Getting ready to book a room for your next vacation? Due to the increasing number of websites that promise cheap travel and lodgings, planning a getaway online has become even more exciting. In fact, 1 in 3 vacations are now purchased online  — a consumer trend that hasn’t escaped the notice of shady characters looking to scam vacation-goers out of their hard-earned money.
How so? By setting up a fake hotel-booking website that looks just like the real deal.
It’s estimated that consumers were scammed out of two and a half million dollars last year alone. The problem is so bad that hotel trade groups are now lobbying Congress to take action . But until more regulations are put into place, it’s up to shoppers to learn how to protect themselves from fake hotel-booking scams.
How Fake Hotel Booking Scams Work
You’re planning a trip and decide to browse online for the best price before booking a hotel room. While browsing, an ad pops or appears in the sidebar and promises rooms at the same hotel, but at cheaper prices.
When you click on the hotel-booking advertisement, you’re taken to a website that looks legitimate. It may use the same logo and even have a similar URL as hotel-booking sites you know and trust, such as Travelocity.com or Hotels.com.
However, despite using a similar design, color scheme, and descriptions, the hotel-booking website being advertised is a scam designed to steal money from naive travelers shopping for the best deal.
Three Ways You Might Get Scammed
Once you enter your credit card information to purchase the room, the fraudulent site may scam you in one of the following ways:
Refusing to Issue a Refund
This bait-and-switch scam garners the most frequent complaints. It occurs when a consumer believes that they have booked their room through a legitimate website that will honor a certain refund or return policy. However, if you try to change or cancel your purchase, the scam website will take your money entirely or charge an exorbitant fee to honor your request.
Raising the Rate You Were Promised
The second-highest number of complaints related to online travel purchases are from consumers who booked a room at one rate, but were charged a higher price when they arrived. Sometimes this happens because buried in the fine print is a clause that reveals outrageous exchange rates—or sometimes it’s an outright scam.
Not Booking Your Room as Promised
Or at all! The worst part about this scam is that you may not know there was a problem until you get to the front desk. In some cases, the bogus website will take a commission but fail to secure your special requests, such as a spare cot or particular amenities. In other instances, the scammers will fail to make your reservation at all.
Spot a Fake Hotel-Booking Website
Don’t believe everything you see—consumers should be aware that logos and designs are easily copied, making illegitimate websites difficult to distinguish from trusted websites, based on appearances alone. Instead, look at the following to reduce your risk:
Fake Contact Information
Just because a website shows a 1-800 number for customers service doesn’t mean the number works! Unfortunately, even calling the number to confirm its legitimacy isn’t enough, as vendors can easily employ call centers that will claim to be affiliated with a trusted website.
To confirm that a listed contact number can put you in touch with the appropriate party, double check it against the trusted website, such as Expedia, or the hotel’s official website. Performing an internet search for the number will also help show which companies list it as a contact—though this method alone isn’t foolproof.
Copycat Web Addresses
When building a scam hotel-booking website, illicit vendors often pick URLs that look very similar to the web address of a legitimate site, in order to trick consumers into assuming they are using a trustworthy resource.
Before making a purchase, always check the URL of a website and be wary of any web address that uses the brand name as a subdomain of another URL, or as part of a longer URL. Examples of URLs to watch for are bolded below:
A trusted booking website should never include additional phrases or use a “.net” or “.org” in place of the “.com” of the main domain address.
Mismatched Registry Information
If you’re handy with a few online research tools, it’s easier than you think to sniff out untruthful claims. How so? By using www.whois.com/whois/—a free online database that allows searchers to view domain name registration records.
For example, a user of scamwarners.com posted a question about the (now-defunct) hotel-booking website availablehotelsbook.com, asking if the website was legitimate.
Forum users visited availablehotelsbook.com and saw the website claimed to have been established in 2000. However, by entering the URL into whois.com, forum users were able to see the public registry, which clearly states availablehotelsbook.com was created in 2011.
Like calling the listed customer service number, checking public records isn’t a foolproof method of discerning whether or not a website is a scam. However, knowing you have the ability to verify claims of how long a website has been established is a handy tool to keep if trust factor is in question.
How Can You Shop Online Hotel Deals Without Getting Scammed?
1. Know what a third-party site is and which ones to trust. Sites like Expedia, Priceline and Orbitz, are essentially “middle men” who get their inventory from hotels and are typically safe to book through. On the other hand, third-party sites that pop up or redirect you from another site may be suspect. They also often appear more frequently in search results as paid ads.
Consider shopping online like walking into a store and the URL is that store’s sign. You must look at the site’s name and be sure it’s one that has a good reputation.
2. Be cautious. If you see a price that is way cheaper than other places, that could be a warning sign. Always verify that you’re on a real site.
3. Make sure it’s a secure payment site. The URL should have a small lock icon before it and should start with “https://” as opposed to “http://.”
4. Book with a credit card that includes purchase protection or travel insurance, just in case a vendor leaves you out in the cold.
Or Better Yet, Book Directly Through the Hotel
The bottom line is that fraudulent vendors bet on your willingness to overlook a few warning signs in hopes of saving some cash. However, the safest course of action whenever securing your accommodations is to call the hotel directly. That way, not only will you have confirmed that a record of your booking exists, but also the room availability and any of your special requests.
If you spot a suspicious site, or worse, have already been scammed, contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a report, hopefully saving others from suffering the inconvenience of lost room charges, cancellation fees, or simply being out any options for a place to stay.
Have you ever been scammed by an illegitimate hotel-booking website? Let us know what happened in the comments below!