It’s getting closer to the holidays, and most people are itching to travel, explore, and create unforgettable memories. Indeed, the internet and social media platforms are teeming with advertisements for exclusive holiday deals that seem too good to be true.
Yet, travel-related scams threaten to dampen the joy and anticipation of planning a vacation. Fraudsters know we’re eager to dump our responsibilities and let our hair down, which makes it easier to trick people and relieve them of their hard-earned bonuses and savings.
Don’t become another victim with a hair-raising tale to tell. Here are some of the common travel-related scams that are going around and some tips on how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of fraud, identity theft, or malware.
Increase in Travel-Related Scams
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) people reported losing $8.8 billion to scams during 2022, of which over 65,000 were reports of travel-related scams. This figure will rise as people return to their regular travel habits post-pandemic, enticed by attractive offers on social media platforms. In another development, many municipalities have started enforcing stricter short-term rental regulations. Consequently, properties once listed on Airbnb have been removed and are now being advertised on social media or fake booking platforms, heightening the risk of holiday scams.
Moreover, scammers are increasingly using AI to enhance the legitimacy of their scams:
- Chatbots: AI-powered chatbots can be programmed to convince people to provide sensitive information or click on malicious links.
- Spear Phishing: AI can collect information about a target, such as their social media activity, online behavior, and personal interests. Scammers can use this information to craft highly personalized messages that are more likely to convince the target to click on a link or download a file.
- Deepfakes: AI can create realistic videos or images that impersonate someone else and trick people into thinking they are communicating with a legitimate source.
- Voice Cloning: AI technology can replicate a person’s voice. Scammers can use it to trick people into thinking a family member is calling them.
What Are Some of the Most Prevalent Scams?
Some scams have been around for a while, but our “always-on-the internet” habits are exposing us to more opportunities to get scammed:
- Counterfeit Lodging Listings: Fraudsters fabricate listings on platforms like Airbnb or Booking.com. They use stolen images and descriptions from authentic properties to advertise bargain prices, stunning decor, great amenities, or lenient cancellation policies. Once you pay a deposit, the fraudster vanishes with the funds. The deluge of rentals on social media platforms makes it very difficult to distinguish real travel deals from scams.
- Sham Refunds: Scammers impersonate airlines, travel companies, and banks to steal personal information and money. They’ll send an online message to inform you that your booking has been canceled and offer a refund. Next, they’ll request verification of your identity or specific booking details to ensure you “get the help you need.” Once they have such detailed information, they may request a refund to gauge your reaction. Don’t react with: “We paid $2000, why is the refund so small?” because, before you know it, they’ll ask you to send them your credit card details or a copy of your bank statement as proof of payment, springing the trap.
- Surprise Fees: Some websites charge hidden fees, e.g., booking fees, service fees, or taxes, which can add up to hundreds of dollars. They only reveal the extra fees after you’ve entered your credit card information and agreed to the terms and conditions. That makes it very difficult to cancel or get a refund.
- Phishing Websites: Scammers create fake websites that mimic legitimate travel agencies, airlines, or hotels, using similar logos, names, or web addresses. Their offers look fantastic (free flights, all-inclusive packages, or luxury resorts for a fraction of the price). Then they ask for your personal and financial information, such as name, address, email, phone number, credit card number, or passport number. They use this information to steal your identity, empty your bank account, and zero credit.
- Malware: Scammers claiming to be from reputable organizations send unsolicited emails and messages. They attach files or links that contain malware, such as viruses, spyware, ransomware, or keyloggers. Don’t click on links in emails before checking them with a VPN link checker or antivirus software. An unfortunate click can infect your device and compromise sensitive data. Or, even worse, it may install ransomware, which will lock the device or your files.
How to Book Travel Online Safely
It’s tempting to browse for travel bargains on your smartphone while on the go. But, given the prevalence of travel-related scams, it’s better to give travel bookings your full attention and follow these tips when booking your travel online:
- Encrypt Your Internet Traffic: Use a VPN service with anti-malware features to hide your IP address and geolocation from prying eyes. A VPN protects your logins and financial information on public Wi-Fi networks and can check links to ensure it’s not a fake website. And, while traveling, a VPN for Android and your laptop will let you access your favorite shows back home.
- Identify Awkward Promotional Material and Grammar Mistakes: If you see spelling errors, punctuation mistakes, or awkward phrasing on a website or email, it could indicate that it is not authentic. However, be aware that scammers now use AI writing aids to overcome these issues and that flawless marketing material does not prove that an email or offer is legitimate.
- Beware of Deals That Are Too Good to Be True: Compare prices and offers from different sources and look for reviews from other travelers who have used the same service or website. You should dig deeper if you find a ridiculously cheap option or other huge price discrepancy.
- Don’t Give In to the FOMO: Scammers often use pressure tactics to make you act quickly and impulsively without proper research or verification. They may claim that the deal is limited-time only, that only a few spots are left, or that you need to pay immediately to secure your reservation. Take your time to make an informed decision.
- Refuse Requests for Personal Information: Don’t share digital copies of your passport, credit cards, or medical insurance. Travel suppliers don’t need it to make a simple booking. You should only enter your credit card information on secure websites with a padlock icon and start with https:// in the address bar.
- Beware Phishing Attempts: Look out for phishing attempts via unsolicited messages or fake booking confirmations from seemingly legitimate companies such as Booking.com. Avoid clicking on links or attachments in emails or text messages that claim to be from travel companies or organizations. Instead, you should visit their official website or contact them directly to verify their authenticity.
- Verify Your Bookings Independently: Call your hotel or airline to ensure they’ve received your booking. If you’ve been scammed, at least you’ll know it early enough to try and stop payment rather than arrive at the doorstep of a non-existent hotel at midnight and have nowhere to go.
- Use Reliable Booking Platforms: Do your homework and search for reviews and complaints about the travel website/agency. You can use a keyword search to check the reputation of travel companies. Type in the name of the hotel, agency, or rental followed by the words “scam,” “review,” or “complaint”.
- Don’t Overshare on Social Media. Fraudsters often scour these platforms to identify potential targets. They may pose as airlines, travel agencies, or banks, perhaps to inform you that your booking has been canceled and offering a refund.
- Use Legitimate Payment Methods: Use trusted payment platforms. If the only way to pay your supplier is by wire transfer, that’s a major red flag. There’s hardly a corner of the world where you can’t pay someone via credit card or other global payment channels!
Do the Research Before You Buy
Online scams are not new, but they are increasing, so it’s important to do your homework before clicking that submit button. Conduct thorough research, verify the credibility of travel agencies, and be cautious about sharing personal information. Don’t let scammers spoil your hard-earned vacation even before you get to pack a suitcase! Practice basic cyber hygiene and follow our tips to stay sharp on the internet.