I encountered travel trade fraud close on fifty years ago – before I became a travel writer.
I had not long arrived in London as an old-fashioned, foot-in-the-door reporter when I found myself, one bright Saturday afternoon in May, interviewing two dozen or more people gathered in a street near Kings Cross Station.
They stood on the pavement with battered suitcases and shattered dreams. They had paid for a “Luxury Coach Tour of Europe” and made their way, mainly from the Midlands and the North of England, to London and the appointed pick-up place.
There was, of course, no coach, no tour and no hope of ever seeing their money again.
My sympathy for their situation pretty much evaporated when they showed me the correspondence they had received from the tour organiser – mostly handwritten or badly typed with lots of spelling errors on paper with no letter heading. No address other than a Post Office box number. And no telephone number.
I thought about caveat emptor (‘buyer beware’) and what mugs they had been, but a few years later – as travel correspondent of The Times – found myself dealing with hordes of similar “mugs”.
They had answered small ads in the posh papers, joined clubs which they knew to be bogus, and sent off their money in order to get on cheap charter flights. In those days the only way to do so was to join a club – “formed for purposes other than travel” – and wait for a qualifying six months.
It was a recipe for disaster and a fraudster’s dream come true. More often than not the public paid for flights that didn’t exist. It was the old “Luxury Coach Tour” scam moved into the jet age.
The travel trade was doing itself no favours either. Selling holidays to hotels that were still in the cement mixer, and overbooking them for good measure. It was a rough and ready trade “with more cowboys that you’ll find in Oklahoma”, as somebody once admitted.
But, prodded by the Trades Descriptions Act and other legislation, it came out of that period. From the mid-1960s it matured, and developed what was, at the time, the best consumer protection scheme of any trade or service industry. It can now stand comparison with the best.
Unfortunately, the crooks haven’t gone away. If anything, they have multiplied and circle the travel trade like the vultures they are. That’s why PROFiT is so important.
Video: Travel writer John Carter on fraud
February 2009 is Fraud Awareness Month in Travel Weekly. Read more at travelweekly.co.uk/fraud
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