Vacation and Travel Scams
The American Hotel and Lodging Association says 15 million scam reservations were made last year that cost consumers over one billion dollars.
The agency warned citizens to be wary of robocalls, emails or faxes offering promotional travel packages purported to have been offered by legitimate travel agencies, such as Expedia, Travelocity, TripAdvisor and more. Visitors to be on guard for common scams involving vacation and travel plans.
Vacation or travel scams include offers of free or deeply discounted travel deals that may never materialize. In some instances, businesses may provide vacation certificates with the goal of selling a specific product or service. These certificates may only cover a small portion of a vacation, such as providing lodging in a hotel or timeshare resort for only a certain number of days and nights. Other offers include airfare or a cruise, or provide one complimentary ticket with the purchase of a second. Some certificates include discount coupons for restaurants, tours or attractions in the resort area.To receive this offer, consumers may have to make a purchase or attend a sales presentation. Companies may require a non-refundable processing and handling fee, or a refundable deposit of $50 to $100 to reserve a vacation offer (which won’t be returned until after a vacation has been taken). Some deals are genuine, but nearly all involve fine print which makes the offer sound less “too good to be true” than upon first glance.
Vacation Rental Scam – In this type of scam, scammers post fake vacation home rental opportunities on classified ad or forum websites with luxurious details and a low price to entice victims. Typically, they require a large upfront deposit. Once the victim arrives at their destination and realizes the vacation rental is the sham, the money is long gone.
Sweepstakes Scam – Victims of this type of scam receive a notice, typically either by email or mail, stating that they have won an all-expenses paid vacation to an exotic location, and they simply need to pay a service fee or handling charges to claim their “prize.” Scammers may request that the fee is paid by a wire transfer or a prepaid debt card. Once the transfer is made, the scammer steals the money and no prize vacation materializes.
Social Media Free Vacation Scam – In this type of scam, scammers post offers of all-inclusive free vacations on social media, asking people to share, comment or “like” the post for a chance to win the vacation. This will drive up the popularity of the post, showing it in more feeds. The scammer will then edit the post slightly to include a link in an effort to get victims to click on the link so they can steal their personal identifying information.
When making vacation or travel plans this summer, please keep these tips in the forefront of your mind to avoid becoming a victim:
- Be extremely wary of the word “free.”
- Always use a company’s direct website when looking for special offers.
- Unsolicited offers are probably not legitimate.
- Beware of high-pressure sales tactics.
- Be cautious of offers that sound “too good to be true.”
Do your own independent research so that you can make a fully informed decision. Always check to see if a company is accredited by the Better Business Bureau. Verify that the company is properly licensed before you do business with them.
So how do you protect yourself? Read Some Some Tips to combat this scam:
- Don’t be fooled by photography. In particular, be wary of the nicest-looking, most Photoshopped property photos. Ask the owner for additional photos — an honest lessor will always have them. Or ask your agent to use technology like FaceTime or Skype to show you the property live. At the very least, use Google GOOG -0.13% Earth and Google’s Street View feature to confirm that the property you’re renting actually exists at the address advertised. You can also use those Google tools to get an unvarnished look at the property’s exterior.
- Be careful of the cheapest properties. If prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. If you don’t have a feel for what a reasonable price is in an area, get one. Scammers often go after people who aren’t that savvy. And drive a hard bargain — not just to get a better deal, but also to detect odd behavior from the other party.
- Never pay with cash. The preferred methods of payment among criminals are cash and cash-transfer services like MoneyGram and Western Union WU +1.03%. Use a credit card instead — Visa, MasterCard, and American Express will all allow you to recover the money you lose to fraud. Reputable sites like Airbnb will hold your security funds in escrow. They play middleman, making sure you’ve put the funds in place before you get keys. (Some portals offer insurance against fraud — but it’s expensive and may not cover much; read the policy closely.)
- Use a trusted local agent. Yes, you should expect to pay them. But they can show you bona fide listings or go look at the properties that you’ve seen on the Internet for you. Be sure to check their license.
- Confirm legitimacy. For ownership and all documents, confirm that the owner’s name on the lease is the same as the one shown on public property appraiser records. Then have a lawyer review the lease, just like you would a full-year agreement.
- Read the comments. The feedback from previous renters that appears on sites like Airbnb and VRBO is invaluable. And in some cases, you’re even allowed to pose questions to other users.
- Trust your instincts. If you apply some skepticism to the process, you’re more likely to see red flags. You’re also more likely to catch suspicious behavior. My Germans looked back after their experience and realized their phony realty agent had exhibited all kinds of weird tics. They were so excited about their trip to Miami that they failed to pick up on them.
- Take your time. No need to rush. For long vacations, consider going ahead of time to check out the property, or not renting a house for the first week — stay at a hotel for a few nights. It will give you an opportunity to see the property you’re renting in person before turning over your security deposit.
- Be a regular. If you rent a home you like, stick with it. You’ll develop a relationship with the owner if you go back to the same place year in, year out — and avoid the risk of being scammed on a new property. If you’re traveling to a new place, try to find a friend who lives there and will give you honest feedback on potential rentals, good neighborhoods, etc.
- Beware groupthink. If you’re vacationing with a half-dozen other people, everybody tends to figure that somebody else is paying attention to the details and making sure the group isn’t getting ripped off. Then, when the amazing six-bedroom place you all rented together is nowhere to be found and your security deposit evaporates, everybody’s pointing fingers.