Some timeshares not worth time, money

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ftc.gov

via Some timeshares not worth time, money, clarionledger.com

PDF: timeshares

The timeshare industry is booming. In July, the American Resort Development Association reported that the industry had reached $8.6 billion in sales in 2015, capping six straight years of growth. The association reported that the number of timeshare units had grown to over 200,000 nationwide, with occupancy rates at nearly 80 percent.

Many Americans look to timeshares to help provide a place to get away for a few days in a great destination without the hassles of having to book a hotel reservation or maintain a vacation home year-round. The system works well for many people, but many timeshare owners have found a hidden downside to timeshare ownership when they decide to sell their property; selling a timeshare for a decent price can be difficult.

And, in some cases, owners can be targeted by scammers. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission charged the operators of a timeshare reselling scheme with bilking at least $15 million from owners by imposing hefty up-front fees based on false promises that they would sell or rent the properties.

A Florida company called Pro Timeshare Resales and its owners are accused of calling timeshare owners and claiming they had a buyer or renter ready, or that they could quickly sell the property. The company allegedly collected as much as $2,500 in advance to handle the transaction, and in some cases strung the owners along with additional false claims and requests for nonexistent “closing costs” or other fees. When dissatisfied customers asked for refunds, the FTC noted, the requests were “denied or ignored.”

The agency also charged the owners of the company with violating the Do Not Call Registry and the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and requested a federal court halt the operation and freeze the company’s assets.

If you find yourself interested in getting rid of your timeshare, most experts advise you to tread carefully to avoid scams and rip-offs. Here is some of the FTC’s advice on the subject:

  •  Don’t agree to anything on the phone or online until you’ve had a chance to check out the reseller. Contact the attorney general’s office and consumer protection agencies in the state where the reseller is located.
  • Ask the salesperson for all information in writing. If they balk at this reasonable request, it could be a red flag.
  • Ask if the reseller’s agents are licensed to sell real estate where your timeshare is located. If so, verify it with the state Real Estate Commission. Deal only with licensed real estate brokers and agents, and ask for references from satisfied clients.
  • Ask how the reseller will advertise and promote the timeshare unit. Will you get progress reports? How often?
  • Ask about fees and timing. Most reputable companies will take their fees after the sale. If you must pay a fee in advance, ask about refunds. Get refund policies and promises in writing.
  • Don’t assume you’ll recoup your purchase price for your timeshare, especially if you’ve owned it for less than five years and the location is less than well-known.

The American Resort Development Association is also a good resource for timeshare owners and has a lot of advice and tips for timeshare buying and selling at www.arda.org, along with a list of recent known scams to avoid at www.arda.org/advisories/.

Sleep apnea’s consequences dangerous

 

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clarionledger.com/AP

 

via Moak: Sleep apnea’s consequences dangerous

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Every night, millions of Americans deal with the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. Much to the frustration of their sleep partners, sufferers of this sleep disorder toss and turn, often snoring loudly and jolting themselves awake. The cycle is repeated often hundreds of times each night and leaves the sufferer exhausted and unrested in the morning.

According to the National Sleep Apnea Foundation, the disorder affects more than 18 million Americans (and possibly many more), and the vast majority of cases are undiagnosed. But sleep apnea is far from a minor annoyance; its effects can be potentially deadly. Left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and other problems. And one particular effect can have far-reaching consequences — daytime drowsiness from the lack of restful sleep can lead to falling asleep while driving.

After a September train crash in Hoboken, New Jersey, in which one person was killed and at least 114 were injured, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it will issue a “strong recommendation” that train operators be tested regularly for sleep apnea. In the Hoboken crash, engineer Thomas Gallagher tested positive for sleep apnea after the crash, but he had passed a physical a couple of months before the crash. Gallagher reported feeling rested when he showed up for work that morning, but has no memory of the crash before waking up on the floor of the engineer’s cab.

