With more widespread vaccinations and relaxed travel restrictions, many people are making long-awaited vacation plans. But scammers are making plans of their own to separate eager travelers from their money via too-good-to-be-true vacation packages, fake airfare deals and other shady schemes.
Consumer advocacy organizations such as Better Business Bureau are issuing warnings about an increase in incidents involving scammers who often pose as airline ticket brokers and travel agents via telemarketing calls.
Another common tactic is imposter or “spoofed” websites that mimic legitimate booking platforms for airfare, hotels or rental cars — but do not deliver the product as promised.
These kinds of scams are surging as leisure travel re-emerges — and are likely to remain a hassle for the near future. According to data from RoboKiller, a spam call and text blocker app, the estimated number of automated, unsolicited telemarketing calls (or robocalls) with a travel focus — for example, promising a free hotel stay or a deeply discounted booking — will grow to a staggering 4.9 billion in the United States in 2021, representing an 80% increase from last year.
“Scammers do tend to follow what people are doing, because people are susceptible to scams that are believable and relevant to their daily life,” says Giulia Porter, vice president of marketing at TelTech, the mobile communications company that owns RoboKiller.
“During Covid, we saw a lot of PPE and contact tracing scams, because that was what was going on in the world. Now we’re seeing travel scams because everyone is getting vaccinated and they want to travel again.”
Porter says one recent scamming strategy is using a pre-recorded, unauthorized introduction from a well-known travel brand — Delta, Booking.com and Marriott have been popular choices within the last month — as a way to build trust with potential targets.
Spam texts promising a free cruise or other vacation deal also are on the rise, with RoboKiller projecting 2.25 billion travel-related messages sent in 2021, a 300% increase from last year.
Whatever their form, travel-centric schemes rely on a different type of psychology than other common types of scams, such as a caller demanding your credit card info to correct a problem with your Social Security number or that you owe taxes to the IRS — often with the threat of jail time if you don’t pay up.
“The end goal is the same: to get your personal and financial information so that they can then use that however they want,” Porter explains. “That comes in two different forms: more financial-based scams are using fear … whereas travel scams are more getting people to sign up for offers that are possibly too good to be true.
“If it’s truly a scammer, they’re trying to get your credit card information to use it however they’d like.”
The financial fallout can be disastrous. According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, $26 million was lost to travel, timeshare and vacation rental fraud from January to March 2021, with a median reported loss of approximately $1,100 per incident.
Scams are on the rise elsewhere, too. In the UK and other parts of Europe where pandemic restrictions are relaxing, authorities are warning travelers planning summer holidays to be aware of bogus lodging offers, fake vaccine passports and other schemes circulating online and on social media.
Decreasing deals and pent-up demand
One factor likely playing a role in the current spate of travel scams is that many consumers are still looking to score rock-bottom deals on airfare, hotel rooms and rental cars that were commonplace during the pandemic.
But now that demand is back, prices have rebounded, especially in the car rental industry, where widespread shortages have spiked rates in many markets, especially warm-weather destinations like Florida and Hawaii.
As a result, many consumers still determined to get a deal then explore alternate or unfamiliar companies they would normally overlook, creating a “perfect storm” for scammers to swoop in with deals and offers that seem too good to pass up, explains Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a traveler advocacy nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
“It’s becoming prime time for scammers because the scammer can come in with lower airfare or a lower total price of a package,” Leocha told CNN. “When people don’t know what they’re buying, this is when they really become victims.”
Scammers have become increasingly tech-savvy as well. In addition to “spoofing” official websites with fraudulent ones, they’re acutely aware of consumers’ purchasing patterns and how to create ads or sponsored links that pop up during a web search for keywords like “cheap car rentals” along with a desired destination.
“They can target these things in a very specific, narrow way, where they only want people who are searching for car rentals in Maui to see this ad,” explains Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an airfare deal site. “Try to ignore those ads in general, but even if you click them, if you come [to a website] from an ad you need to have your guard up. Even if they claim to be Avis or Alamo, the service number they provide might not be the actual one.”
Then, there’s the very powerful driver of wanderlust. As travel evolves from virtual to actual, many people with unspent vacation funds burning a hole in their pocket can get caught up in the excitement of actually planning a trip again — which may make them more vulnerable to unscrupulous schemes (or even just not reading the fine print).
“You’ve been cooped up, you want to go somewhere, and you’ve got the money, and when you’re a little flush with money, you’re more likely to make a dumb decision, sending money to maybe somebody who is not reputable, or not understanding what the refund policies are or what happens with trip cancellations,” explains Dave Seminara, author of “Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the Ends of the Earth,” which tells the true story of a young British con artist who scammed many of the world’s most traveled people. “When you’re dreaming of a trip and dreaming of travel, you’re not thinking about negative scenarios like that.”
Fighting back against fraud
Some politicians are calling on government to take more action against travel-focused scams. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) MN and Sen. Steve Daines (R) MT, wrote a May 13 letter to the FTC asking the agency to provide more information about how it’s addressed such fraud and how it plans to prevent it moving forward, noting in their letter that some 67% of Americans say they have plans to travel this summer.
Big-name travel brands are fighting back, too.
On May 19, Marriott filed a federal lawsuit against the unknown perpetrators, or “John Does,” that the hotel giant claims have been illegally misrepresenting themselves as Marriott agents or representatives in millions of robocalls to consumers. According to a Marriott release, these calls increased dramatically to a peak of seven million a month in 2020.
On an individual level, consumers also can take several steps to keep themselves safe. For starters, BBB recommends researching any company that sounds unfamiliar before making any purchases.
Pay particular attention to the URL, making sure it’s correct before entering any personal or payment information, as it can be easy to click on a sponsored ad or a spoofed website without noticing. (Secure links, the BBB notes, start with “https://” and include a lock icon on the purchase page.) Misspelled words and pixelated images are also possible signs of a scammer.
Porter also points out that even something as seemingly harmless as sharing your phone number or email address on a web form can put you on the radar of scammers, who are known to share contact information of possible targets.
“Always do your research before you sign up for anything travel-wise online,” Porter says. “To our knowledge, a lot of instances of these online scams is that even if you’re just submitting for more information, you’re giving them your phone number or your email address, so your information is feeding into this list of phone numbers that is then fueling phone scams, text scams.”
When you do book that trip, be sure to use a credit card instead of a prepaid gift or debit card, cryptocurrency or wire transfer, as most credit card companies can help fight fraudulent charges. It also bears repeating that suspicious or “unknown” phone calls should go unanswered, and if you do pick up, hang up right away and resist the temptation to press a number to opt out — which usually just confirms to the spammers that it’s a live number.
Finally, don’t expect scammers to go away anytime soon.
“They’ll stop at nothing,” Porter says. “Covid didn’t stop them, natural disasters — we’ve seen scammers impersonate FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials and trying to steal from people that way. It’s like, people want to go on vacation. Just give them a break.”