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The 'great airline ticket giveaway' that just won't go away

The letter warned the recipient that she still hadn't responded to that great offer from "US Airlines" of two free airline tickets, and time was running out. Call the toll-free number now! it urged.

Fortunately, Red Tape reader Mary McNamara ignored it and passed it on to me. But somebody must be calling the enclosed toll free number, because the "great airline ticket giveaway" just won't go away. Complaints about it can be found across the web from a couple of days ago, and from at least two years ago.


Let's take care of the basics first. There is no airline called "US Airlines" -- you're thinking of U.S. Airways. That’s no accident; that’s a technique. A variation of the letter is from "American Airways," a bastardized version of American Airlines. Call the number, and you don't get two free airline tickets; you get invited to a 90-minute presentation where you will be encouraged to join a travel club.

 

In the words of travel expert and consumer advocate Chris Elliot: "I have yet to find a travel club that is legitimate."

I called the toll free number and was told I had to travel from Seattle to Portland to attend a meeting before I could receive my free tickets. But the operator, who identified himself as Josh, gave me the option of calling a friend or relative in the Chicago area and sending that person on my behalf to a meeting there. Thanks to their generous referral program, he said, I'd get free tickets just for talking a (soon to be former) friend into attending.

To save yourself the trouble of calling and listening to the pitch, someone recorded their call and posted it on YouTube.

Elliot, by the way, also received one of these free airline ticket letters recently, and wrote about it on his blog.

The free ticket letter offering has been around for at least two years, and inspired a lot of complaints in April 2011. It is such a nuisance that U.S. Airways had to post a "scam alert" on its website.

A representative to the airline told me that she's worked in the company's public relations department for seven years, and the free ticket letter "just kind of resurfaces from time to time." She reiterated, with a heavy sigh, that the airline was in no way affiliated with the offer.

Why would such an offer persist for years, despite all the warnings about it?

"People don't pay attention to details," said Elliot, also the author of the book, “Scammed.”  "US Airlines could exist, and the victims are quickly seduced by the offer. In other words, this thing is still around because it works."

When I asked "Josh" for more details, he said he was working for a company named Universal Travel Deals. The point of the 90-minute meeting -- he called it a "meet and greet" -- was to drum up business for local travel agencies, he said.

"Hopefully, to get people to book travel through them, rather than through those websites, like Travelocity or Expedia," Josh said. 

There are also complaints about Universal Travel Deals in various consumer sites online. When I called the number for a firm named Universal Travel Deals in a Chicago suburb called Tinley Park, a woman who answered confirmed her company was managing free airline ticket offers. When I said I was a reporter, she took my name and number and said she'd have someone return my call. I’m still waiting.

Elliot said he's seen various telephone numbers come and go for the offer, which is a sign that something is wrong.

"The numbers have changed, which suggests to me that they may be moving from state to state," he said. "That's a common tactic to stay a step ahead of state regulators. My guess is this isn't a big enough fish for the Feds to get involved. Either that, or the FTC hasn't received enough complaints about it."

Do letter recipients ever end up with free airline ticket vouchers? That’s unclear, but this much is certain: nothing is really free in this world, and certainly not airline tickets. Letter recipients never get anything just by calling. They have to attend sales meetings, which, according to the few stories posted online by people who claim they’ve attended, exact their own costs.

If you receive an offer like this, please do three things.

1) Read it carefully. It's good practice to find the misleading elements, such as names like "US Airlines."

2) Throw it out and ignore it

3) Complain to your state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission so someone actually takes a close look what's going on. (Here's a handy contact list for state attorneys general).

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