The essay below explains the card mill phenomenon, what to watch out for and how to avoid being taken.

Once you read the article, please use the links on the left hand side of this page to review the FAQs regarding card mills and to see what judges, the Attorney Generals of several states and industry leaders have had to say about card mills.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio famously stated that pornography was hard to define but that “I know it when I see it.” Likewise, smart consumers should get to know how to spot a card mill.

What is a card mill? Card mills are business entities that derive some portion of their revenue stream from recruiting people to be “travel agents” by promising discounted travel. The pitch is that since travel agents get to see the world for free or at highly discounted rates (untrue by the way), the smart thing to do is to become a travel agent.

Upon convincing the naïve consumer to part with an under-$500 investment (the $500 limit keeps these companies from being subject to more strict regulatory scrutiny), they wave a wand and deem the consumer a “travel agent.” An additional compensation is typically offered to recruit others to the program.

In recent months, in order to create a veneer of respectability, these companies have in some instances dropped the issuance of cards, introduced non-obligatory travel agent training programs (for a fee), or clamped down on the most egregious examples of their affiliates’ marketing efforts. One even attempts to preemptively denounce “card mills&rduo; on their site! Like viruses, these companies continue to mutate to attempt to operate under the radar of consumer protection agencies and the bad public relations they have recently encountered.

By calling their members “travel agents” they hold out the promise of a business opportunity with exciting benefits. It is wrong, it is cynical, and dishonest. Worse yet, these companies ask the consumers who join their ranks to become accomplices in the lie, telling hotels, cruise lines and other travel suppliers that they are travel agents.

According to the United States Department of Commerce, a travel agent engages in “selling travel, tour and accommodation services to the general public and commercial clients.” Thus, the primary focus of a bona-fide travel agent is sales to third parties.

Card mills deceptively imply that travel suppliers just hand out travel benefits to travel agents. Nothing could be further from the truth. For agents that are truly productive, generating sufficient sales volume, suppliers will on occasion provide them with opportunities to review properties or destinations at a discounted rate called a “familiarization”; trip. However, the suppliers, largely in reaction to card mills, have greatly limited the availability of such trips even to legitimate agents.

Being a travel agent is hard work, and building a travel business is far from the simple “at-home” business as portrayed by the card mills. Most travel agents spend many hours dedicated to learning their professions and obtaining the certifications and additional education necessary to building their businesses and, importantly, protecting the consumers they serve. Most card mill agents have little or no real training and the unlucky consumer who uses them as a travel planner risks a very bad travel experience. So bad is the risk that several travel suppliers such as major cruise lines and tour companies have ceased doing business with the card mill travel agencies.

A disturbing trend has emerged in that a few of the card mill organizations have managed to infiltrate what have traditionally been stalwart industry organizations. This unfortunate development sometimes occurs when a card mill company, eager for legitimacy, slips through an application to an industry organization and then uses the membership to substantiate their credibility to the public. Worse yet, some of the travel industry’s media has rather blindly accepted the card mills’ representations and included these companies as top travel agency producers. As a result, the card mills are able to point to articles in these periodicals as evidence of their respectability. What they fail to disclose however is that the industry as a whole holds them in contempt, major suppliers often will not do business with them, and they are the subject of lawsuits by consumers and state consumer departments.

So how do you recognize a card mill? If a company promises you instant success and the promise of major travel benefits for joining their organization - run, don’t walk. If you want to become a travel agent, there are travel schools and organizations like the American Society of Travel Agents that will point you in the right direction. Don’t be a chump - a card mill is a ticket to fraud and disappointment.

Richard B. Earls
Travel Research Online

Use the links above to review information to evaluate whether a travel business opportunity you are considering is a legitimate company. Also, be sure to download this publication by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) entitled “Travel Industry Card Mills: What Consumers and Consumer Protection Agencies Should Know About Travel Industry Card Mills”