Whether it's booking accommodation, checking in for flights, navigating a new city or finding the best restaurant in town, technology has simplified almost all aspects of travel.
However, it’s also presented some new risks. Imagine finding an incredible online deal for a tropical resort, booking your accommodation and arriving to find the hotel doesn’t even exist!
It might sound farfetched, but online travel scams like these are catching out unsuspecting travellers and spoiling travel plans around the world. So what can you do to avoid being scammed and what red flags should you look out for?
Let’s look into some of the most common online travel scams around today and practical ways you can book with confidence.
Types of online booking scams
From hidden fees and high-pressure sales, to identity theft and cybercrime, online booking scams range from frustrating to downright dangerous. Here are three of the most common types of scams and some quick tips on how to avoid them.
1. Fake websites
Fake websites are some of the most upsetting and costly scams we see today, and they’re more common than you might think. In fact, research by the American Hotel & Lodging Association found that millions of travellers have been victims of fraudulent websites in recent years.
Some of these websites are created to mimic a real property, and others promote properties that simply don’t exist. But fake websites aren’t only rife in accommodation; they also exist to sell bogus tours, rental vehicles and even flights.
Quick tip: There are some easy ways to judge a website's authenticity, like whether its URL begins with “https” and has a padlock symbol in the browser. We’ll go into these in more detail later on.
2. Third-party problems
Booking through third-party websites can quickly become troublesome if you’re not paying close attention. For example, when a family from the UK booked a New York apartment on a third-party website , they arrived to find the private building was locked up and the phone disconnected.
Confused, they realised they’d fallen victim to a fabricated hotel listing and needed to find alternative accommodation.
Quick tip: Booking directly with the accommodation is often the safest way to ensure you’re dealing with the right people. If you book through a third-party and have any doubts about its authenticity, call the accommodation directly and confirm your reservation before you depart.
3. Hidden fees
How many times have you reached the checkout of an online store only to find extra fees and confusing charges added to your order? Whether it’s local government taxes, online handling fees, charges to send your booking confirmation or extra costs to pay by credit card, these hidden fees can quickly add up.
Quick tip: Always check to see if some of these charges are optional, like sending a physical copy of your booking confirmation. If they seem excessive, unusual or irrelevant, ask for an explanation or take your business elsewhere.
How to spot online booking scams
Scams are often easy to spot if you know what to look for. If you come across any of these red flags during your research, proceed with care.
1. The website isn’t secure
A secure website is one that uses encryption and authentication to protect any transactions that occur on the site. Secure websites have a URL that begins with “https” and includes a padlock icon, also known as an SSL certificate. Most web browsers will warn you when a website isn’t secure.
2. The URL or website looks strange
Sometimes, even fake websites can look secure thanks to an SSL certificate. However, if the remainder of the URL or website looks suspicious, use care. Scammers have been known to replicate well-known booking websites, which can make it hard to know if it’s genuine or not. Spelling errors in the URL and on the website are a strong red flag.
3. Suspicious customer reviews
Whether it’s accommodation or a restaurant meal, it’s always a good idea to read customer reviews before booking. Scammers know the persuasive power of online reviews and use these to their advantage by creating fake user profiles and leaving positive feedback on their pages.
Look deeper into the user’s profile if you’re suspicious about the authenticity of the reviews they’re writing. If they’ve only left one review and have an incomplete profile, they might be a fake account.
4. High-pressure sales tactics from third-party websites
Third-party booking websites often use sales tactics like “only two rooms remaining!” and “offer ends tonight!” to pressure travellers into booking immediately for fear of missing out. The truth is, however, these sites often only advertise a fraction of the rooms available at a hotel, so you may be able to find available rooms at a later date by booking directly with the hotel.
5. Too many ads
Online advertising is everywhere, and booking companies have their fair share of promotional content on their sites. However, if you have to dig through countless pop-up ads for strange products and questionable services, take your business elsewhere.
How to avoid being scammed
The following tips will help you to book with confidence for your next holiday.
- Book direct where possible, instead of through a third-party website.
- If you do book through third-party sites like Airbnb, never make a payment directly to the owner; always use the payment process laid out by the website.
- Call the accommodation, tour company or rental agency directly after you’ve booked to confirm your reservation.
- Use extra care with strange payment requests.
- Tread carefully around offers that sound too good to be true.
What to do if you’re scammed
Sometimes even savvy internet users can be caught out by cunning online scams. While you might be frustrated and upset, it’s important to stay calm and limit the damage the scammers can do with your information.
If you believe you’ve fallen victim to an online booking scam, remember to:
- Alert your bank and place a temporary freeze on the affected account while you verify the threat.
- Reset your online passwords, including social media, email, financial institutions and service providers.
- Contact a government service like iDcare if you believe your identity is under threat.
For the most part, technology has made travelling easier to organise, more affordable and even more enjoyable. We now have the power to read reviews from countless other travellers before us, to find up-to-date directions around the world, and to connect with home at the click of a button.
If you stay on your guard to avoid online opportunists, you can enjoy all the great benefits of travel technology with confidence.
Do you have a story of a dodgy online booking service? We’d love to hear it! Please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us more.
We won’t identify you unless you say we can, and we won’t use this information for any other purpose than marketing. If you’d like to access a record of the information we hold about you, please send us a message at email@example.com.
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