Planning a holiday escape? Avoid hassle and heartache caused by travel scams

Don't let scammers turn holiday travel into a nightmare with travel fraud

Last year, nearly ¾ of Americans planned to travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas. For the vast majority of travelers, the holidays are a time to create memories that they will cherish for years. Thanks to scammers who prey on travelers, however, those memories can turn into nightmares. Take steps to protect yourself this busy travel season by following these easy tips for spotting and avoiding some common travel-related scams.

Avoid suspicious online hotel booking sites

When looking for a place to stay, many consumers begin by simply entering their destination plus the word “hotels” in an online search engine. Unfortunately, thanks to some booking sites’ aggressive online advertising techniques, consumers may think that they’re booking directly with a hotel, when in fact, they are working with an online booking site. While this may not pose a problem (many hotels do work with legitimate online booking websites), in the worst cases this can lead to:

  • Consumers arriving at a hotel without an actual reservation;

  • Paying more for the hotel room than the hotel’s asking price;

  • The hotel being prohibited from issuing a refund in the event of a cancellation; or

  • Special requests such as room accessibility for the disabled being ignored.

To avoid these problems, take care when searching for and booking a hotel online by:

  • Verifying that you are booking directly through a hotel’s website before providing a credit or debit card number. A good way to do this is to look for the hotel’s phone number on another website (i.e., the corporate site for the hotel chain you’re booking, or by using online white pages) and calling to verify the hotel site’s legitimacy.

  • Being aware that when you call a hotel phone number listed on a third-party booking site, it may actually go to a call center, where booking site employees misrepresent themselves as representatives of the hotel chain itself.

  • Checking to see if the online booking site you’re working with is associated with an industry association like the Travel Technology Association or U.S. Travel Association. If it’s not, that could be a red flag.


Don’t lose airline miles to fraud

Anyone who has flown in the past several decades is probably familiar with frequent flyer programs. It is estimated that consumers are holding approximately 14 trillion unused airline miles and loyalty points, which can be redeemed for free flights and other merchandise. That buying power makes them a tempting target for fraudsters. Even better, from the scammers’ point of view, is that many consumers do not realize that airline miles are susceptible to theft. If left unprotected, fraudsters can hack into a frequent flyer account and transfer miles to their own account.

Here are some tips to prevent the theft of those hard-earned miles:

  • Monitor loyalty accounts regularly for unauthorized withdrawals. If the point balance is lower than expected, report the discrepancy to their airlines immediately.

  • Practice good cyber password hygiene. Hackers typically steal miles by logging into loyalty accounts using an email address and password combination that may have been used elsewhere online. To reduce the risk of this happening, be sure to use a long, strong, and unique password for miles accounts.

  • Always remember, frequent flier miles are valuable. Keep your account numbers in a safe place. If using a paper boarding pass, flyers should dispose of the pass safely, since the loyalty account number could be printed on the pass.

Taxi meter fraud

When traveling, consumers often rely on taxis and ridesharing apps like Lyft and Uber to get around town. Unfortunately, some commercial drivers take advantage of a traveler's unfamiliarity with a city to defraud them.

Some tips to spot and avoid these scams:

  • Always confirm with the driver that the meter and credit card machine are in working order. If the meter is not working, either attempt to negotiate a fair price before beginning the trip or leave the taxi.

  • Always travel with official, licensed taxis or through trusted ride hailing companies such as Lyft or Uber.

  • An unscrupulous taxi driver may take an overly long route to a destination to inflate the fare. To catch this, plug the destination into a smartphone and pay attention to make sure the drive is taking a direct route. If the driver seems to be taking an overly-long route, be sure to speak up and question the driver.

  • Consumers who feel like they’ve been cheated by a taxi driver should be sure to report the incident to the local taxicab commission (including the name and number of the driver, if available).


The free Wi-Fi scam

It can be tempting to join a “free Wi-Fi” hotspot while relaxing at a cafe or killing time at an airport. Unfortunately, scammers also know this and can set up fake “free” hotspots to lure consumers into signing on. When an unsuspecting victim connects to one of these hotspots, fraudsters may be able to see whatever the victim has on her screen, obtain access to sensitive files, and steal information sent over the Internet, including passwords, bank account numbers, and credit card information.

To avoid this scam, travelers should:
  • Be aware that the name of the Wi-Fi network could be a ruse. Scammers often try to trick consumers by naming their fraudulent Wi-Fi after a legitimate cafe or airport. If there is any doubt about the legitimacy of a hotspot, ask an employee for the correct network name.

  • Just because a Wi-Fi hotspot requires payment to connect does not mean that it is safe. Fraudsters have been known to set up Wi-Fi hotspots and then charge for access while also hacking the consumer’s computer. To truly be safe, always confirm the name of the network with an employee before signing in.

  • Many modern smartphones come with apps that can turn them into a Wi-Fi hotspot (either for free or a monthly fee). Check with your wireless provider before traveling to see if your phone can be used as a hotspot. If you use a personal hotspot, be sure to protect it with a strong passcode.

Unfortunately, travel fraud can be hard to spot, and even the savviest of us are vulnerable. Consumers who have been victims of travel fraud should file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We share complaints with our network of nearly 200 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can and do put fraudsters behind bars.