Hotel & Airfare Scams to Watch Out For When You’re Booking Online
By Peter Greenberg
Online Hotel Booking Scams
Every day, American consumers book 480 hotel rooms per minute online. A majority of those online bookings are done through reputable OTAs –Online Travel Agencies — such as Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and Kayak.
But a growing number of bookings are made on confusing third party websites that sound like the real deal, but aren’t. How many questionable bookings? About 2.5 million, representing more than $220 million in revenue.
And it all gets down to websites that often appear as paid advertising in search results and appear — some say in a deceptive way — as similar to a hotel’s actual booking website. Many may even prominently display hotel logos while minimizing the appearance of their own logo.
Essentially, these are third party websites trying to pass themselves off as the actual hotel. So a growing number of consumers think they are actually booking a room directly at a Hilton hotel — offering great reduced rates — and it turns out you may be totally out of luck.
The images on their website may appear as if a brand such as a Hilton created it–as well as the quoted rate. But if you look at the top of the ad, the number listed is not for the hotel, but rather for the third party website. So you may think you’re calling the hotel, but in reality, you’re not.
Then you arrive at the hotel to discover your reservation never actually existed, or the room you asked for doesn’t exist. Even though you’ve already paid for the room.
Or, you may have a valid room reservation, but then discover that the hotel never got your request for two double beds, or a no smoking room or a handicapped accessible room. Or worse, the rate you were quoted doesn’t exist, but your credit card was already charged.
Or you find out you then can’t cancel the reservation, and these sites don’t really have customer service centers
And the sites themselves? Some go by the name of “reservation-desk.com/hilton,” or “Hilton.reservationcounter.com.” At first glance it seems like these websites belong to Hilton, but they don’t.
Translation: these third party websites are attempting to pass themselves off as the actual hotel.
Earlier this week, five members of Congress sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking them to investigate the ongoing problem.
Understand what a third party website is–Expedia, Priceline, and Hotels.com are not third party sites–they are aggregators that get their inventory directly from the hotels themselves.
Watch what happens when you search online. More often than not, these questionable websites show up in search results as paid ads. Do not click on them.
This can also apply to 1-800, toll-free numbers for “reservation centers” that want you to think you are calling Marriott, for example, when they are also a third party site that will then offer to make you a reservation for a Marriott. Red flag.
The economic reality here is that the mainline hotels want you to book their websites only–let’s not forget there’s a profit motive here. And I am not telling you to just do that. What I am telling you to do is this: before you book on any third party website, have a conversation directly with the hotel itself. Ask them to verify the website is valid, and perhaps just as important, that the rate they are offering is also valid.
Since room inventory changes by the minute at most hotels–remember, an unsold room is revenue the hotel will never recoup once the sun rises–you might just find that a phone conversation results in a much better rate, and you can skip the websites all together.
One other caveat: when booking a hotel room, it’s not just about the rate. It’s also about the conversation. Once you establish a rate you want to pay, the conversation isn’t over, it’s just getting started. Will the hotel throw in free Wi-Fi? Can your kids stay for free? Eat for free? Will the hotel waive the resort fee, or throw in free parking?
In an internet world, my experience tells me that while it’s OK to research your travel online, it’s still essential to have the conversation–and with the hotel directly, not a third party reservation center.
The Airline Ticket Scam
Like the hotel booking problem, these scams– which most recently surfaced in late 2013 but are still continuing — are counting on logo and brand confusion.
Here’s how it works. You receive an official-looking letter — on official-looking letterhead from what appears to be a well known airline — claiming that you “have qualified for an award of two roundtrip airline tickets. Congratulations. these tickets are valid for travel anywhere in the continental U.S. from any major international airport. The retail value of the award is $1400…”
To further motivate you, the letter says that the company has attempted to contact you many times without success and that if they don’t hear from you soon, they will have to offer the tickets to someone else.Then you are instructed to call a toll-free number to “claim” your award. And if you do, there’s a small processing fee you’ll need to pay, of course with your credit card.
Don’t do it.
Now, look more closely at the letter. The typeface of the letterhead looks real, but it was sent by “American Airways”, or “US Airlines.”
One small problem. Those airline names do not exist. It’s American AIRLINES and US AIRWAYS, which means it’s a total scam. And yet, a lot of people fall for it. Why? It’s the continuing power and allure of travel, something most of us love to do.
But there are several rules you need to follow on these hotel and ticket scams….And it usually involves making just one very important phone call.
It’s always OK to research hotel rates and airline fares online. But before you hit “send” along with your credit card information, call the hotel directly–not the number listed on the website or letter, which may only go to that third party website.
Confirm both the validity of the website as well as the deal itself. And the same thing applies to the airline ticket “offer.”
Anytime you are asked to use your credit card to “process” something you’ve ostensibly won, that’s a clear warning that you’re about to be scammed.
Call the airline and get them to confirm the actual “promotion” or sweepstakes. Nine times out of ten, there IS no promotion or sweepstakes.