How to avoid summer travel scams

Fraudsters use misleading booking sites, bogus vacation deals to steal your card info

Susan Ladika
Personal Finance Writer
Expert on fraud, travel and debt.

How to avoid summer travel scams

Summer vacation season is in full swing and so are travel scams.

Some examples? That hotel booking or travel website you’re using may not be legit. And don’t fall for calls promising deep-discount Disney vacations or Facebook posts claiming the airlines are giving away two free round-trip tickets anywhere they fly.

“There’s an uptick in fraud attempts, especially during travel season,” says Vered Gottesman, vice president of marketing at Forter, which specializes in fraud protection. “Fraud is becoming bigger and bolder.”

Since so much travel is booked via our credit cards, vacation season is prime time for fraudsters looking to steal your card info.

“Everyone is looking for an angle or deal,” says Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Here are five travel scams popular this year and what you can do to keep fraudsters from grabbing a chunk of your hard-earned money and ruining your vacation. 

1. Misleading hotel booking sites

Some third-party hotel booking sites look like the real deal – but they aren’t.

Consumers may think they are booking at the website of a well-known hotel chain, such as Hyatt or Hilton, but instead they are on a third-party website that has swiped the hotel chain’s photos and logo.

“It’s very misleading,” says Amy Travieso, vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).

AHLA says misleading third-party travel resellers accounted for $5.2 billion in fraudulent transactions in 2017.

Of those who said they had been misled by a third-party travel reseller, 46 percent said they were charged extra fees on their credit card.

More than one-third said their reservation was lost, so they had to book another room, meaning they not only lost the money they spent on the first room, they also had to pay for the new room.

“Websites are becoming more and more aggressive and deceptive,” Travieso says. 

2. Fake travel websites

The boom in online travel purchases has led to a bonanza of fake travel websites.

In some cases, the fraudsters use credit card information they have already stolen to purchase airline tickets or vacation packages, which they then sell those to unsuspecting travelers.

In other cases, the cybercrooks will “sell first and steal later,” Gottesman says. Travelers unwittingly buy airline tickets or hotel stays from scammers who then have their credit card information to use down the line.

In still other cases, the fake travel websites might steal your credit card information and give you nothing in return, Gottesman says.

How can you spot one of these bogus websites? Look for misspellings, and the website may not load properly, Bruemmer says.  

The Better Business Bureau suggests checking the social media icons on the site. A fake site might not have a social media presence, or have very limited activity.

Finally, check how many visitors a travel website has, and if there are only a few visitors, be wary, Gottesman says. She suggests using the global website ranking feature provided by Alexa. (Yes, that’s Amazon’s Alexa, but not its famous voice assistant.) 

"There's an uptick in fraud attempts, especially during travel season."

3. Fraudulent property rentals

That gorgeous rental in the woods, perfect for your romantic getaway, may be a financial trap.

Fraudsters often will post photos of beautiful properties, and when you want to book, the scammers will demand an immediate down payment, according to Experian. They even may ask for a wire transfer so they can get their hands on your cash with no strings attached.

Just imagine: You show up for your romantic vacation or long-overdue vacation and find the property you booked is nowhere close to how it was advertised.

What’s worse? You discover your rental belongs to someone other than the scammer, and the owner either isn’t renting it out or has already rented it to someone else.

Bottom line: If your perfect rental has a dream price, do your homework. The FTC recommends you get a copy of the rental contract, and be sure the property actually exists before you put down a deposit.

Sites such as Airbnb are taking their own precautions, such as not releasing payment to the homeowner until after you check in.

See related: Don’t let a rental scam spoil your vacation

4. Bogus vacation discounts

That phone call promising a steep discount on a vacation in Florida and the Bahamas – throwing in a free cruise, too – is just some fraudster’s team dialing for dollars.

In a recording obtained by Kentucky’s Office of the Attorney General, a caller claims qualified travelers can book “a weeklong vacation to Orlando, right next to Disney, and a three-day stay on a beach in the Bahamas for 75 percent off the retail rate.”

The caller goes on to say vacationers receive a complimentary cruise to the Bahamas, a bonus gift and food.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear said these calls often end with a victim providing an upfront payment and their personal and financial information in exchange for the promise of a luxury vacation they never get to take.

What should you do if you get a call offering an incredible deal on a trip?

“Resist the temptation to quickly book a vacation” you have supposedly qualified for or won, Beshear said in a news release. “Always verify and research a travel agency before providing personal or financial information.”

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

5. Free airline tickets on Facebook

You may have seen the Facebook posts: You can get two free airline tickets with just one click!.

Don’t do it.

Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have all warned of similar scams in recent months.

If you click on the link that accompanies these posts, you might wind up with malware loaded on to your computer.

A writer at Travel & Leisure intentionally clicked on a free ticket offer that supposedly came from Delta last summer. After filling out an online survey, he was hit with a wave of telemarketing calls and spam emails. 

See related: 6 credit card problems that can ruin your summer vacation

6. How to protect yourself from travel scams

Every year, every season, cyberthieves are scrambling to get your credit card info or cash via money transfers to lock in your too-good-to-be-true vacation at an incredible price.

Don’t be fooled.

Aside from the tips above, experts suggest using trusted travel sites that are secure (the website address should start with HTTPS, which means all communication between your browser and the website is encrypted).  

Never use public Wi-Fi when conducting financial transactions.

Don’t provide such personal information as your Social Security number of driver’s license number when making a travel booking.

And always use a credit card when booking travel. “Even if you’re defrauded, you’ll recoup funds through your credit card issuer,” Bruemmer says.


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Updated: 07-15-2018