Sleep apnea has also been blamed for a number of other train crashes, some fatal. According to the AP’s story, New York’s Metro-North service started testing its engineers for obstructive sleep apnea in 2013, after a deadly crash. Since then, 51 of 438 engineers tested positive for the disorder and treatment for them was ordered.

Sleep apnea, of course, isn’t a new problem; nor are the potential deadly effects. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drowsy driving resulted in 72,000 crashes in 2013, resulting in 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths. However, the CDC report notes that those statistics may be very conservative. Studies have repeatedly shown that many of us are driving tired, and (particularly on longer trips) can fall asleep easily.

In March, the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board sought public input on the potential impacts of testing railroad workers and commercial motor vehicle drivers for obstructive sleep apnea. And the NTSB issued new guidance requiring that airlines test their pilots for the disorder on a regular basis and require treatment to be allowed back into the cockpit.

The actions came after at least 34 troubling incidents (and possibly many more), such as a 2008 Go! Airlines flight in which two pilots fell asleep on a short-hop flight between Honolulu and Hilo, Hawaii. The pilots flew their plane, 40 passengers and a flight attendant 26 miles past their island destination into open ocean and did not respond to air traffic controllers for more than 18 minutes. After their safe return, the captain was tested and found to have “undiagnosed severe OSA.”

FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg told the Associated Press  that the agency is considering that all railroad operators be screened for obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep and fatigue disorders. While the issue has been of concern for years, Feinberg told the AP it’s time to take action. “At this point it’s unacceptable to wait any longer,” she said. “This is one more thing railroads can do to keep their passengers safe and the communities they’re traveling through safe.”

For more about sleep apnea, its causes and treatments, visit http://www.sleepapnea.org/.

Flying for holidays? Take steps to minimize stress

via Flying for holidays? Take steps to minimize stress

PDF: the_clarion-ledger_state_20161121_a003_1the_clarion-ledger_state_20161121_a004_3

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch again one of my favorite movies,”Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” This holiday-travel classic features the misadventures of two hapless travelers (Steve Martin as the acerbic Neal Page and John Candy as the cheery Del Griffith), who are trying to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. What appears to start well with an easy hop to Chicago turns out to be a travel nightmare, as one hilarious misadventure after another helps form a unique bond between these very different individuals.

Hopefully, if you’re one of the nearly 3.6 million Americans planning to fly during the holidays this year, you’ll have an easier time than Neil and Dell. One frequent traveler complaint is the long lines to get through security checkpoints. Although security lines at some airports should be a little shorter — thanks to more than 13,000 employees added by the Transportation Security Administration —  getting through security still might not be as easy or as fast as it could be. The TSA had planned to have a new program in place that would expedite screening for passengers who signed up for its “PreCheck” program, but (thanks to questionable vendor security and a lack of personnel) those plans have been put on hold.

The TSA announced recently that 4 million Americans had already signed up for the program, which was to have eventually enrolled 25 million. Working with outside vendors to perform background checks would have helped the agency meet its goals and allowed travelers to speed through security more efficiently. But, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the agency has “concerns about the vulnerability of passenger information that it provides when testing potential vendors” and “increased and evolving cybersecurity risks over the past year.”

In a nutshell, the agency is concerned that hackers could access the background check information by invading the computer networks of the firms doing the background checks necessary to complete enrollment in PreCheck. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, quoted in the Times article, noted the additional employees — plus converting 2,000 part-time screeners to full-time employees and forming a 1,000-employee “deployment force” to be dispatched to trouble spots — could help make it easier to navigate congested security lines at airports around the country.

But security lines aren’t the only thing that can stress you during air travel. Escalating costs, crowded airports, delayed flights and a host of other problems can also ruin your holiday.  On its blog, the TSA makes several good suggestions to help ease the pain. Here are a few:

  • Give yourself enough time. The TSA recommends arriving at the airport a full two hours before your flight time. This will help you avoid missing your flight because (as Murphy’s Law holds), “everything takes longer than it takes.”
  • Check your pockets. Many of us have had the misfortune of arriving at the metal detector, only to find out we’d forgotten about the knives, multi-tools, etc. in our pockets. (I’ve lost a couple of nice multi-tools this way). Also, be sure to check the TSA’s site regarding the 3.1.1 rule for liquids and be sure your carry-on bags are free of firearms, Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and other troublesome items. Checked bags, too, can be problematic, as E-cigarettes and vape pens aren’t allowed on checked bags (but can be taken on your carry-on.)
  • Make sure your furry friends can fly. If you’re planning to fly with pets, be sure to check out the TSA’s rules as well as those of the airlines. Rules and regulations vary, and your pet might (or might not) be allowed to accompany you in the cabin, depending on the size of its carrier and other considerations. If you’re crossing state lines with your animal, a USDA health certificate must be issued by a veterinarian, so give yourself plenty of time to plan. Hawaii has special quarantine rules for pets. And, if flying overseas, you’ll need to check out the destination country’s rules. Check out www.bringfido.com for some great tips.

If all goes well, you won’t have to deal with burning rental cars, diverted flights and insufferable travel companions, and can get home in time to enjoy the holiday with your loved ones.

How to keep roads from turning deadly

 

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leftbankproject.com

via How to keep roads from turning deadly, clarionledger.com

As school has started back, Mississippi streets and roads are once again filled with parents eager to get their kids dropped off at school so they can go on to work or their daily activities. According to some statistics, about a quarter of morning traffic every school day is from people driving their kids to school. And that’s on top of a typical day’s traffic, with drivers plying the roads, their attention often distracted by a thousand things — not the least of which are the ever-present electronic devices that grab our attention.

If you’re a pedestrian (or cyclist) trying to navigate these challenging roads, it can be dangerous — even deadly. The Mississippi Department of Transportation sent out a news release this week, urging Magnolia State drivers to be extra careful around pedestrians, and urging pedestrians and cyclists to increase their awareness as well. An MDOT news release cited some sobering statistics: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a pedestrian dies every two hours nationwide, with people being injured every seven minutes in traffic crashes. In 2015, 63 pedestrians died after being struck by vehicles in Mississippi.

As part of its mission, MDOT pays attention to such statistics, and tries to help increase our awareness so we can make streets and intersections safer. One way they do this is through two programs called the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program and the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) Program. “The Bicycle and Pedestrian Program provides many resources for those looking to walk or bike within the state from tour guides to information about laws,” notes the MDOT release. “SRTS promotes and enables children in kindergarten through 8th grade to choose safely walking or bicycling as their means of transportation to and from schools.”

You have probably seen the result of some of the great work being done by these programs. According to SRTS’ national website (www.saferoutesinfo.org/), Mississippi communities benefited from more than $12.2 million in federal SRTS funds from 2005 to 2012, doing things like funding the building of sidewalks, bike lanes and providing training and resources for law enforcement.

But no matter how many sidewalks and bike lanes we build, if drivers, pedestrians and cyclists don’t pay attention to each other, those efforts won’t help save lives. Here are a few tips from MDOT about things we need to keep in mind:

When walking:

  • Follow the rules of the road. Obey all signs and signals, and walk on sidewalks if provided.
  • Watch traffic carefully, remembering that danger can come from two (or more) directions. Keep an eye out for vehicles pulling up or exiting driveways. Don’t let your attention be distracted by devices.
  • Cross streets at crosswalks or intersections whenever possible. If a crosswalk or intersection is not available, locate a well-lit area where you have the best view of traffic, and wait for a gap in traffic that allows you enough time to safely cross.
  • Be visible at all times. Wear bright clothing during the day, and wear reflective materials or carry a flashlight at night.
  • Never assume a driver sees you. Make eye contact with drivers as they approach you to make sure you are seen.

