Travel Booking Scams

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

man sitting on gang chair with feet on luggage looking at airplane

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM

I live on an island – the kind that becomes jam-packed with tourists every summer. 

Many of these tourists are booking short-term rentals for their families, usually something near the water so they can kayak, whale watching, and just enjoy the beach. 

Of course, rentals in these locations cost a premium. So many Internet-savvy tourists invest significant time looking for the best deal. 

Unfortunately, these deals are often scams

I’ll never forget when one of our friends told us about the lovely family that came knocking one Friday evening. 

“Excuse me, but we’ve booked this location for the weekend – what are you doing here?” the father said, waving a phone in my friend’s face. She peered at the screen to find pictures of her house alongside a booking for an AirBnB. 

My friend was shocked. She ensured the listing was removed and believes AirBnB refunded the family right away, but the incident was still concerning, to say the least.

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Travel Booking Scams – More Common Than You Think

This poor family wasn’t the first, nor will they be the last to fall for a travel booking scam. And they were some of the lucky ones – they got their money back. 

According to a McAfee survey of 7,000 adults across seven countries, one in three tourists has been scammed when booking or taking trips. 34 percent of those who have been scammed lost $1000 or more. 

Unfortunately, losing money isn’t the worst that can happen either. While losing money and possibly your vacation would be a huge bummer, things can get even more horrific. 

Travel scammers often gather personal information when you book through them. They can then sell this information online, leading to full-blown identity theft. 

The good news is that there are ways to protect yourself (and your vacations) from this fraud. 

How Travel Booking Scams Work 

There are many types of travel booking scams, but all share a few common characteristics

1. They Usually Come from a Third-Party Site 

More often than not, travel booking scams occur when you use a third-party site or brokerage to book your flight, hotel stay, or rental.

Sometimes these sites are legitimate, like Airbnb or VRBO, but they allow anyone to make a listing. While these sites have security measures (and money-back guarantees), they’re not immune to scammers. 

Other times, the sites are entirely fraudulent. They may exist only to act as a phishing scam. Even though they aren’t, they’ll try to act like a well-known site.

Alternatively, you might not recognize the site but are drawn to it for various reasons (perhaps it offers a freebie or availability not found elsewhere). 

You may receive a ticket or booking number that looks real, but when you arrive at the airport or hotel or try to make a confirmation call, you’ll learn the hard truth – you never had a real flight or room. 

And once you provide your information and payment to sites like this, it’s typically gone for good. 

2. They Often Advertise a Discounted Rate 

Many people fall for travel booking scams online or on social media because of attractive pricing. Social media, especially, might feature advertisements that include “Free Flights” or “Complimentary Hotel Stays.” 

These are almost always fake

If they provide you with a ticket or booking number, it’s probably illegitimate. 

Alternatively, the scammer may resell you a discounted ticket or booking they bought with a stolen credit card. Eventually, the airline or hotel company catches on and will cancel the ticket, leaving you with a useless booking.  

Even if they offer you a complete freebie and don’t ask for payment information, beware. They’re probably still searching for personal information

Scammers in this scenario may ask for your full name, phone number, address, and even your passport number, which they’ll then sell on the dark web. Bolder scammers might ask for even more personal information. That’s how you get your identity stolen.

3. They May Contact You After Booking with a Change or Update. 

Unforeseen changes aren’t always cause for alarm. Flights get canceled, hotels are overbooked, and plans have to change accordingly. But booking changes and updates are also used by scammers

Here’s how.

Scammers may call or email you after booking your flight or hotel, saying, “We’re sorry, but your reservation has been canceled.” Legitimate companies sometimes have to do the same thing, but if it’s a real airline or resort company, they will help you rebook without additional fees

A scammer will almost always say there’s a cost to rebook your reservation. They may also ask for your information again, which they’ll sell on the dark web (which leads to identity theft). 

4. They Ask for Nontraditional Payment 

If a site asks for payment in gift cards, cryptocurrency, or wire, it’s not legitimate.

Many fraudulent websites say they can save you money by not accepting credit cards. After all, credit cards come with overhead fees. 

But credit cards are also trackable and often have fraud protection built-in. You should be using them when traveling. 

With gift cards, wire transfers, and cryptocurrency, getting your money back is extremely difficult. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good, which is why thieves like these forms of payment so much.

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How To Avoid Booking Scams 

Scammers are crafty, and they change tactics all the time. New travel booking scams pop up almost daily, and keeping up with them all is difficult. 

However, with a few best practices, you can ensure you don’t fall victim to a scam when booking your next trip. 

Do Your Research Before Booking

This is the number one thing you can do to avoid a booking scam. With a little research, you can ensure you’re not giving your information (or credit card) to a thief. 

Start by reading reviews. If you’re booking through a broker site like Airbnb or VRBPO, the property you’re considering should have plenty of reviews to read through. A property with no reviews isn’t exactly a deal-breaker (the listing could be new), but it is a red flag.

If you’re booking travel reservations through a discount site and you’re not sure if it’s legitimate, look for reviews online from blogs or other travel outlets. 

Check out the provided payment methods as well. Legitimate sites take credit cards, fraudulent ones sometimes do not. 

You can also look up the site on BBB.org. The Better Business Bureau tracks scams, and you can use their scam tracker to find out if the site you’re using has a sketchy history

BBB scam tracker

Finally, examine the URL. If there are misspellings, strange characters, or misplaced numbers, it could be a fraudulent site attempting to look like a legitimate company. 

