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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.

David Lazarus

9:43 PM EDT, August 1, 2013

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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."

You have to submit a copy of your driver's license with the application. You can't travel within a week of any federal holiday and must book your trip at least 60 days before the intended travel date. The tickets are no good after 12 months have passed.

All flights, airlines and airports "are at the discretion" of Featured Travel, which reserves the right "to offer an alternative departure date and/or destination."

"All terms of this offer must be met or the offer will be voided," the website says, adding that the travel company "reserves the right to change these terms and conditions without notice."

I tried hard to track down anyone at Featured Travel but kept ending up at the Travel Awards call center. Recania at Empowered Partners said he'd try to connect me with someone at the marketing company, but that went nowhere.

The Better Business Bureau in Arizona issued a warning this year that a company called American Travel Deals was blanketing the country with suspicious mailers almost identical to the one that reached me.

"It's misleading advertising," said Felicia Thompson, a spokeswoman for the bureau. Free plane tickets aren't what's really being pitched, she noted. It's that pricey travel club.

American Travel Deals, according to the bureau, operates under a variety of aliases, including Featured Travel, Travel Awards, Travel Union, US Airlines, American Airways, United Airways, Desert Sky Travel, Travel and Deals, Travel Premium Awards Agency and Universal Travel Deals.

I called the number on the website for American Travel Deals and was connected with — who else? — Tanya at Travel Awards, who by this time was growing pretty annoyed with all my questions.

Shawn Bay, director of marketing for Empowered Partners, said companies such as Featured Travel are able to offer free plane tickets because "there's a lot of breakage." That's marketing-speak for coupons not being used by consumers.

"A lot of people never redeem their certificates or decide not to travel," Bay said.

With all those catches, you can see why.

I asked Recania if he was comfortable with the marketing tactics being used to lure people to his company's presentations.

He said he wasn't familiar with the mailer from Featured Travel but insisted: "I'm not in favor of anyone doing or saying anything that's not legal."

Never mind illegal, I'd settle for simply not duping or misleading people. If the point of the solicitation is to get people to attend a pitch for a travel club, then come right out and say it. Don't monkey around with fake checks and make-believe airlines.

Recania said he's offering an above-board service, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But the company he keeps leaves much to be desired.

That's why this is one trip I'd skip.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.