For drivers:

  • Use extra caution when driving in hard-to-see conditions like nighttime and bad weather. Dawn and dusk are when it’s often hardest to see.
  • Remember the “3-foot” law (formally known as the John Paul Frerer Bicycle Safety Act); vehicle drivers are required by law to yield at least three feet to cyclists.
  • Slow down, and be prepared to stop when turning or otherwise entering a crosswalk.
  • Yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and stop back far enough from the crosswalk to give other vehicles an opportunity to see the crossing pedestrians so they also will stop.
  • Never pass vehicles stopped at a crosswalk. (And, of course, NEVER pass a stopped school bus.)
  • Follow the speed limit, especially around people on the street; school zones and neighborhoods with children require extra attention and slower speeds.

Scam hotel sites pathway to identity theft

via Moak: Scam hotel sites pathway to identity theft, clarionledger.com, 2/17/2016

PDF: Hotel booking fraud

A few months ago, I wrote about an alarming scam that has been sweeping the nation. As travelers make their hotel reservations online, scammers have set up fake websites that look like the hotel’s official sites but are, in fact, just a pathway to having your identity or money stolen.

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, close to 15 million reservations were made on deceptive hotel booking sites in the last year alone, resulting in guests finding themselves out hundreds of dollars for a worthless reservation or one that delivered much less than promised. AHLA estimates these scams cost U.S. travelers upwards of $1.3 billion per year.

These fake websites have ripped off many an unwary consumer, and the scam has attracted the attention of members of Congress. Last week, a bipartisan group of representatives introduced a bill to protect consumers from these practices. The Stop Online Booking Scams Act (H.R. 4526) was introduced Feb. 10, and was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (according to congress.gov).

“Booking a hotel room for a dream vacation should not lead to a nightmare,” noted Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida. “This bill will reduce fraud and give law enforcement more tools to protect travelers.” Frankel co-introduced the bill with colleague Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvannia, and 11 other colleagues (including six Democrats and five Republicans).

Of course, many consumers use third-party websites such as Travelocity and Priceline to book their hotel reservations rather than going to the hotel’s website directly. But increasingly, a Google search for a particular hotel might turn up a few sites that look like the real thing but are cleverly disguised fakes that collect your payment information for when you make your “reservation.” Of course, when you get to the hotel, they’ve never heard of you, and your account has been raided.

If it becomes law, the bill would strengthen three key fraud-fighting tools to help consumers:

  • Require disclosure of non-official status. All third-party hotel booking websites would be obligated to disclose they are not affiliated with the hotel for which the traveler is ultimately making the reservation. This new requirement will help consumers know when they are actually on a hotel’s website and when they are instead on a third-party booking site, which will help identify fraudulent sites masquerading as name brand sites. Violators would face fines of up to $11,000 per infraction, be responsible for financially compensating fraud victims, and have their illegal website shut down. (Of course, fraudulent sites would be unlikely to follow this provision in the law.)
  • Empower states. Under the proposed legislation, state attorneys general would have the ability to go after scammers in federal court and seek damages for victims. In most states, under current law, only federal authorities can fully penalize criminals who commit online hotel booking fraud.
  • Simplify the procedure to report fraud. The Federal Trade Commission would be encouraged to simplify its online complaint system to make it easier to report hotel scams and would be required to report on the impact of hotel booking fraud.

“I’m proud to work with my colleagues, Lois and Bill, on stopping fraudulent hotel booking websites,” said Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. “So many Americans conscientiously save for their vacations and are deeply disappointed when they discover they have been victims of a crime. Congress should do all it can to crack down on these perpetrators of fraud who take advantage of both families and the businesses the websites impersonate.”

Angry with airplane ‘seat kickers’?

via Moak: Angry with airplane ‘seat kickers’?, clarionledger.com, 11/12/2015

PDF: Seat Kickers

Submit your airplane etiquette pet peeves at the email below.

