After listening to other victims of travel scams testify about their experiences during a House subcommittee hearing yesterday, Dorothy Burrus of Silver Spring considers herself lucky.

Burrus lost $269 in her brush with a travel firm on a trip to Epcot Center. Not nearly the $1,800 that Helene Arcara of New Port Richey, Fla., and 28 other senior citizens each lost when their 19-day trip to Italy and France was canceled two days before its scheduled departure.

Nor did her vacation wind up like that of Charles J. Miller of East Dennis, Mass., who joined a travel club and took a "free" trip to the Bahamas that cost him hundreds of dollars. When he walked into the room of his upgraded hotel, the Freeport Inn, his wife shrieked when "little things scurried under the bed," he said.

"Our dream vacation turned into a nightmare," Miller told the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Hazardous Materials. "I think those people who didn't get the vacations are the lucky ones."

Burrus, Arcara and Miller are three of thousands of consumers nationwide who have lost tens of thousands of dollars when promised trips at what seem to be low prices. In most cases, either the trips never materialized or the costs turned out to be much higher than the travel firm's initial promise.

Complaints about travel frauds are in the top 10 of all problems that consumer protection agencies and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies must confront, according to officials who testified yesterday. And, since the airlines were deregulated in 1984, the public has come to believe it can get incredibly cheap airfare and travel packages, making travel "the golden opportunity for every con artist in the country to fleece the public," said Thomas A. Luken (D-Ohio), the subcommittee chairman.

But the Federal Trade Commission, the Postal Inspection Service and various state attorneys general have found it difficult to put travel scam operators out of business. Many of these operators run "boiler rooms" with banks of telephones from which they call consumers and tell them they have won a free trip or a certificate for a travel club. Often the clubs have moved to other states after collecting thousands of dollars in memberships or deposits for trips -- often by getting a credit card number over the telephone.

There is no federal law or regulation that protects the consumer from such promises. State laws vary widely and Congress is looking into legislation that would provide greater protection for the consumer and for legitimate travel agents, whose reputations are often hurt by irresponsible travel firms. One of the states with the greatest problem is Florida, where many of these travel scam operators set up offices. It is also the state that is frequently sold as a travel destination in the scams.

In the past year, the Florida attorney general's office has signed out-of-court settlements with 30 travel marketing companies and has more than 60 others under investigation. The office has begun raiding the firms and freezing their bank accounts.

Still, "for every travel marketing scam that we put out of business, another springs up to take its place," said Robert A. Butterworth, Florida's attorney general. "Clearly, we need some help."

The subcommittee has asked the help of the American Society of Travel Agents and others in determining what legislation might stop fraudulent travel businesses, including whether the problem should be addressed under a statute concerning criminal activity.

"My own personal view is that the total problem is that there has never been a standard for {travel} wholesalers," said Susan Tanzman-Kaplan, owner of a California travel agency, an attorney and a member of the American Society of Travel Agents' national consumer affairs committee. There are no minimum requirements for bonding or submitting financial statements to any authority, as there are for travel agents who dispense airline tickets.

In the meantime, members of the subcommittee are putting pressure on the Federal Trade Commission to take a more activist role in enforcing mail and wire fraud regulations against such operators.

William MacLeod, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer affairs, said yesterday he believed the FTC's present authority is enough to handle the problem, but that the most important area to be addressed is that of consumer education.

"You think you can get the consumer to be smarter than the con men?" asked Luken. "I can't believe that's the most important thing an enforcement agency can do."

"If they don't get taken, we don't have to try to recover their money," said MacLeod, who noted that federal officials only recover about 10 cents of every dollar fraudulently obtained in the schemes.