061013-PHIL.mp3

It's vacation time. And the Better Business Bureau is warning of a letter "scam" that’s been circulating in Rhode Island and Massachusetts that might prove tempting for anyone trying to reign in the expense of flying from Point A to Point B. WGBH's news editor Ted Canova received the letter, and so did I.

The pitch came to me in a plain, white, wrinkled envelope the kind of crumpled letter you carry around for weeks after forgetting to drop it in the mailbox. The postmark reads, "Phoenix, Arizona." Let’s open it:

In bold, black letters is a logo at the top of the page that reads: “American Airways.” American Airways? Now, American Airways sounds very close to the name of a legitimate airline, but it's not. Here’s what it says:

"Dear Phillip, I am pleased to inform you that you have qualified for an award of two round-trip airline tickets. Congratulations. These tickets are valid for travel anywhere in the continental U.S. from any major international airport. The retail value of this award is up to $1,350."

My first impulse is to trash it. But then again, this could be a good deal. Air travel is expensive, and it would be great to get out of Dodge. And the possibility of going somewhere for free?

"If we do not hear from you soon, we may need to issue the ticket vouchers to the alternates," the letter continues.

But the Better Business Bureau writes, "If you receive a letter claiming you’ve won two round-trip tickets courtesy of American Airlines or U.S. Airlines, don’t be fooled. This is a scam!"

"It’s kind of like the old advertising review where you’re promised to get one vehicle and they go and do a bait and switch," said Paula Fleming, Vice President of Marketing for the Better Business Bureau of New England. "It’s a similar situation where they promise you tickets and you don’t get them in return. Well then, that would be a scam. You’re getting a letter claiming one thing, and when you call it’s something completely different."

Fleming says this is not a new scam but it may be new to this region.

"We are aware of it, because of all the complaints that the Better Business Bureau has received in other parts of the country," she said. "What they've done is they've kind of taken off from the merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways that was announced months back. That's been going on. They're using that name to solidify trust with consumers."

The Better Business Bureau says it’s a shell game that’s making its way around the country — region by region — and the letters, in recent months, she says, have been arriving in mailboxes throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I asked Fleming, "Who could possibly fall for a pitch like this?"

"My parents," she said, laughing. "Unfortunately, my mom got one of these letters and my dad, he falls for everything, God bless him, and he was all excited: 'Oh, we won.' He felt that there was legitimacy in the name. What this business is doing is merging two great names to instill trust, and people like my parents fall victim to this every day.

Whoever mailed this letter is counting on precisely that. So I decided to find out who it was that I was dealing with, and dialed the number on the letter.

The professional-sounding individual on the other end of the line told me after five minutes that I did not qualify for the free airline ticket based on a single-person profile that I provided them. But he said I might qualify for a free cruise.

And I was promptly transferred to another party.

Within seconds another professional sounding person came on the phone. The letter I received was postmarked Phoenix. The customer service rep on the other line said she was in Palm Beach, Fla.

"We just require $118 dollars for taxes and port fees," she said. "Mr. Martin, which credit card would you like to pay for this?"

This is where it gets complicated. I’m not being asked for money outright — like the email scams from Nigerian princes, kings or queens I’m being asked to pay fees and taxes, presumably in advance of being given a Caribbean cruise, though it started off as a mailed offer of free airline tickets to anywhere in the U.S.

Massachusetts’ Attorney General Martha Coakley has heard similar offers.

"I don’t think we’re aware of this one, and of course you have an envelope that you’re not sure where it’s from, right?" Coakley said.

"I called the number in the letter," Coakley said. "A very professional young man came on the phone, and I gave him the code at the bottom, and I said, 'Phillip Martin is actually my husband.'"

Coakley was curious about the letter that I received in the mail; so curious that she decided to call the number listed and to cite the code at the bottom of the page to find out exactly what was being pitched.

"I called the number in the letter," Coakley said. "A very professional young man came on the phone, and I gave him the code at the bottom, and I said, 'Phillip Martin is actually my husband.'"

Ah, so at least to the ears of the folks on the phone, Coakley and I are married; for the sake of getting answers I’m her husband for the day.

So, if the sales rep believes you’re married, what happens next? You’re then steered to a time-share/vacation club representative. He or she steers you to a site in Massachusetts. And before you conclude the call, you’re offered a free Caribbean cruise vacation.

All you have to do is pay port fees and taxes, and the mysterious company that uses American Airways and U.S. Airlines in its letterhead now has your credit card information.

"What we have seen and what we continue to see is a completely fraudulent, 'You've won two tickets and I'm going to take $118 off your credit card and you will never hear from me again or see me again because I don't really have airplane tickets for you, because I'm just trying to get hold of your financial information. And if you have a lot of people doing this, multiply it by hundreds of times a day, it starts to add up."

Browsing the internet will lead you to American Airways, U.S. Airlines and Caribbean Cruise Lines, not to be confused with Royal Caribbean. What also turns up are hundreds of written complaints. And if you decide to attend the high-pressured time share-vacation club pitch sessions in Rhode Island and Massachusetts? The least you could lose is time and $118 in taxes and fees.

But Coakley said some consumers have lost a lot more.

"Some people spend up to $8,500 for a vacation club membership that are essentially worthless," she said. "They have glossy magazines and books that says you can book here, but when you actually use it there’s usually no time or no spaces at any of the places that they recommend."

And to get to Florida, where the Bahamas Celebration ship is docked, you will have to pay the airline costs, which can exceed $400 per person.

"One gentleman spent $14,000 on a trip that he was duped into by attending one of these events, and it was from a letter that originated from this actual business," Fleming said. "He’s at this event thinking he was going to get two free tickets and thinking all he had to do was listen to their spiel."

So much for the free air ticket offer, which is how this whole affair started. Coakley says there are lots of vacation scams out there.

"A year ago we had extensive number of complaints around something called Phantasia Travel Group in Methuen and The Only Way To Go Travel in Plymouth," Coakley said. "They were actually found in contempt and had to pay over $300,000 in civil penalties and they had to put money into escrow for restitution for victims."

But Coakley says because many of these vacation scams involve a contract, your options for recovery can be limited.

"It’s very difficult to recover as a practical matter," she said.

In response to this story, for the first time, Better Business Bureaus around the country are asking state attorneys general and Congress to take action against the marketing firm that has been sending out the kind of letter that I received.

"Well now that you brought it to my attention, I see a significant opportunity here," Fleming said. "For us, the Better Business Bureau, to work with government agencies on a national level to really delve into this business and say, 'What is going on here?' If they claim to be legitimate, then where's the proof in the pudding?"

For their part, the two legitimate airlines, American Airlines and U.S. Air — which are in the process of merging — are warning on their home pages to be aware of confusing sounding names of airlines that could be mistaken for the real thing. So, if you receive a letter in the mail from American Airways or U.S. Airlines which sound similar to American Airlines and US Air –consider it in the same way you would think about an email from a Nigerian prince trying to make you rich. Coakley knows you’ve heard it all before, but she says it’s worth repeating. If it’s too good to be true …

"It probably is," Coakley said.