It’s been a long day. Tired from your full day of meetings, an interminable taxi ride and the seemingly endless line through airport security, you’ve finally gotten into your seat on the plane, looking forward to a few winks of shut-eye before you reach your destination.

Nearly in dreamland, you’re awakened by a jolt; the guy behind you has kicked the back of your seat, sending shockwaves through your body. Throughout the flight, it happens again, and again. You don’t want to make a scene, but you imagine yourself as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop, breaking a pencil to send a message to a couple of unruly kids kicking his seat, to high-fives from your fellow irritated passengers.

If you consider the “seat kicker” to be the most annoying of airline passengers, you’ve got a lot of company. On Tuesday, Expedia.com released its annual Airplane Etiquette Study, which asked travelers about their top annoyances on planes. More than 6 of 10 passengers cited the “Seat Kicker” as their pet peeve when traveling by air.  A close second was the “Inattentive Parent” (as exemplified by the oblivious parents of the unsupervised little monsters kicking Arnold’s seat in the aforementioned movie), who for some reason let their kids do pretty much anything once it’s wheels-up.

The survey taps into a deep well of traveler anger. As airlines raise fares, airlines attempt to squeeze every penny out of passengers, clamping down on knee space, bumping you with little or no warning and making you pay extra for just about everything that was previously free. Frustrated travelers have had enough. The 2011 Passenger Bill of Rights addressed some of that, but there are a lot of other things that still rile passengers. A lot of them have to do with other people’s behavior on the flight; “If I’m going to pay this much, I should at least get to enjoy it,” you can almost hear passengers saying through their clenched teeth.

Despite all the pet peeves, though, the survey had some good news: Three-quarters of those surveyed felt that most passengers try to be sociable and inoffensive; a significant number (about half) felt air travel is still something “fun and exciting,” and some said they would neglect their own comfort (for example, not reclining their seats if the passenger behind them is pregnant) for the sake of getting along or just simple courtesy. It really doesn’t take much to avoid being one of the folks on this list; simple courtesy and politeness will go far.

“Planes continue to fly full, never more so than during this season, when millions of Americans will fly to be with their families for the holidays,” said John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Expedia.com. “Inside a packed plane at 30,000 feet, both good behavior and bad behavior are amplified. Respecting our fellow passengers is a small but important gift we can all give each other.”

Here are a few more of those pet-peeve-passengers, from the survey:

  • The “Aromatic Passenger”, whose lack of hygiene — or recent meal — catches up with him and everyone else in the enclosed space of the cabin.
  • The “Audio Insensitive” (who listens to loud music or talks loudly).
  • The “Boozer,” who feels it’s OK to get three sheets to the wind and makes sure everybody knows it.
  • The “Chatty Cathy,” who feels like she must engage all her neighbors in conversation.
  • The “Undresser”, who takes off various items of clothing, including — no, please, NOOO! — his shoes, a la John Candy’s Del Griffith. (Actually, that also makes Del an “Aromatic Passenger,” too, doesn’t it?)
  • The “Carry-On Baggage Offender,” who feels like her carry-on bag can surely fit in the overhead bin, despite its bulging seams and back-breaking tonnage. This often results in minutes of frustration, only to find the flight attendant eventually relegating the piece to the baggage hold.
  • The “Queue Jumper.” You know him as the guy who sprints from the back of the plane the instant the plane comes to a stop, with zero regard for anyone else’s place in line.
  • The “Seat-Back Guy.” He’s the one who takes full advantage of his seat’s reclining abilities, rendering your tray table useless and cramping your knees. (Actually, I was surprised this one didn’t top the list, but only about a third said this guy was chief offender.) This particular annoyance has been the subject of heated debate, as described in a May USA Today story.

There are a lot more objects of passenger ire on the Expedia survey site, athttp://bit.ly/1MADQNS.

So, readers, here’s an opportunity for you to give us your own pet peeves. Do you agree with this list? What’s your top airline-travel annoyance? Just send me an email and I’ll compile them for a future column. Happy Traveling!

