Hotel Booking Scams: How to Protect Your Travel Plans

Last Updated on May 7, 2024

When I think of hotel booking scams, I can’t help but remember when I used to work in sales. I was working for a small-ish company still figuring out how to incentivize employees. One year, they rewarded us for hitting our sales goals with a four-day, expenses-paid vacation. 

I distinctly remember speaking to the human resources representative in charge of planning it. She was so excited because she found an “all-inclusive” resort for less than half the company’s budget. The saved money meant we might be able to fly first-class and bring an additional family member.  

But when we got there, we were in for a surprise. The reservation wasn’t for an all-inclusive resort, and it ended up costing the company nearly double what was advertised. Plus, they had to buy us all an “inclusive meal plan” – which was nothing like an all-inclusive experience, in case you were wondering. 

The HR representative had fallen for a hotel booking scam.  

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The Prevalence of Hotel Booking Scams 

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The Prevalence of Hotel Booking Scams 

At the time, I thought our human resources representative must have been a little naive to have fallen for a scam like that. Knowing what I know now, I can’t judge her so harshly. Hotel booking scams are exceptionally easy to fall for

According to an American Hotel and Lodging Association study, American travelers made 55 million bookings through scam websites in 2016. It cost them nearly $4 billion. 

By 2018, that number had jumped to $5.7 billion, and in 2019 the problem had gotten bad enough to gain government attention. That year, the U.S. Senate introduced bill S.2229 to help protect consumers from hotel booking scams. 

That bill has yet to be passed, but hotel booking scams (alongside travel booking scams) remain common and costly. If you enjoy traveling, you must know how to avoid these scams. To do that, you first need to understand how people fall for them

How Hotel Booking Scams Work

Hotel booking scams rely on a technique called phishing. Phishing occurs when a scammer pretends to be a legitimate company. They may do this via email, text message, phone, or by producing a fake website

Regarding hotel booking scams, fake websites are the number one choice for criminals. These websites look very real and often include the following:

  • Copyrighted images
  • Trademarked logos
  • Realistic URLs 
  • Information that mimics the real thing

These sites appear in legitimate search engines, sometimes even above the real hotel listing. That makes them difficult to identify unless you’re paying close attention.  

Of course, these sites can also come across your radar in other ways. You might receive an email that looks like it’s from a real hotel chain, or you could see an ad on social media. When you click the link, you end up on a look-alike website. 

If you’re not looking closely, you could fall for the phishing scheme and input your information on a fraudulent website. 

Just think of all the information you’ll give a hotel when you book:

  • Your full name
  • Your phone number
  • Your email
  • Your passport number
  • Your credit card or bank card information 
  • Additional guest names 

Sometimes, they ask for even more. Under the guise of signing up for a loyalty card or other promotional membership, the site could ask for your address, birthday, and additional personal information. 

The fraudsters use that information in a variety of ways. They could steal your money by charging your card and never making your reservation at the real hotel.  

They could also steal your identity. Though it’s unlikely that you’d give a hotel your social security number, the criminals have everything else they need. Sadly, social security numbers are very easy to obtain on the dark web. 

In some cases, the site does make a reservation for you at the real hotel (as was the case for our company trip), but they charge an inflated price and often give incorrect details. You’ll also miss out on loyalty points or other perks that the real hotel site would have ensured you received. 

Hotel Booking Scams

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How To Tell If a Hotel Booking Site Is Legit 

Hotel booking scams can be sophisticated and deceptive. There are a few ways to ensure your hotel booking site is real.  Let’s look at a couple of steps you can take to ensure you’re using a legitimate booking site. 

1. Type Out The Hotel’s URL 

Ideally, you can book with a big-name hotel chain and type in their URL. For example, if you want to stay in a Hilton, go to Hilton.com. Then navigate to the exact property from within their site

This is the best way to avoid a look-alike website and offers several other advantages

Hotels must pay a commission to legitimate third-party booking sites for each booking. So, most hotels prefer that guests book directly through them. 

