Experts weigh in on how to avoid falling victim to a digital travel scam.
Dodging scams is a part of life in the 21st century. Fraudulent calls, sketchy emails, pestering ads, fake websites, and shopping scams are not going to go away anytime soon. According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers lost an estimated $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022.
Amongst the various type of scams, digital travel scams are becoming increasingly common. The prices for hotels, flights, and car rentals have skyrocketed due to inflation, a shortage of staff, and a rise in demand. Scammers are taking advantage of the fact that travel bookings happen online now, and travelers can be tempted with deals promising to save them money.
Numerous reported incidents tell the story of people who have turned up at their hotel or Airbnb to find that they don’t have a reservation or that the property looks nothing like what they saw in pictures. They find out at airports that their tickets don’t exist. Or, they share credit card information while booking travels, and the website sucks all money out of their accounts. It not just ruins their holiday but puts a financial strain on them. In addition, reporting and fighting for their losses adds to stress and anxiety.
In 2022, there were 65,135 reports of travel-related frauds (including deceptive offers of free or low-cost vacations and misleading timeshares) in the U.S., which cost people $105.1 million in losses. With travel coming back in full swing this summer, consumers have to be more vigilant than ever because the risk of getting duped is high.
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According to online protection company McAfee, 35% of Americans have fallen victim (or know someone who has fallen victim) to an online scam when booking travel. Of these, 40% lost over $1,000 before their trip. Their Safer Summer Holidays research also revealed that 47% of American adults are likely to seek bargain deals online, and 39% are likely to try a new booking website. There are countless ways you can be tricked while booking an online holiday. These are a few that experts warn about.
Be Wary of Fake Websites
“One tactic scammers use is creating fraudulent sites that impersonate legitimate hotel and airline websites to confuse victims,” explains Kevin Roundy, Researcher and Senior Technical Director for Norton. “Another trick is creating fake sites for travel companies that don’t exist. The end goal is for scammers to get your credit card information, which they can use to drain your account and steal your money.”
Ally Armeson, Program Director at Cybercrime Support Network, adds that “scammers exploit the trust travelers place on established travel brands and the desire for discounted travel, making it important for users to exercise caution and verify the legitimacy of websites before making any payments.” She warns that scammers are making websites as legitimate as possible, but they move quickly and may make errors. “If a website has a strange layout or doesn’t have contact information, it’s most likely fraudulent,” she says.
To avoid falling victim to a fake travel website, check the URLs for misspellings of the brand name. A secure website should also have “https” in the beginning of the URL. A padlock icon and “https” can help you identify if the website has a security certificate (SSL).
“You shouldn’t rely on these as the only way to verify a legitimate website because scammers have started using SSL certificates to make their websites look more real,” says Armeson. “However, they will let you know that the connection between your browser and the website server is encrypted, preventing others from intercepting your communication.”
Your best bet? According to Roundy is to try installing a VPN with an ad-blocker to block pop-up ads and other suspicious websites.
Don’t Fall for Free Vacations
An old trick in the scamming book is the promise of free prizes. You get a call about a free vacation you have won, but you need to pay a “small fee” or “taxes” to claim it. You make this payment and you lose your money. Armeson says that legitimate travel companies don’t typically contact customers out of the blue, so don’t entertain any unsolicited emails, calls, or messages for seemingly amazing deals.
When in doubt, ask for details. What is the cruise ship company? What resort has been booked? How exactly did you win this prize? If the person on the other end of the call can’t answer basic questions about the free trip or if they try to rush you into making a decision, don’t fall for it—it’s a trap.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) advises against paying for bookings with wire transfers, gift cards, or cryptocurrency. Be wary of paying via any of these methods, as once the money is collected, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. Paying with a credit card has the possibility of you recovering your money by raising a dispute with your card provider.
Careful With Fake Rental Listings
You can be tricked by rental or hotel listings only to arrive at the location to see that the property doesn’t exist or it doesn’t match the description or photos. Then there is the multiple listings scam, where the same listing is rented out to different people at different price points. The highest bidder gets it, while others are left stranded.
Go with your gut. If the prices are surprisingly low compared to competitors, double-check. If there is no contact information on the website (address, contact number) or if there are no negative reviews, it’s likely a scam.
“Pay attention to how the host is communicating,” advises Roundy. “Take caution if the messages contain typos and odd sentence structures and if the host is slow to respond. Additionally, watch out for pressure tactics from the host, such as them insisting the listing is in high demand and pressuring you to book and pay quickly. This tactic flusters vacationers and can lead to booking a property without having time to think things through and consider any red flags.”
Another way scammers are pulling off cons is by impersonating representatives from your hotel, airline, or car rental. “Typically, they will suggest a problem with your reservation, such as an invalid payment or an overbooking, and persuade you to disclose your personal and financial information under the guise of correcting the issue,” Armeson warns.
Instead, book with trusted websites, and if you get a call about booking problems, get in touch with them through verified customer support numbers.
How to Report Scams
It can be embarrassing to admit to falling victim to a scam. But remember that digital travel scams are sophisticated and difficult to detect. Anyone can fall prey to them. So remember, if you were conned, it’s not your fault.
Start with your credit card company. Raise a dispute, block your accounts, and work with them to recover your money. If you booked through a trusted platform (Airbnb, Expedia, Booking.com), contact them. You should also report it to the FTC, file a complaint with the consumer protection assistant attorneys general, and write to the Better Business Bureau.
Armeson also suggests keeping an eye out for suspicious account activities.
“If you provided personal information, like your Social Security number, you may be at risk for identity theft,” says Armeson. “Contact the three major credit reporting agencies—Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax—and place a credit freeze on your credit report. This will make it harder for the scammer to open new accounts in your name.”
Related: Watch Out for These 10 Common Scams When You’re in Italy This Summer