Contact Bill Moak at moakconsumer@gmail.com.

Booking through a hotel website? Use caution

Clarionledger.com, 10/8/2015

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20151008_C009_1

The Internet has brought wonderful accessibility to the process of booking a hotel. From your smartphone or desktop, you can make all the room arrangements for your trip online. And increasingly, sites like Priceline and Expedia allow you to compare hotels and rates, and book online. In most cases, they’re convenient and can save you some money.

But a disturbing trend has emerged in the past couple of years; customers are increasingly targeted by scammers, who cleverly disguise their websites to fool customers into thinking they are visiting official hotel websites. It works like this: you’re looking for accommodations, and Google your favorite hotel chain. Lots of results pop up, and it looks like one of them is the hotel’s direct booking site. So you go online, select a room and make your reservation. The only problem: it’s not really the hotel’s website.

Various agencies have been sounding the alarm on this scam in recent months. And this week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) released a study indicating that fear of being scammed is causing potential hotel guests to think twice about visiting hotel websites.

The AH&LA reports that up to 15 million bookings (amounting to more than $1.3 billion) have been conducted through so-called “rogue” websites. About six percent of consumers have reported these experiences, but what is really worrying the hospitality industry is that about one in three people are thinking about it.

“These findings clearly show that online hotel booking scams have eroded consumer confidence among third-party vendors,” said Katherine Lugar, president and CEO of AH&LA. “Consumers deserve transparency in knowing who they are booking with. That is why we have been actively working with state and national government agencies, including the FTC, as well as consumer advocacy groups, to ensure that consumers are protected and can feel comfortable in the booking process. It’s always safest to book directly with the hotel.”

Booking through a rogue website can mean that you not only will not have a room when you arrive at the hotel, but you’ll likely be on the hook for late booking fees and lost room charges and face the potential of identity theft.

The AB&LA release also took the opportunity in their release to encourage customers to book directly with the hotels, and avoid third-party sites. While they did not name any specific sites, they noted that the consumers in their survey reported various problems with these services such as unmet expectations, hidden fees, problems with reward points, and even identity theft.

The hotel industry has historically had an oddly symbiotic relationship with third-party booking sites such as Priceline and Expedia. These services rely on being able to work with hotel companies, which in turn need them to fill rooms. But lately, the hotel industry has tried to slow down the growth of third-party vendors. A New York Times article in September, for example, focused on the industry’s opposition to a potential merger between Expedia and Orbitz, which would create a behemoth in the booking industry. Expedia has been gobbling up competitors like Travelocity at a rapid pace. The AH&LA noted in a letter to the Justice Department that consumers should be alarmed; a merged Expedia-Orbitz  — along with competitor Priceline — would allegedly control more than 90 percent of the online booking market.

It’s hard, however, to argue with the logic of contacting the hotel directly to make your reservations. It can be frustrating to book by phone; some hotel chains redirect phone calls to a centralized reservation system, so finding that local property can be difficult. Most hotels do offer online reservations, but you have to be careful. If you’re not sure of whether the hotel website is legitimate, the BBB has some great tips at http://go.bbb.org/1cZxxVt.

“As we heard from consumers, booking hotel accommodations directly is always your best option—eliminating headaches and hassles during any step of the process,” added Lugar. “When dealing directly with the hotel, consumers can rest easy knowing they have direct access to those who can accommodate their needs.”

‘Travel Club’ nets $3M fine for robocalling

via Moak: ‘Travel Club’ nets $3M fine for robocalling, on clarionledger.com, 8/17/2015

We have written extensively in this space about robocalling (telemarketing by automated calling machines). Thanks to some recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission, consumers must give their consent to receive robocalls.

But even before enforcement of the new rules began, the FCC was investigating robocalling activities. One such investigation came to a head last week, when the FCC levied a whopping $2.96 million fine against a Florida company called Travel Club Marketing and related companies.

The FCC accused the companies and their owner, Olen Miller, of making at least 185 unsolicited, pre-recorded advertising calls to more than 142 consumers (the majority of whom had already placed their numbers on the National Do-Not-Call Registry). The calls were made to sell timeshares, travel deals and “free” vacations.

“It is unacceptable to invade consumers’ privacy by bombarding them with unwanted and intrusive robocalls,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau. “All companies, and their owners, who thwart the Do-Not-Call list should expect to face severe consequences.” The forfeiture notice amounts to the largest ever for robocalling violations, signaling that the FCC is looking hard at companies that use automated technology to call consumers.

If you are getting robocalls, you can file a complaint with the FCC at https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us. And it’s always a good idea to list your number with the National Do Not Call Registry, at http://DoNotCall.gov, or by calling (888) 382-1222.

Flying with your pet

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 6/6/2015.

PDF: Flying with your pet

You may have been following the saga of actor Johnny Depp’s dogs and their harrowing escape from  Australia. For those unfamiliar with the story, Depp and his wife Amber Heard took their two Yorkshire Terriers Boo Radley and Pistol to Australia on a private jet back in April. However, no one declared the canines to Australian customs officials, thereby breaking Australian customs law. After seeing photos of the Yorkies on Facebook, authorities threatened to slap the Pirates of the Caribbean actor with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fines and a possible prison term.

Most disturbingly to animal lovers, Australia’s agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce discussed having the dogs killed if they didn’t leave the country post-haste. Since then, the pups have been spirited out of the country (just barely before the deadline had passed), but Depp must still deal with the issues raised by taking the dogs into the Land Down Under to begin with. That could include $340,000 in fines and up to 10 years’ jail time.

As this saga demonstrates, traveling with your pets can complicate your trip. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than two million pets and other live animals are transported by plane every year in the U.S. Many hotels and travel destinations are becoming more pet-friendly, but getting them there in the first place can be complicated.

Increasingly, Americans are taking their pets with them as they travel internationally, too. But travelers sometimes forget to check to ensure their pet is welcome. Due to diseases and pests, animal importation is taken very seriously across the globe. And although some consider Australia’s reaction extreme, in many countries the response to violation of importation laws would likely be swift and severe, and likely wouldn’t have a happy ending for the pets (or their owners).

Here in the U.S., animal plane transport is generally covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USAPHIS). Here are some rules you need to know if you plan to take your pet on a commercial airline (www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/plane-talk-traveling-animals):

  • Dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and must have been weaned for at least five days.
  • Cages and other shipping containers must meet minimum standard for size, ventilation, strength, sanitation and design for safe handling. (Sky kennels furnished by the airlines meet these requirements.)
  • Dogs and cats must not be brought to the airline for shipping more than four hours before departure. (Six hours is permitted if shipping arrangements are made in advance.)
  • If puppies or kittens less than 16 weeks of age are in transit more than 12 hours, food and water must be provided.
  • Older animals must have food at least every 24 hours and water at least every 12 hours. Written instructions for food and water must accompany all animals shipped regardless of the scheduled time in transit.
  • Animals may not be exposed to temperatures less than 45 degrees (F) unless they are accompanied by a certificate signed by a veterinarian stating that they are acclimated to lower temperatures.
  • Animals cannot be shipped COD unless the shipper guarantees the return freight should the animals be refused at destination.

Airlines have their own differing rules about pet travel. Most airlines charge a hefty fee for taking your pet along (Southwest charges $95.00 each way). Depending on the airline, you may be able to “carry-on” your pet, but may have to ship your animal as cargo. Many airlines require that you provide a certificate from your veterinarian that Fido or Fluffy is in good health. Delta requires that you have a vet sign a health certificate no more than 10 days before your trip. (These rules might not apply in the case of service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind.)