When doing this, you should also verify the site’s security certificate. You can do this by clicking on the padlock on the left side of the URL. 

site secure

Use a VPN 

When booking travel online, using a VPN is a good idea. A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, masks your IP address. This helps with online booking in two ways…

First, it prevents ad tracking from scam sites. If you’re searching for a flight or hotel in a specific location, you’ll end up with various ad trackers. That means every time you go online, you’ll see ads relevant to that search. 

Many scammers pay for ads the same way legitimate companies do. So, some ads you see (likely the ones with the best pricing) can be scams. And you’ll probably be tempted to click on them. 

The best way to prevent that temptation is to eliminate it entirely through a VPN or ad-tracker blocking service. 

The second way a VPN helps when booking travel isn’t about securing your identity but will save you money. 

Airlines and hotels are notorious for using trackers. They expect you to shop around for flights and reservations, but you may notice the prices increase as you get more serious in your search (and closer to your travel dates). This is called dynamic pricing, and it’s a real issue for travelers. 

A VPN prevents travel sites from monitoring your activity, so you ensure you get the best pricing

Don’t Give Them More Money 

Hotels and airlines don’t ask for more money to rebook flights or reschedule reservations they had to cancel. If you receive an email or phone call that asks for more funds, never provide it. 

If you’re worried that the cancellation is real, call the hotel or airline directly. And don’t use the customer service number provided in the phone call or email. Instead, look up the official company website and use the contact information provided there.  

Don’t Open Unexpected Emails 

In general, you shouldn’t open emails you aren’t sure about. This is especially true if a travel company starts sending you things – it’s even more true if they’re offering something “Free!”

If you booked through a legitimate company, you should still only open correspondence you’re sure is from them. Know that they will never ask you to reply with personal information

Don’t Rely on Search-Populated Answers 

Google is an amazing tool, and its featured snippets are very handy. They provide fast answers to questions, so you don’t have to navigate to a company website. 

Here’s the problem. 

Google chooses its featured snippets using an algorithm, which is only so smart. It sometimes identifies things as correct because the answer is popular or the site it comes from ranks high for SEO. 

Unfortunately, scam sites and manipulated listings sometimes show up in featured snippets. That means if you search for a customer service phone number or other contact information, Google might show something like this: 

featured snippet

This is likely legitimate, but that’s not always the case. To be safe, navigate directly to the company website’s support page.

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What To Do If You Fall For a Travel Scam 

Given their prevalence and the undeniable creativity of many scammers, falling for a travel booking scam is understandable. If it happens to you, there are things you can do

While you might not always get your money back after a travel scam (especially if you used crypto or sent a wire transfer), you can ensure the damage doesn’t go any further. 

What Your Credit Score and Bank Account Closely 

If you fall victim to a travel scam, you should first start monitoring your bank account closely. Sign up for multi-factor identification and daily transaction or balance summaries if your bank offers it. 

You also want to start monitoring your credit. You can request a credit freeze at all three credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. This makes it much harder for a thief to take out a loan or any form of credit in your name. 

You should also request a copy of your credit report. Review it for any signs of fraud. If you notice anything that wasn’t you, you’ll need to take further steps, including: 

Filing a police report. This documents the incident and will help you during the credit dispute process.
Issuing a fraud alert. This is a temporary alert on your credit. It lasts one year and requires lenders to contact you to verify your information before issuing a loan.
Issuing a dispute. You can call the credit bureau with incorrect information on your credit report.
Contact the lender(s). Your credit report will show which lenders are reporting fraudulent information to the credit bureau. Contact them directly and let them know what’s going on. 

Notify Your Bank 

You’ll also want to notify your banks and financial institutions if you become the victim of a scam. Their fraud department will help you protect your account. They’ll also help you cancel existing cards and issue new ones. 

Alert The FTC

Alerting the FTC that you were a victim of fraud does two things. 

It helps stop fraudsters, thereby protecting others in the future. 
It provides another form of documentation you may need to fix your credit. 

Alerting the FTC is simple. You simply go to the fraud reporting page. You can also start an official identity theft report if you’ve become a victim of identity theft. 

Sign up for Identity Theft Protection 

I put this as the final step, but it’s a good idea to do it as early as possibleeven before you become a scam victim. 

Good identity theft services take the fear and most of the work out of monitoring and repairing your identity and credit score. When you have one, you can skip many of the above steps should you become an identity theft victim. You’re also less likely to become a victim in the first place. 

That’s because identity theft services monitor your personal information and alert you if it’s found on the dark web or public records. They can also monitor your financial transactions and records of short-term loans in your name. 

Identity protection services also often monitor your credit score, letting you know if there are signs of fraud and sending you regular credit reports for your review. 

Plus, many of the best services include online privacy and built-in security features like VPNs and ad-tracker blockers. Some even include spam call protection and email alias tools so you can help protect yourself from spammers. 

There are many identity theft protection services to choose from, but I recommend Aura. It provides the most features at an affordable price, and it offers award-winning identity theft and credit monitoring. 

Additionally, it comes with $1 million in identity theft insurance per adult. If you become an identity theft victim, your expenses, stolen funds, and legal fees are covered. 

Conclusion 

Traveling can be expensive, and it’s normal to want the best deal on your hotel, airplane, car rental, etc. Unfortunately, scammers know that, making our desire for a bargain a possible vulnerability. 

We want to save money, but that means we’re more likely to fall for travel booking scams, and if we do, it can end up costing us a lot of hard-earned cash. 

By being aware of the tactics scammers use, knowing what a legitimate service looks like, and using identity protection services such as Aura, we can avoid them and still take advantage of great (and legitimate) deals.

If you do fall victim to a scam, there are steps you can take. You might not get your money back, but you will help stop the bleeding, so to speak. And the sooner you do that, the sooner you can enjoy your future vacation.

Other Types of Scams You Need To Know: