Planning a vacation takes a lot of Googling. First you have to search where you want to go, then you have to find hotels and flights, then you have to see what you just have to do at your destination. In that storm of online searches, however, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate company and a not-so-legitimate third-party booking site. When most travel planning is done online, how can you avoid travel booking scams? The best way is learning how to spot them.
What’s the Scam?
According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, 23% of consumers said they were misled by third-party travel booking sites on the phone or on the web, translating to more than $5.7 billion in online booking scams. Customers are led to believe that they are booking through an official hotel or airline site, but they’re actually doing business with a third-party middleman. This can lead to lost reservations, incorrect accommodations, undisclosed fees or worse.
For example, in 2017 the Federal Trade Commission settled a lawsuit with Reservation Counter, a third-party hotel booking website based in Utah. Reservation Counter used call centers and websites to trick consumers into believing that they were interacting directly with their desired hotel. They would then charge the customer’s credit card immediately – instead of upon check-in. Now, Reservation Counter has a non-affiliation disclaimer on its website.
How Bad Can It Be?
Some travel booking scams just want to skim some extra fees off of your hotel or flight reservation. But other scammers want to steal your money, your personal information and your vacation plans. Lisa Melton, senior vice president of marketing at AAA Northeast, encountered one of these scams when she tried to change her flight plans.
“Seattle got the biggest snowstorm on record when we were supposed to be going,” Melton said. “I wanted to call Delta and see if they would just change our flights so we could go to San Diego.”
Melton Googled the phrase “Delta customer service,” and called the first phone number she saw. The man on the other end was quite helpful. “He rebooks our ticket, gets all our information, gets our flights to San Diego and sends me the confirmation,” she said.
A few days later, Melton called Delta to check on her family’s seat assignments. At first, she was told that she needed to talk to her travel agent. But Melton hadn’t used a travel agent. The Delta agent suggested Melton call her credit card company.
Turns out, the Delta customer service line that Melton had originally called had been a fake number set up by a scammer.
“I gave him all of our personal information, including my credit card number, all of our dates of birth, and our address. And we had no flight to San Diego,” she said. “He didn’t book anything, he just tried to take $2,000 of our money.”
While Melton was able to arrange a different trip at the last minute, she learned a valuable lesson.
“I will never not use a travel agent again,” she said. “This is the reason that we all need to have a travel agent on our side, so this doesn’t happen.”
How Do I Avoid Getting Scammed?
“The quantity of online travel scams is alarming,” said Cyndi Zesk, vice president of travel services at AAA Northeast. “Even the most savvy of travelers have fallen victim to such deception and misrepresentation.”
So what can you do about it? According to the Better Business Bureau, one of the best ways to protect yourself from travel and hotel room booking scams is to purchase directly from the source and double-check that you have the correct contact information. It’s also a good idea to call the hotel a few weeks before you arrive to confirm your reservation. You can also book through an organization that has a proven track record and good reputation, such as AAA.
“AAA members have access to knowledgeable travel professionals who can assist them with their travel plans, look out for their best interests, and offer discounts,” Zesk said. “AAA travel advisors know what to look for in a scam and how to avoid them. They are keenly aware of which travel vendors and travel sites are legitimate. When you book with AAA, you can rest easy knowing you’ve got a trusted source and travel professional working for you.”
Have you ever encountered a travel booking scam? What did you do? Tell us your story in the comments below.