If you do carry-on a pet carrier, make sure it’s approved. Generally, it must fit under the seat in front of you, and the door must latch securely. Most airlines will make you keep the pet in the carrier the entire time. Keep in mind that pet carriers are subject to inspection by TSA agents, so make sure they are empty of anything but Fido and his essentials. And, since airport and airline officials frown on having animals running through their planes and airports, carry a leash.

If you’re planning to take your pet into another country (or Hawaii), plan well ahead. Do your homework on whether your pet is allowed, and under what conditions. And plan to adhere thoroughly to those regulations; some countries will make you quarantine your pet. Even though Hawaii is a U.S. state, it’s considered “rabies-free”, and has a strict quarantine policy. Pets generally are subject to an expensive 120-day quarantine, but your pet might qualify for a “5-day-or-less” program. (Visit hdoa.hawaii.gov for more information.)

While many people think pets should be sedated before traveling, check with your vet to get his or her advice. Experts advise against giving your pet any solid food for six hours before flying, but exercise and water are a good idea. And if your pet is traveling in the cargo hold, be sure to advise the flight attendant.

Your pet is counting on you to consider his or her needs. Travel is stressful; a little planning can help you avoid problems later.

Avoid being a target during summer travel

via Consumer watch: Avoid being a target during summer travel, clarionledger.com

As we hit the highways, byways and flyways this summer, there are numerous opportunities to lose our hard-earned money, either by making bad decisions on our own, or by the wrongdoing of others. According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans will be traveling this summer. (That’s up slightly from a year ago.)
That’s good news for industries whose fortunes are travel-related, but it also means that more of us will be out of our normal surroundings, and thus more prone to make mistakes or become victims of crime. So here are a few things to remember as you hit the road (some of these courtesy of the U.S. Consumer Action Handbook):
  • Don’t buy gas additives that claim to make fuel last longer. Even though gas prices go up in the summer, the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t found any product that significantly improves gas mileage, and some could damage a car’s engine or increase exhaust emissions.
  • Interested in a summer concert or festival? If you buy tickets from a major vendor, remember that surcharges and additional fees may be tacked onto the listed price. Some venues require the same credit card used to purchase tickets be presented when the tickets are picked up, so if you’re buying tickets for someone as a gift, they may have difficulty getting them at will-call.
  • When renting a beach or lake house for vacation, make sure the property actually exists. (Remember that movie, Summer Rental?) Do your homework before paying— check out the owner or rental company, consult maps and read the lease carefully. Pay with an online payment service or a credit card so you can dispute the charges if something goes wrong.
  • When flying, make sure you’re aware of the airline’s baggage charges and their policy when it comes to bumping passengers. A lot of airlines “bump” depending on how late you checked in, so check in as soon as you can. Also, be aware of baggage weight limits; these are a lucrative source of income for airlines, and you could pay handsomely for overweight bags or too many bags.
  • Protect your mobile devices. Since most of us have at least one cellphone and/or tablet with us most of the time, these are often targets for thieves. So before you leave on your trip, be sure your device is password-protected with a robust password and that it’s set to go to sleep or lock quickly after using it.  Thieves know that an unprotected device can be a gold mine.
  • Be careful of Wi-Fi “imposter” accounts. Scammers will often set up fake wireless hotspots near a hotel or airport. By using a network with a name that sounds plausible (“Holiday Inn free wifi”, for example), they can lure you into thinking it’s a free account for guests. But once you grant access from your device, they can steal your information. Before you accept a wifi connection, verify it with staff.
  • Don’t make crooks’ jobs any easier. In crowded situations, pickpockets and purse thieves can operate with abandon. Teach your family to practice situational awareness, being aware of who’s around you. And if your wallet or purse is stolen,  do you know exactly what’s been taken? It’s a good idea to keep a list of all the cards, money and documents so you can file an accurate report, but also so you can call immediately and cancel credit and debit cards. And before you leave your car, make sure valuables are out of sight.