The Takeoff Episode 02: How Startups Can Adapt and Pivot Sponsored This content is created collaboratively with one of our sponsors.
Nothing in life is free. Especially a pitch by a skeevy timeshare salesman.
In the age of phishing, digital Trojan horses, and massive computer hacks, it’s important to remember that some scams and schemes arrive the old-fashioned way: via the phone or mail.
My latest reminder: an official-looking mailing marked “Travel Check Voucher Enclosed” and “Personal and Confidential.” Inside, it bore the name “US Airlines” alongside a logo. Just for a moment, both seemed oddly familiar.
Why? Probably because “US Airlines” evokes the name of an actual carrier, US Airways, and because the logo, reminiscent of an airplane tail, is similar to that used by many airlines.
The mailing was also reminiscent of a spate of similar letters readers have passed along. Those were cheaply produced and hand-addressed, but they also bore the name “US Airlines” and the tail-fin logo, promised two free airline vouchers, and urged recipients to act quickly. One said: “We have attempted contacting you several times without success. This is our last attempt. If we do not hear from you soon, we may need to issue the ticket vouchers to the alternate.”
This more polished version — a professionally printed, trifold mailer with something that looks like a $1,450 check inside — raises the stakes. So I called the toll-free number and reached the “Travel Rewards Redemption Center.”
What company was I calling? “We’ve been hired by a wholesale travel dealer, Access Travel Deals,” the representative told me, inviting me to make an appointment in a Philadelphia suburb to learn about the company’s discount travel packages. “All they ask is that you stop by their travel agency and exchange your voucher, and then preview their services while you’re there. They hope you’ll keep them in mind for future travel planning.”
If they want me to keep them in mind, they have a funny way of showing it. The name Access Travel Deals doesn’t appear on the mailing. A call to the number on Access Travel Deals’ website yielded similarly vague responses.
“We work for several companies. This is the marketing department,” I was told by a woman who wouldn’t identify her employer. Requests for comment were transferred to the “legal department.” So far, my messages have not been returned.
I’m not the first to be concerned about this kind of marketing tactic — the Web is full of complaints and warnings, including from US Airways itself, about misleading voucher promotions. In other parts of the country, consumers have complained about similar pitches from “American Airways” and “United Airways,” two other nonexistent U.S. air carriers.
Last month the St. Louis Better Business Bureau warned about the latest mailing. It said Access Travel Deals appears to be a new company with “ties to a Scottsdale, Ariz., business called American Travel Deals, which has an ‘F’ rating with BBB,” the organization’s lowest rating. Its report on American Travel describes a virtually identical pitch — including “This is our last attempt” — and suggests complaints can be sent to the U.S. Postal Inspector (800-275-8777).
What has the agency done? Nick Alicea, a team leader in the inspector service’s Philadelphia division, said that he had forwarded complaints about the mailings to the service’s Arizona office but that no action had so far seemed warranted.
“Most people look at it and they think it’s some kind of fraud, so they just throw it away,” he said. “But from our investigation, we haven’t come up with people who say they’ve actually lost any money.”