As we head into the year’s busiest travel season, consumers might want to slow down on their mouse-clicking. The latest yearly data on travel-related scams shows that American consumers were conned out of more than $95 million thanks to travel-related scams.
And, according to the experts at Proxyrack, those scams are tied to a garden variety of unsecured websites, social media ads, and common sloppiness on the part of the consumer. And with over 80% of U.S adults booking vacations online, no one can be too careful, especially now when demand is high and availability is limited.
“Fraudsters rely on urgency, often using deals and discounts to lure in potential victims alongside limited-time language to convince travelers to pay quickly,” Arianna Bago, fraud analyst, at Proxyrack told ConsumerAffairs. She said that it may sound enticing to score a larger discount, but it would be much worse to find out the deal was a scam.
Steps travelers should take to protect against fraud
One scam Bago said that’s becoming increasingly hard to spot are fake online shopping websites that look exactly like the real thing – something we can thank artificial intelligence for.
“These sites are set up in order to obtain the payment card details of victims and steal their money, so consumers need to closely analyze the website's URL before submitting any valuable personal information,” she added.
And there are more safety precautions, too. ConsumerAffairs asked Proxyrack’s researchers and other travel experts to share their suggestions on things that a traveler should think about before they click on a “buy” button and wind up a victim of fraud. Those include:
Cover your steps. One suggestion ConsumerAffairs hasn’t seen before is when you make any online booking, always call the company afterward to confirm. “If there is no record of your booking, it’s better to know sooner rather than later,” Proxyrack’s team said. “You’ll be able to alert your banking company, report the fraud, and still have time to book alternative reservations with the real deal.”
Be skeptical about "free" offers… Scott Lieberman at Touchdown Money says that anytime you see the word “free,” you might want to run for cover. “Especially when you aren't given details about the travel! For example, a scammer might say you've won a free cruise, but they won’t name the cruise line or ship name so you can confirm it,” he said.
Jon Clay, VP of Threat Intelligence at TrendMicro, told ConsumerAffairs that there's an American Airlines "free" gift card scam floating out there, too.
"Just like a typical phishing email, the goal is to trick you to participate in a survey in exchange for a too-good-to-be-true exclusive reward or a Gift Card," he said. "If you fall for this trick, they'll have your personal info hostage and they can use it for cybercrimes."
PayPal or Venmo is a “no go.” “If the site is requesting that you Venmo or PayPal them via a personal email account, that is likely very suspect,” said Philip Ballard, chief communications officer and travel expert at Hotel Planner, adding that if it’s a reputable or legitimate travel-related e-commerce site, it should be using a well-known payment processor like Stripe.
Check for “junk fees.” The White House is trying to put the clamps on undisclosed or hidden fees that both airlines and booking sites are notorious for, but nothing’s been done so far, so consumers are on their own. Edyta Satchell, the founder & CEO at Satchelle Global, says every traveler booking online should check to see if the site charges a service fee and how much the fee is.
“Some websites don't disclose service fee information. If they don't, then you should not book,” she said. “You will end up paying a service fee that may be higher than the air ticket price, so don't get scammed by a low ticket price. Check the airline website, if the ticket price is too good to be true then it is not true.”
Airbnb steps up its fraud protection, too
In Scam World, no one is safe so you can't make assumptions based on familiarity with a platform.
“Even major online booking platforms like Airbnb and VRBO can fall victim to fraudulent postings,” Brandon Ezra, CEO of Grand Welcome told us. He said that third-party scams are becoming increasingly common where bad actors attempt to lure travelers to websites that are completely unrelated to Airbnb.
“They may claim that the accommodation is managed by Airbnb, and mock up what appears to be an Airbnb webpage or send a fake Airbnb receipt in order to legitimize their scams,” he said.
“These bad actors can offer deals that seem too good to be true and try to put pressure on guests to book quickly, then ask unsuspecting travelers to send money directly, such as by wire transfer, to book the reservation. In reality, the page is fake and the listing does not exist, but by the time the consumer realizes this, their money is gone.”
Thankfully, Airbnb has amped up its efforts to curtail fraud. A spokesperson for the company told ConsumerAffairs that, as Ezra suggested, consumers should avoid third-party sites like the plague.
“Consumers can keep themselves, their payments, and their personal information protected by staying on our secure platform throughout the entire process—from communication to booking and payment. Airbnb will never ask guests to pay for a stay somewhere other than on the Airbnb platform. When looking for listings, travelers should always start directly on Airbnb.com or the Airbnb app,” the company said.
Another layer of protection that Airbnb is affording a traveler is withholding payment from a host until 24 hours after the guest’s check-in time, which gives the guest time on arrival to ensure everything is as it should be or to report any issues to the company.
“We also regularly remind guests to stay on Airbnb to communicate, book and pay for a stay, and never to go off platform,” the spokesperson said. And if a guest suspects a host may be trying to scam them via the message thread, such as by encouraging them to go off platform to pay for the booking, they should immediately report the message to the company.