That means they may offer incentives for booking this way, including free breakfast or lounge access. Many hotels also prioritize customer service for customers who book directly through them.  

Booking this way has a few drawbacks, too.  

Often, you don’t know what hotel brand you want to stay in. Rather, you choose a property by location, price, and other amenities. Most people don’t care if they’re booking a Marriott or a Hyatt as long as it’s in the right place and offers the best rate. 

Hotel websites can also be frustrating to use. Their built-in search engines aren’t always the best; finding the property you want can be tricky

Finally,  some third-party websites include free cancellations or other perks that direct hotel bookings fail to include. That means many people prefer to use third-party booking sites. I’ll explain when that is (and isn’t) safe to do in just a bit. 

First, though, let’s look at what to do if you need to use a link or search engine. 

2. If Using a Link or Search Engine, Be Extra Careful 

Sometimes, using a search engine is more convenient than navigating directly to a hotel brand’s site. And, sometimes, you may want to use a link you got in an email, text, or other message to get to a hotel booking site – especially if that link promises a promotional deal. 

If you decide to go this route, you must be extra careful. This is where scammers lurk.

Whether you navigate to the hotel site from a search engine or from a link that looks legitimate, the first thing to do is examine the URL. You’re looking for a couple of things here. 

First, there shouldn’t be any misspellings. If you’re looking for the “Hotel Bellwether,” the URL better not read “BelweatherHotel.com” or “BellwetherMotel.org.” 

Second, the website should be secure. It should be an HTTPS” site, and a padlock should be in the top left corner, showing the site has a security certificate

hotel bellwether

The next thing to do is check the website content. Are there any strange misspellings or grammatically incorrect sentences? What about odd characters? Seeing “ℂ” instead of a “c” would be a major red flag

If anything looks even a little fishy, consider calling the hotel’s customer service line and booking over the phone. Ideally, you’ll look this number up separately and won’t use a number listed in the email that sent you the booking link or on the site that may be a lookalike. 

If those are your only numbers, quiz their customer service before giving any information. Ask about their amenities, the local weather, and the distance from major landmarks. If you’re not satisfied with their answers, hang up! You may be talking to the scammers rather than the hotel. 

Is It Ever Safe to Book a Hotel Through a Third-Party Site? 

Booking through a third-party site can be perfectly safe, but only in certain situations. 

Well-known and widely recognized third-party booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and Priceline are safe to book through. These sites are up-front about their refund and cancellation policies. They also allow you to book with a credit card, and they have a reputation to protect. 

Other lesser-known booking sites could be running scams. If you’re thinking about booking with one you haven’t heard of before, consider taking a few extra steps before you hit reserve: 

Look for a “Contact Us” section on the website. Ensure it has a valid phone number and company address. Contacting a customer service representative should be easy if the site is legitimate.
Check the payment section of the website. It should accept a credit card. Credit cards typically have zero liability fraud protection, which means scammers don’t like them as much as they like bank cards and digital currencies.

Sometimes fraudulent sites will claim that they “save you money” by only allowing debit cards or Bitcoin. They say this allows them to save on credit card fees that other companies pass on to consumers. If a third-party booking site claims this, it’s likely a scam, and you should steer clear of it.
Review their deposit, cancellation, and refund policy. Make sure you understand when they plan on charging your card. Some third-party booking sites require you to pay the full amount up front, but many simply secure your credit card and wait to charge it until the day of your reservation.

