It's summertime, and, whether you've just procrastinated your vacation planning or just decided to add another getaway to your summer plans, you're likely going to start your search online with a travel site.
Of course, as you set off on your adventure, there are the usual risks. Cancelled flights. Pickpockets. Terror threats. Zika. But some of the threats start before you even book your trip.
Recently, one would-be traveler had started to book a Dominican Republic vacation rental on travel site FlipKey when she received an email from the supposed owner of the property. If she just wired the money to a British bank account instead of booking on FlipKey, the email said, she could get a sizeable discount. She took the bait, the actual booking never happened, and the sender of the email ran off with a cool $3,500.
Unfortunately, travel site scams are all too common. According to the FTC, 24,171 travel scams were reported in 2015 alone.
A study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that 6% of all online bookings every year are scams-that translates to approximately 15 million fraudulent bookings and $1.3 billion stolen every year.
With numbers like these, odds are high that you will encounter a travel site scam. To keep from becoming one of the 6% who will have their money stolen and their vacation dreams dashed this year, watch out for these five most common travel site scams:
Yes, the Internet is overflowing with promises of free stuff. Free music. Free samples. But when it comes to promises of free vacations, you might want to think twice.
Offers of free vacations can show up in your inbox, complete with what appear to be logos from legit travel companies, promising you tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. Forget why they chose you, of all people, for this dream come true. It's a free $1,400 vacation!
Of course, there's a catch. "[Y]ou are instructed to call a toll-free number to 'claim" your award," says travel guru Peter Greenberg. "If you do, there's a small processing fee you'll need to pay with your credit card."
As you've probably guessed by now, as soon as the scammers get your "processing fee," they and your free vacation vanish.
So how do you recognize this type of online travel scam when you see it? The FTC gives this helpful advice:
"A legitimate company won't ask you to pay for a prize. Any company trying to sell you on a 'free' vacation will probably want something from you - taxes and fees, attendance at mandatory timeshare presentations, even pressure to buy 'extras' or 'add-ons' for the vacation, etc. Find out what your costs are before you agree to anything."
Travel sites can often say one thing but do something else entirely-especially when it comes to returns and refunds.
"This happens when a consumer believes (rightly or because she was led to believe it by the company or otherwise) that the online travel booking site has a certain refund or return policy, when in fact it has no returns or requires an exorbitant fee to change or cancel a trip."
This might be one of the most subtle types of travel site scams. Across the board, policies, terms, and conditions on websites are universally hard to find and even harder to read. As a result, most of us skip over the fine print (who has time for that?) and get on with our lives. But we might end up paying for this negligence.
When the site that we sorta remembered saying something about refunds tells us that they don't give refunds, because we haven't read the terms and conditions, we are less likely to push back and more likely just to take what they're dishing out.
One increasingly common travel site scam involves third-party booking websites that are made to look legitimate. Greenberg estimates that these sites rake in an estimated 2.5 million fake bookings and $220 million in revenue every year:
"It all comes down to websites that often pop up as paid advertising in search results and appear-some say in a deceptive way-similar to a hotel's actual booking website. Many even prominently display hotel logos while minimizing the appearance of their own logos. Essentially, these are third party websites trying to pass themselves off as actual hotels. So a growing number of consumers think they are booking a room directly at a Hilton hotel-offering great reduced rates-and it turns out they're totally out of luck."
Is it possible to recognize one of these fake booking sites before they take your money? Greenberg recommends that travelers contact the people at the hotel or other lodging they're interested in and get them to verify the validity of the website and the rate they're promising.
File this one under "sneaky." Travel scammers promise you one price, only to jack it up at the point of purchase or just charge you extra on your card after the fact.
According to the FTC, these additional fees often go by the harmless-sounding name "resort fees":
"'[R]esort fees' - for services like fitness facilities or internet access - can add to the per night cost of your stay. More important, the fees are mandatory: you must pay them regardless of whether you use the services."
To combat this, the FTC recommends that you call the hotel, cruise line, etc., in question and ask them to give you the total resort fees they charge. If you feel they are purposely withholding this information, you are encouraged to file a complaint with the FTC.
Another way that scammers do this is by hiding vague clauses about exchange rate changes in their terms and conditions.
"Sometimes this happens because somewhere, buried in the fine print, the company notes that if the exchange rate changes in a way that's not in your favor, you'll have to pay the difference," explains Hill. Scammers use these types of policies to mask arbitrary increases in fees or costs.
Finally, travel site scammers will take liberty with the way they describe their lodgings to mislead their customers. Without a second thought, vacationers think they're getting steal on an elite resort and book it as quickly as they can. Shock sets in, however, when they discover that their actual lodgings are nothing like they pictured it would be.
"The more vague the promises, the less likely they'll be true," warns the FTC and then gives these hints. "Ask for specifics, and get them in writing. Check out the resort's address; look for photos of the ship."
Fortunately, there are a host of legitimate travel sites out there, both third-party booking sites and the direct sites of cruise lines, hotels, and airlines, that protect customers from scammers and do their best to make things better when hotels and airlines fall through. By knowing what warning signs to look for, you can still get a great deal and a vacation that's memorable for all the right reasons.
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