Got vacation on the mind? Beware cruise scams

Millions of Americans enjoy cruises to escape winter, but when you find a too-good-to-be-true deal on a cruise, it probably is.

As temperatures turn cool, cruise season is just starting to heat up. Millions of Americans enjoy cruise vacation packages as an escape from winter each year. But to keep from getting burned this travel season, would-be vacationers may need more than just sunscreen to protect themselves. If you want to escape the deep freeze, keep on the lookout for scammers pushing the many variations of the free cruise scam.

The allure of a free trip may be strong, but it is important to know what scams are out there so that you can be on alert and ensure that the great deal you have been offered isn’t too good to be true.

The long-distance free cruise scam

In this scam, a victim receives a piece of mail notifying them that they won a free cruise. All they need to do is call a number in the envelope to claim it. Unbeknownst to the consumer, the number, which appears to be American, is really from a foreign country, and calls to claim the prize can cost as much as $5.00 per minute. The scammers on the other end of the line will try to extract as much personal information as they can from their victim--like their Social Security number and bank account info--so that they can steal their victim’s identity or sell their information to other scammers. In the end, there is no cruise. Instead, the victim is left with an astronomically high phone bill and an increased risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.

The hidden sales pitch scam

In this scam, the fraudster uses the offer of a free cruise to lure their victim into a lengthy, high-pressure sales pitch for a timeshare. Under the ruse of coming in to pick out their accommodations, the “lucky winner” will be subjected to an hours-long timeshare presentation. In some cases, these pitches may even take place on the cruise ship, where attendees are held captive and have no other choice but to be subjected to lengthy pitches for an overpriced timeshare.

Many consumers who are able to endure these high-pressure sales tactics and actually receive their free trip are then subjected to more high-pressure sales tactics to upgrade their trip. These passengers often report dismal cruise conditions and ships that lack common amenities like air conditioning.

The not-so-free “free” cruise offer

In this iteration of the free cruise scam, a consumer is informed that they have won a cruise, and they just need to provide their credit card number for “incidentals” like port fees and taxes. These “incidental” costs, however, quickly add up to more than what they would have paid had they purchased a trip through a respected travel agent or directly from a cruise line. To make matters worse, the cruise they purchased may be on a very old and outdated ship that is woefully in need of a renovation.

While it is certainly possible to win a free cruise, it is important to keep these tips in mind to navigate around any potential scams:

  1. You cannot win a prize from a contest that you did not enter. If you don’t remember entering any contest where a cruise was a prize, you are probably talking to a scammer.
  2. Do your homework. If you are offered a free cruise from a contest you entered, ask for the name of the travel agency and then check their online reviews and  Better Business Bureau rating. Some state Consumer Protection departments may also have business-lookup services that share data about complaints. As a big destination for cruising, Florida’s lookup service is especially useful. If a cruise operator or travel agent has received a lot of complaints, if they aren’t registered in the state they say they are, or if consumer reviews describe hidden sales pitches or complain about additional fees, it is probably a scam.
  3. If you purchase any upgrades, pay with a credit card. By paying with a credit card, you have more options to dispute the charge if it turns out to be a scam. Avoid a business that asks for payment through a wire transfer or cash, which leave you no way of getting your money back if it turns out to be a scam.
  4. Never pay for a prize. If you really won a cruise, it should be free and include all taxes and fees. You may be offered to book a night at a hotel the night before your trip or to upgrade your room, but the base prize (and fees)  should be free.
  5. Be wary of high-pressure tactics. If the prize giver is pressuring you to make a decision or to act quickly, there’s probably a catch. Carefully study the documents they provide and ask them to clearly explain any vague fees, your accommodation class, the ship’s name, and cruise line, etc. If they refuse to provide you with the details you request, it is probably a scam.

If you believe that you may have fallen victim to a cruise scam, report it! You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of more than 90 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can help put fraudsters behind bars.