will contact the customer 30-45 days prior to travel date to finalize their reservation." If the request is rejected, the customer will receive a refund of $75.
(Getting an accepted date may be tricky. "You can't use it during the week of a federal holiday or Easter," Tabler said. "Or the week before or the week after. That leaves about 19 weeks a year that you can use the tickets.")
• After all of the above, the customer will receive an email with the final charges, including taxes. surcharges, fuel charges and -- oh, yeah -- another $59 per ticket processing fee. If you don't like the final quote you can request a refund of $75.
• An additional announcement from Passport to Travel advises, "depending on season and availability, surcharges may apply to Alaska departures."
While the BBB does not assert that there is anything illegal in this promotion, Davyn Williams, State of Alaska assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Unit, said the Federal Trade Commission recently facilitated a sweep of time-share and travel club scams in several states.
"Generally the way these things work is that people receive offers for free cruises, airlines, those types of things," she said. "People are asked to pay some kind of fee or come to a high-pressure sales event where they're pressured into buying some kind of travel club package. It costs a lot of money, but when people try to redeem their vouchers, they discover they haven't got a deal, or they're difficult to use, or they can't use them."
Williams' advice: "Any time a business is not forthcoming with information, like their name or any limitations or fees, if those things are not disclosed up front, the any Alaskan should be wary of those solicitations."
She said her office would like to hear from anyone who has purchased one of these types of travel club offers and feels that unfair practise has occurred.
Similar promotions are taking place every few months in Alaska, Tabler said. In March, a near- identical mailing went out with the allusion to a different airline name.
"I'm concerned that there are dozens and dozens of people going to these events," she said.
"It's possible that if you go through all the steps on the voucher you can get the tickets. People might be getting a great vacation. I have no idea. But I'd love to hear from anyone who has paid the money."
Customers who have had problems with such offers are encouraged to contact Tabler at 644-5208. The BBB also recommends contacting the State Attorney General's office at 269-5200 and the Federal Trade Commission.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM