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Travel is back. So are tourist scams. If you’re going on a trip, beware of these rip-offs

No, that’s not Delta or United Airlines on the other end of that phone. It’s a con artist looking to separate would-be travelers from their cash.

Travel is back. So are tourist scams. If you’re going on a trip, beware of these rip-offs
[Photo: sunstock/iStock; Fin Gabriel/Unsplash]
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It’s been a while since you bought a plane ticket or made an online reservation for a rental car, so maybe those booking muscles have atrophied.

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Be alert, though, because as travel picks up this summer, so too will scams that prey on would-be tourists.

The Better Business Bureau is warning aspiring wanderers about three cons that can cost you thousands of dollars, depending on how big a trip you’re planning. As you dust off that frequent-flyer number, here’s what you should pay attention to:

Scam 1: Too-good-to-be-true airfare

Thieves are setting up fake airline booking sites to trick you into buying incredibly low-priced tickets. After you use your credit card to book the airfare online or use the dummy customer-service number listed, you get a confirmation email, but not the tickets. In some cases, the con artists will call you to say the price of the tickets has since gone up, so you need to pay the difference. (That would never happen with a real booking site: Once you buy tickets, they’re yours at that price with no increase to come.)

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Victims realize they’ve been had—and will never see those tickets—only when they call the airline and discover there’s no record of a booking.

Scam 2: Switches that never happen

The scammers creep in when you need to make a change to your plane tickets—for instance, if you have to adjust your travel plans or if your flight is canceled or delayed. You google the airline’s phone number, but you actually call a fake number that con artists have set up.

This isn’t Delta, United Airlines, or whoever you want to reach, but you don’t know that—and you give the voice on the other end of the line your personal information and credit card number. You pay the rebooking fees, which the BBB says can be as much as two times more expensive than the original tickets were. When you later connect with the real airline, you find out they don’t know anything about your changing or canceling your travel plans.

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Scam 3: Bogus car-rental deals

People who prefer driving to flying are no less vulnerable. When you search online for a car-rental company, you may find a very low daily rate and call the phone number, but it’s actually a bogus number that doesn’t connect you to a customer service rep at, say, Avis, Hertz, or Enterprise. When the scammer says the significant discount kicks in when a reservation is paid for with a gift card or prepaid debit card, you go out and buy a card or two, share the PIN, and boom, nothing.

The BBB collected reports from victims who said the rep on the phone insisted the money didn’t transfer, so they had to repeat the process, losing even more money, while another person who was conned was told the car would be brought to the train station where that individual was waiting—and waiting and waiting.

A costly problem

According to the Federal Trade Commission, COVID-19-related fraud cost U.S. consumers $399 million between January 2020 and April 7, 2021.

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“COVID put travel on a pause. As the vaccine is massively distributed and the signs of life back to normal become clear, people’s demand of travel suppressed by COVID starts releasing,” says Karen Xie, associate professor of service analytics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “Both business and leisure travelers are planning trips again, and the surge in travel search has been quickly noted by scammers. They smell the opportunity for looping people in the game.”

Today, senators Amy Klobuchar (a Minnesota Democrat) and Steve Daines (a Republican from Montana) wrote to acting FTC chair Rebecca Slaughter asking the agency to do more to protect consumers who could fall victim to the numerous travel scams floating around now. Their letter quotes a survey that found that 67% of Americans plan to travel this summer.

To avoid scams, the BBB offers these tips:

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  • Research a company you’ve never heard of before you buy anything through them. Some third-party websites are scams.
  • Avoid sponsored links. Hovering over the URL will show you if it’s legit. Be sure it includes “https://” before entering any personal or payment information.
  • Go straight to a company’s website to get contact information, instead of doing an internet search, to avoid stumbling on bogus phone numbers and email addresses.
  • Double-check all incredible deals with the company directly. Confirm that the company you’re trying to book with uses third-party sites.
  • Read the third-party booking site’s fine print, such as cancellation and refund policies, before you buy anything.
  • Always use a credit card, not prepaid debit cards or gift cards, where once the money’s gone, you can’t get it back.
  • Save all your emails and messages about your booking.