Vacation and travel promoters often entice consumers with "free" offers, but it pays to inspect those offers carefully. The word "free" is increasingly used as bait for unsuspecting consumers.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the attorney general's Office has filed a consumer protection lawsuit against a travel business from the Philadelphia area that is accused of using deceptive or misleading "free" promotions to market vacation packages. Also included in the enforcement action is a Pittsburgh area tour operator that closed suddenly, leaving more than 100 consumers unable to complete their travel plans.

Together, the two businesses owe consumers more than $163,000, the commonwealth says.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett filed a civil lawsuit against DreamWorks Vacation Club/Five Points Travel, of Montgomery County, along with company President Daryl T. Turner, of Cherry Hill, N.J.

Corbett said DreamWorks is accused of using "free gifts" to lure consumers to vacation club sales presentations, including offers of round trip airline tickets, hotel accommodations, restaurant gift cards, free gas coupons and other incentives.

"Consumers either did not receive their 'free' items or were later told that they would have to pay various fees in order to use them - making them anything but free," Corbett said. "Additionally, DreamWorks allegedly failed to disclose limitations and restrictions on the vacation packages they were selling, required consumers to waive their right to cancel contracts and misled consumers by using the names and trademarks of airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and other well-known businesses without authorization."

To date, the attorney general's office has received complaints involving DreamWorks Vacation Club and Five Points Travel from 52 consumers who are owed more than $139,000.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for all consumers along with civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of Pennsylvania's consumer protection laws (up to $3,000 for each violation involving a senior citizen). The lawsuit also seeks a permanent injunction preventing Turner or his businesses from operating vacation sales companies in Pennsylvania or soliciting consumers for any travel-related purpose.

Seniors groups targeted

Corbett said the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection has also filed suit against Bonnie and Bruce Butler of Allegheny County, who owned and operated Shangri-La Vacations, Tours R Us and Senior Tours of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

According to the lawsuit, the Butlers marketed their tour business to various church and senior groups throughout southwestern Pennsylvania, selling bus trips and travel packages until the company abruptly closed in September 2008.

Corbett said more than 140 consumers have filed complaints with the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection, involving $24,000 in deposits and down payments that have not been refunded.

"The Butlers took up-front payments but failed to make the necessary travel arrangements, leaving a long list of consumers empty-handed," Corbett said.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for all consumer victims along with civil penalties of up to $1,000 for each violation of Pennsylvania's consumer protection laws (up to $3,000 for each violation involving a senior citizen). The suit also asks the court to prohibit the Butlers from operating any travel sales business until all restitution and penalties have been paid.