With no special training or qualifications, a growing number of Americans are getting travel agent credentials just to qualify for huge vacation discounts and VIP treatment.
The credentials can be obtained for cash or as a favor from a travel agent friend, say those familiar with the practice, which apparently breaks no law."It's extensive, particularly in the entertainment industry," said Anastasia Mann, who operates a Los Angeles travel agency.
"They say, `I'll give you my business. But I want to be on your list.' The companies that won't cooperate don't get the corporate business," she said.
Added Sue Kaplan, another Los Angeles travel agent: "Our system tolerates in the travel industry what it doesn't in other industries."
Fearing a black eye, the industry is developing a counterfeit-resistant identification card to "weed out the phony agents," said Paul Ruden, counsel for the American Society of Travel Agents.
The card will include a hologram to prevent forgeries and assure suppliers that those who get agent discounts are working to earn them.
The punishment for transgressors would be expulsion from travel agency trade groups, which could hurt business. Membership in ASTA, which represents about half the nation's 32,000 travel agency outlets, is an emblem of professional credibility.
There's no hard estimate on how many phony agents there are, although the industry says the number is growing.
Not everyone sees a problem.
Former Rep. Jim Bates, a California Democrat, said he purchased a card that identified him as a travel agent a couple of years ago and was glad for the discounts.
"It's a sales gimmick. I don't think I see anything wrong with it," said Bates, now a political consultant in San Diego and part-time rancher in Idaho.
Bates' name was used by World View International of San Diego in advertisements that said that for $495 anyone can become an "independent contractor" and get cut rates.