American's filing accurately described the deception: "These promotions are a naked attempt to deceptively lure people into sale presentations for useless travel-club memberships by playing off of American's famous and valuable trademarks." American asked for immediate temporary relief, a permanent injunction, and more than $1 million in damages. American is likely to get the injunctions, but collecting damages will be another story: Shady travel promoters are pretty adept at changing corporate names, folding one business and re-opening it as another, and other tactics to avoid the reach of lawsuits. That may be why so many big companies don't bother to go after these guys; they're often too slippery to catch. But this time American apparently had enough and decided to do something. Way to go, American.
The promises these promoters make run the gamut from wonderful prices on glamorous holidays to "free" air tickets or accommodations. They typically include one or more of these catches:
— The product description is exaggerated. A "deluxe Bahamas cruise" turns out to be a sightseeing boat.
— To get whatever is supposedly "free" or highly discounted you have to buy something else at a price that is padded enough to cover what you thought was free.
— When you try to book a trip, the supplier is "sold out" on any date you specify, but, of course, it has availability at a higher price.
In a related scam, a reader recently reported on trying to use a "free" companion airline ticket. When he tried to book, the airline agent told him that the companion certificate covered only the base fare — which was about $300 — and that he would have to pay about $100 in legitimate government taxes and fees and the airline's "carrier imposed charge" of some $500, which, as far as I can tell, is the old "fuel surcharge" renamed. This illustrates one of the many ways airline-imposed surcharges are a scam. They're really a part of the base fare and should be included in the base fare, and most U.S. airlines no longer break fares into phony low-ball "base" and equally phony surcharges. But, unfortunately, many foreign lines still adhere to the scam. And someone with a "free" companion ticket for a supposed $900 flight would have to pay $600.
The take-away from all this hardly needs to be repeated. Any time a promoter promises something "free," there's likely something phony about the promotion. If you're lucky, you can figure out the scam. But even if you can't, you needn't be caught: The best rule for "free" gimmicks is "Just say no."
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at email@example.com. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)