A couple years ago, 80 Arizona students and chaperones at a Tuscan-area high school paid a travel company $40,000 for a whirlwind trip to California. As a last hurrah their senior year, they planned to visit Disneyland, Universal Studios and the beach on a four-day trip they each paid $500 for upfront. Bags in hand, they gathered in the high school parking lot for their midnight departure date -- but the buses never came.

About 1,200 miles away, a group of students at a Virginia high school also found themselves out thousands of dollars, being left high and dry after paying for a week-long senior trip to the Bahamas.

Both groups of students at booked the excursions through seniorgradtrips.com, according to reports by Arizona Central and Fox 5 DC. Senior Grad Trips, which also goes by EB Worldwide, has an ‘F’ rating with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the lowest rating it assigns.

School trips can be life-changing experiences for students -- an opportunity to get out of the classroom and do some real-life, hands-on learning. But parents should do their homework when it comes to these types of trips. The BBB is warning that event organizers and parents alike must be on alert for shady travel deals.

How the Scam Works

A travel agency approaches a school or is referred by a well-intentioned (but misled) individual. At first, everything seems normal. The agency looks legitimate, with a professional staff and a website. The trip prices seem reasonable, and the agency encourages students to host fundraisers to pay for their trips.

However, as the trip gets closer, everything changes. The school or parents may be asked to front money the travel agency was supposed to pay for plane tickets, hotels, and excursions. Scammers often promise the money will be returned at a later date, and they push you to pay immediately. In one scam report on BBB Scam Tracker, the con artist told parents: “If you don’t front the money, the kids won’t be able to take this trip they’ve been planning for months!”

In the end, scammers get away with the money fronted for the trip. No one is the wiser until students show up, bags packed, only to find out their flights or hotel reservations never actually existed. When you try to get in touch with the travel agency, they don’t respond or have disappeared.

How to Protect Yourself from Travel Scams

Look out for red flags. If you are contacted by a travel agency unsolicited, be wary. Trips that seem too good to be true or are “free” are probably scams.

Do your research. When considering hiring a company, investigate them thoroughly before giving them any money or sensitive information. Check out org, travel sites, and online parent forums In addition, research your trip destination and activities. The more you know the less likely you are to fall victim to a scam.

Pay attention to detail. When making a purchase or signing a contract, read all the fine print. Ask about additional fees and make sure you have all the details in writing. Verify your reservations by calling the hotel or airline directly. Print out all reservation confirmations and keep them with you as your group travels.

Pay with a credit card. When making a payment, always use your credit card, which offers more protection by allowing you to dispute fraudulent charges if necessary. Be especially wary if the travel agent asks you to pay by wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or other unusual forms of payment.