Free Airline Tickets: Scams, Rackets and Rip-offs

Every industry falls victim to scams, rackets and rip-offs.

May 24, 2013, 7:08 AM

May 24, 2013— -- Every industry falls victim to scams, rackets and rip-offs. Or plain old pipe dreams. Which reminds me of Powerball, which, isn't a rip-off since someone eventually comes up with the winning numbers but it probably won't be you or me (odds of winning: 1 in 175,223,510). You have a better chance at becoming the next American Idol (1 in 103,000) or succumbing to an attack of bees (1 in 71,107).

Yet perfectly sane people think they're going to win the millions. Maybe that's why some believe those airline ticket giveaways are legit, too.

Repeat after me: If you get an air travel offer that sounds too good to be true, well - duh. Let's burst some bubbles about phony freebies, plus legitimate giveaways that upon closer inspection aren't quite as 'free' as you may think.

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Some folks in the Dallas area (and possibly elsewhere) have found postcards in their mailbox for a so-called promotion for Delta; the cards said they'd been selected to receive "2 round-trip airfares to anywhere in the contiguous United States, good for the next 12 months!" Notice that while "free" is implied the word does not appear anywhere on the postcard. That's because it's not really free.

According to one of my friends in the media, postcard recipients were required to sit through a 90-minute presentation for a travel club that cost thousands to join, and then pony up about $200 in taxes for the "free" tickets. In case you're wondering, taxes on average non-stop domestic tickets run about $23 round-trip or about $43 for a connecting flight, so I don't know where the $100-per-ticket figure comes from.

Sounds like good old-fashioned sucker-bait to me: probably not felonious but not very fair, either. A Delta spokesman told me a couple of things you should know: 1.) Delta is not the source of any such offers, and depending on the communication you receive, 2.) Delta strongly suggests you change your SkyMiles account password. Good advice no matter what your airline.

I might add there are perfectly legitimate ways tickets and miles are used to sweeten purchases, but if a purchase is solely about promises of future travel and/or discounts and comes with a four figure price tag, I suggest you stay away.

Back to "free" tickets: The airlines aren't exactly pillars of transparency when it comes to reward tickets. No, they don't engage in nefarious schemes to rip you off, but such tickets aren't quite free. Reward redemption fees and/or taxes and other charges can really add up, but yes it can still be quite a deal and certainly better than nothing but you should know what you'll be paying to avoid unpleasant surprises. To their credit, the airlines do reveal all this information in their densely-worded explanations of airline miles program rules, which are easy to interpret. Easy as Pi, that is.

But let's check out some potentially dangerous scams, like email phishing.

There's a good chance you've received one of these innocent-looking emails but don't be fooled: they usually want to separate you from your money. Some ask for credit card numbers; those intent on identity theft request Social Security numbers while still others hope to spread viruses by having you unwittingly click a link that starts a plague.

Sometimes famous names are roped into air travel scams. The rumor-busting site reported on an Oprah-related email scheme promising a chance at a million bucks if you'll only fork over personal info plus buy a couple of American Airlines tickets that can only be purchased via the people who emailed you. Would Oprah do this? She would not. It's fraud, pure and simple. Don't ever provide credit or personal data or click links in emails you don't recognize.

Airlines such as American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways have warned about phishing scams for years now but these rackets are still around because people still fall for them. Use your common sense: For example, if you get an email saying you booked a flight and you must click a link to confirm but you know you didn't book a flight, hit delete. Or give the airline a quick call. If an email says it's from American Airlines check to see if the return address ends in "". Even if it does but the communication sounds the least bit fishy, leave it alone.

Unfortunately some of us don't give our common sense enough exercise which explains why those Nigerian email specialists continue to thrive DESPITE THEIR FONDNESS FOR TEXT IN ALL CAPS. Yes, another red flag.

Don't believe everything you hear, either. Whenever there's a story in the news about a baby born during a flight, I can't tell you how many people say to me, "Lucky, kid! They get free flights for life, right?" Wrong. Airlines I've talked to deny this and the folks at Snopes knocked down this decades-old rumor rather convincingly.

Hang on a minute! It seems a little boy born aboard AirAsia back in the fall of 2009 was awarded free-flights-for-life. His mom, too. Which means this is one rumor that'll never die. It also leaves me wondering: What the odds are of giving birth on a plane?

The opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and not those of ABC News.

READ: It's a Boy! Baby Born On Delta Flight

READ: Baby Born In-Flight Named for Attendant

READ: Woman Gives Birth on Southwest Flight

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