Regardless, the policy on when they’ll charge and how you can qualify for a refund should be clear.
Check with the BBB. Search for the name of the booking site on the Better Business Bureau’s site. Make sure it doesn’t have too many complaints against it.
Consider calling the hotel directly. They should be able to confirm the deal you’re seeing. If they can’t, it’s probably a scam site. 
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Hotels sometimes provide exceptional deals to third-party booking sites to help fill hard-to-fill dates. If you’re seeing prices that look far better than what you’ve seen elsewhere, especially during prime vacation seasons, it’s probably a scam.
  • If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Hotels sometimes provide exceptional deals to third-party booking sites to help fill hard-to-fill dates. If you’re seeing prices that look far better than what you’ve seen elsewhere, especially during prime vacation seasons, it’s probably a scam. 

Finally,  the best way to avoid a hotel booking scam on a lesser-known third-party site is to take your time. Don’t book through them when you’re in a rush or planning an emotionally charged trip (like trying to get in town for a funeral or the birth of a family member)

If a smaller third-party booking site presents a fabulous deal, research thoroughly before reserving.  

What To Do If You Think You Booked Through a Fake Site

If you do end up lured in by a deal that was too good to resist and now suspect that it was fake, here’s what to do. 

1. Call the Hotel Directly. 

Ask if they’ve received your reservation. If they have, great! You’re not out of the woods yet.

You’ll also want to ask what the daily rate on your reservation is to ensure you didn’t pay an inflated rate to the scam site. Also, confirm any other details that the deal you booked under included (like the size of the room and whether or not the resort is all-inclusive).

If they didn’t receive your reservation or the deal’s details don’t check out, you’ve been scammed, and it’s time to move to step two. 

2. Report the Scam. 

This won’t get your money back, but it does help prevent others from being scammed. You can report the scam to the BBB’s ScamTracker and the FTC. 

3. Call Your Financial Institution. 

If you used a credit card, you could stop the transaction (or get your money back) by calling your financial institution’s customer service number.

If you use a debit card, you’re less likely to get your money back, but you should still let the bank know. They can help you cancel your card and change your account numbers to prevent scammers from taking any more out of your accounts. 

4. Watch for Signs of Further Fraud.  

The scammers probably have enough information to steal your identity if they want to, so it’s crucial to watch out for any signs of fraud. You can do this by closely monitoring your bank accounts and credit report (you should be doing this anyway).

Now’s a good time to set up multi-factor identification with your bank if you haven’t already. You might also want to lock or freeze your credit.

If you notice signs of fraud on your credit report or elsewhere, you must file a police report immediately. Local police typically can’t get your money back or restore your credit score, but having the report is crucial if you need to file a credit dispute or restore your identity later. 

5. Consider Investing in Identity Protection. 

This is the best thing you can do if you think you fell for a hotel booking scam.

An identity protection service will help you monitor your personal and financial information, Using one allows you to take proactive steps if your information is being sold on the dark web

Identity protection services typically include expert identity restoration help and identity theft insurance coverage. So, if a scammer uses your information to steal your assets or your good credit score, you don’t have to worry – you’ll have help recovering your money and reputation.

Many services also include digital security extras, like password managers, VPNs, and antivirus software. This makes securing your information easier. I use Aura for identity protection because it includes all of the above and then some for a reasonable rate.

Yet there are loads of identity protection services out there – many of which I’ve had the opportunity to test and review. It is important to have one, regardless of which one it is, especially if you think you’ve just given tons of personal information to a criminal.

💯 Act Now: Aura is one of the best options for identity theft protection. It will monitor your accounts, provide you with alerts, and provide identity theft insurance. Get it today.

Final Thoughts 

Man in White Dress Shirt Sitting on Black and White Tube Chair

Like I once thought, you might believe you’re too internet-savvy or travel-experienced to fall for a hotel booking scam. Understand that scammers are sophisticated and know how to trick even the best of us. 

💯 Act Now: If you act today, you can get Aura for 68% off and get a 14-day free trial. Protect yourself and keep identity thieves away from your travel plans!

That’s why using an identity protection service with identity theft insurance coverage, such as Aura, is the best thing you can do. Of course, reading articles like this and understanding how hotel booking scams work is also helpful, and you should always seek out more information when you can.