This year, baby boomers will take 4-5 leisure trips, spending over $6,600, according to an AARP Travel survey. Last year, all U.S. consumers spent $761 billion on domestic and international leisure travel according to the U.S. Travel Association.
This is a high-revenue industry, and with the arrival of the summer travel season it’s moving into a peak period, Add in the fact that many travel services require advance payments, and we’re heading into the perfect storm for travel fraud.
Like fake booking scams.
“Some 15 million online hotel booking scams occur every year, translating to $1.3 billion in bad bookings,” notes The American Hotel & Lodging Association. “With most consumers searching at least 7 to 10 websites before booking a reservation, rogue third-party online booking sites trick consumers by mirroring the look and feel of the actual hotel website, and essentially charge them for a service they never intend to provide.”
It’s not just hotels.
Vacation rental booking sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and Vrbo have millions of properties in almost 200 countries. However, using impostor websites, unsuspecting victims can be tricked into paying for properties scammers don’t own. Some even have fake live chat features.
“After receiving payment, scammers will often send a confirmation, with a phony reference number, to delay identification of the fraud,” explains Scambusters.org. ”This means the victim may not find out they’ve been conned until they actually make their trip.”
“Other rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or don’t exist, and try to lure you in with the promise of low rent, or great amenities,” warns the Federal Trade Commission. The National Consumers League explains these scams typically crop up on online classified sites like Craigslist.com with hijacked images from real estate sites to make them seem legitimate.
How do you avoid hotel and vacation rental booking scams? Don’t click the first result in an online search.
Fraudsters are counting on the fact that you won’t know the exact spelling of the official URL site you’re looking for. Even if you do, you might miss a subtle change of a letter or two.
And here’s a tip-off. Hotels send an email confirmation of your reservations. Scammers don’t. And, unless you purposely pay in advance for a reduced rate, hotels won’t charge your credit card before you check in. Scammers will.
As for vacation rental sites, it’s even more critical to verify you’re on the legitimate website. That’s because companies like HomeAway, for example, offer a “Book with Confidence Guarantee” which protects against listing fraud or significant property misrepresentation. But the protection is ONLY available when booking and checking out on the site’s platform.
If a road trip is in your travel plans, a word of warning: Skimmers.
Don’t use a debit card at a gas pump, or your bank account could be drained before you get to the next rest stop with a card skimmer hidden inside the pump. The safest way to pay is inside the service station using a credit card or cash.
And stay away from independent, free-standing ATM machines. Rather, look for banks in your network and go inside if possible for better security.
If you’re flying, don’t toss your boarding pass. It contains your frequent flyer account number, giving crooks the ability to drain all your miles.
And whether you’re driving or flying, Scambusters reports crooks are setting up Wi-Fi hubs in tourist attractions. “If you connect, you’re effectively handing over your data to the crooks,” warns Scambusters, which recommends using Wi-Fi in establishments like restaurants.
Finally, think twice about going on social media about your upcoming travel plans, and posting pictures while you’re away. That makes you a target. Burglars can target your home and scammers can target your loved ones with fake stories of your being in an emergency situation and needing money.
David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email email@example.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.