The journey is back – and so are the travel scams


With more widespread vaccinations and relaxed travel restrictions, many people have been planning their vacations for a long time. But the crooks themselves plan to separate greedy travelers from their money through too-good-to-be-true vacation packages, bogus airline ticket deals and other shady ploys.

Consumer organizations such as the Better Business Bureau are issuing warnings about an increase in incidents involving fraudsters who often pose as airline ticket brokers and travel agents via telemarketing calls.

Another common tactic is to use impostor or “spoof” websites that mimic legitimate booking platforms for airline tickets, hotels, or rental cars – but don’t deliver the product as promised.

These types of scams are on the rise as leisure travel reappears – and will likely remain a problem for the foreseeable future. According to data from RoboKiller, a spam and text call blocker app, the estimated number of automated and unsolicited telemarketing calls (or robocalls) focused on travel – for example, promising a hotel stay free or a deeply discounted reservation – will grow to a staggering 4.9 billion in the United States in 2021, an 80% increase over last year.

“Scammers tend to follow what people do because people are vulnerable to scams that are credible and relevant to their daily lives,” 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’s what’s going on in the world. Now we are seeing travel scams because everyone gets vaccinated and wants to travel again. “

Porter says a recent scam strategy uses a pre-registered, unauthorized introduction of a well-known travel brand – Delta, and Marriott have been popular choices over the past month – as a way to build trust with potential targets.

Spam messages promising a free cruise or other vacation deal are also on the rise, with RoboKiller projecting 2.25 billion travel-related messages sent in 2021, a 300% increase from last year.

Regardless of their form, travel-focused programs are based on a different kind of psychology than other common types of scams, like a caller demanding your credit card information to correct a problem with your Social Security number. or that you owe the IRS taxes – often with the threat of jail time if you don’t pay.

“The end goal is the same: to get your personal and financial information so that they can then use it however they want,” says Porter. “It comes in two different forms: more financial scams use fear… while travel-related scams make people sign up more for deals that maybe too good to be true.

“If it really is a scammer, they are trying to get your credit card information to use it however they want.”

The financial fallout can be disastrous. According to Federal Trade Commission data, $ 26 million was lost due to travel, timeshare and vacation rental fraud from January to March 2021, with a median loss of around $ 1,100 per incident .

Scams are also on the rise elsewhere. In the UK and other parts of Europe where pandemic restrictions are relaxed, authorities are warning travelers planning a summer vacation to keep abreast of fake accommodation offers, fake passports vaccines and other programs circulating online and on social media.

Declining offers and pent-up demand

One of the factors that may play a role in the current wave of travel-related scams is that many consumers are still looking to cut bargains on airline tickets, hotel rooms and passenger cars. rentals that were commonplace during the pandemic.

But now that demand is back, prices have rebounded, especially in the rental car industry, where widespread shortages have driven rates up in many markets, especially in hot-weather destinations like Florida. and Hawaii.

As a result, many consumers are still determined to strike a deal and then explore alternative or unfamiliar businesses that they would normally have overlooked, creating a “perfect storm” for scammers to go ahead with offers and deals that seem too good to be left out, says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit

“It becomes prime time for scammers because the scammer can show up with a lower airfare or a lower total price of a package,” Leocha told CNN. “When people don’t know what they’re buying, that’s when they really become victims.”

Scammers have also become increasingly tech savvy. In addition to “spoofing” official websites with scam sites, they are keenly aware of consumers’ buying habits and how to create advertisements or sponsored links that appear when searching the web for products. keywords such as “cheap car rental” with a desired destination. .

“They can target these things in a very specific and narrow way, where they want people looking for car rentals in Maui to see this ad,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an offer site for plane tickets. “Try to ignore these ads in general, but even if you click on them, if you come [to a website] from an ad, you must have your custody. Even if they claim to be Avis or Alamo, the service tag they provide may not be the real one. “

Then there is the very powerful driving force behind the urge to travel. As travel evolves from virtual to real, many people with unspent vacation funds burning a hole in their pockets may be caught in the excitement of planning a trip again – which can make them feel better. vulnerable to unscrupulous projects (or even just not reading the fine print).

“You’ve been locked up, you want to go somewhere, and you’ve got the money, and when you’re a little short of cash you’re more likely to make a stupid decision, maybe send some money. money to someone who isn’t reputable, or doesn’t understand what the refund policies are or what’s going on with trip cancellations, ”says Dave Seminara, author of“ Mad Travelers: A Tale of Wanderlust, Greed & the Quest to Reach the End of the Earth ”, which tells the true story of a young British con artist who has conquered many of the world’s most traveled people. “When you dream of a trip and dream of traveling, you don’t think of negative scenarios like this.”

Fight against fraud

Some politicians are calling on the government to take more action against travel scams. Senator Amy Klobuchar (R) MN and Senator Steve Daines (right) MT, wrote a letter on May 13 to the FTC asking the agency to provide more information on how it handled this fraud and how she plans to prevent it from moving forward, noting in their letter, about 67% of Americans say they plan to travel this summer.

The big travel brands are also fighting.

On May 19, Marriott filed a federal lawsuit against the Unknown Perpetrators, or “John Does”, that the hotel giant claims to have illegally presented itself as agents or representatives of Marriott during millions of years. automated calls to consumers. According to a statement from Marriott, those calls increased dramatically to a high of seven million per month in 2020.

At the individual level, consumers can also take several steps to protect themselves. For starters, BBB recommends researching any businesses that don’t sound familiar to you before making any purchases.

Pay close 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 spoofed website without noticing. (Secure links, BBB ratings, begin 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 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 targets. potential.

“Always do your research before signing up for anything related to online travel,” Porter says. “To our knowledge, in many cases of these online scams, even if you just submit for more information, you give them your phone number or email address, so your information feeds into that list of numbers. phone. which then feeds the scams by phone, the scams by SMS. “

When booking this trip, be sure to use a credit card instead of a prepaid gift or debit card, cryptocurrency, or wire transfer as most companies from credit cards can help fight fraudulent charges. It’s also worth reiterating that suspicious or “unknown” phone calls should go unanswered, and if you pick up, hang up immediately and resist the temptation to press a number to unsubscribe – usually confirming to spammers that this is so. is a live number.

Finally, don’t expect scammers to go away anytime soon.

“They will stop at nothing,” Porter says. “Covid didn’t stop them, natural disasters – we’ve seen crooks posing as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials and trying to rob people that way. It’s like people want to go on vacation. Just give them a break.

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