Offers of free plane tickets carry a high price

Mailers that have blanketed Southern California are intended to get people to attend 90-minute presentations on a travel club costing $1,500 to $9,000.

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Dorene Butler received what looked like a check for $1,198 the other day, but it didn't pass the smell test.

For one thing, the accompanying letter said that "we have attempted contacting you on several occasions." There had been no such attempts.

For another, the check seemed to be sent from "US Airlines." There's no such airline.

Finally, the check was apparently intended to cover two free plane tickets to any domestic destination.

"That sure sounded too good to be true," Butler, 73, of Laguna Beach, told me.

She wasn't alone in receiving the mailer. It apparently was sent to households throughout Southern California and previously had appeared in other states.

What is it? Who's it really from? Are the free plane tickets for real?

Getting answers to those questions took a bit of digging. But first, let's take a closer look at what's being offered. The envelope says "travel check voucher enclosed" and "final notice." The mailer is neither.

The enclosed voucher, recipients are told, "can be redeemed for a certificate for 2 round trip airline tickets to anywhere in the continental US from any major international US airport," though "certain restrictions may apply."

On the back of that seeming check, it says, "this is not a check." The non-check was either written by the nonexistent US Airlines or something called Travel Union in Scottsdale, Ariz. It's hard to tell.

Confused? Not to worry. There's a phone number, and getting you to call it is the whole point of the exercise.

When I did, I reached a service rep named Tanya at Travel Awards in Phoenix, a call center for a "wholesale travel agency" named Featured Travel. She said I could have the free plane tickets in return for attending a 90-minute presentation at a local hotel.

Tanya was cagey about the nature of the presentation but finally said it was for travel packages that would save me a lot of money when I go on vacation.

Some rooting around finally led me to Empowered Partners, a Las Vegas company that runs the presentations and offers memberships in a travel club.

Rick Recania, a principal at Empowered Partners, told me that participants pay $1,500 to $9,000 for memberships that provide discounts on air travel, hotels, car rentals and other leisure-related activities.

Whether that constitutes a good deal depends on your vacation habits. But, like resort time-share plans, it's a product that requires some aggressive selling, and that's why Empowered relies on outside marketing firms to get people to attend its presentations.

Empowered hires as many as half a dozen marketers to handle various aspects of its promotional campaign. "Some might do the work themselves," Recania said, "and some might sub it out to others."

It turns out that there is a US Airlines, but it's a Wyoming marketing company. I reached Steve Talbot, the company's customer services manager, but he declined to speak on the record.

Featured Travel is another marketer employed by Empowered or one of its other marketers. It's apparently responsible for handling the call centers and plane tickets. And the strings it attaches to redeeming travel vouchers are typical of such offers.

The terms and conditions on Featured Travel's website reveal that you have to pay $50 with your application form for the plane tickets, and it has to be a U.S. Postal Service money order. "Any other forms of payment will void the offer."

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