Attorney General Tom Miller encourages Iowa consumers to remain savvy this summer and avoid fraudulent lodging websites and bookings.
Travel fraud is on the rise, and one in four consumers is scammed, according to recent research from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. In 2017 alone, there were at least 28.5 million fraudulent and misleading hotel bookings, costing consumers $5.2 billion.
In December 2017, the Federal Trade Commission settled with a Utah-based third-party hotel booking reseller Reservation Counter, LLC for fraudulent and misleading business practices. Reservation Counter LLC was accused of misleading customers through advertisements, webpages and call centers that led consumers to mistakenly believe they were reserving the rooms directly from the hotel. The FTC also said the company failed to notify consumers that their credit cards would be charged immediately rather than after they arrived at the hotel.
Many third-party fraudulent websites are taking advantage of consumers across the country, but you can take measures to avoid them.
1. Avoid high-pressure tactics
Many fraudulent businesses may use scare tactics. Their goal is to pressure you into committing to something without doing research first. Misleading messages such as “Only two rooms left!” or “Book now for 70% off!” are attempting to coerce you into purchasing the product or service immediately. The reality is that these third-party websites (which resell products or services) may not have access to the actual hotel’s rooms. If you are worried about a date or room filling soon, call the hotel or service directly to answer any questions you may have.
Third-party websites may not also accurately reflect what the direct hotel’s policies are. To avoid tricky or unknown policies, look at the hotel’s website directly to know and understand the hotel’s cancellation or trip change policy. Many third-party websites leave out these policies, charge for their own policies, charge for changes in bookings, and do not provide refunds or allow you to change you room or dates after booking.
2. Watch out for redirection
Third-party websites often have advertisements and pop-ups that may redirect to a fraudulent website that appears legitimate. These third-party websites will often use the hotel’s name or identity without permission. To avoid this, pay close attention to the website’s URL or address. If you are unsure, start over at the direct service or hotel’s website. Calling the hotel or vendor directly can also provide an opportunity to check if the deal, discount, or third-party is legitimate and in partnership with the hotel.
3. Use credit cards
Pay the hotel directly rather than with a third-party payment method to ensure your reservation is made safely. Credit cards are the most secure method of payment, and credit card companies provide better consumer protections. Never use wire transfers or prepaid money cards to pay third-party websites. If a website requires payment through a third party, cancel and contact the direct hotel, vendor or service by telephone.
4. Look for the “lock” to avoid identity theft
To secure your identity when paying online, ensure that the URL has a small lock on the search bar before providing your personal information. If there is no lock, do not provide your credit card or personal information. The presence of the lock ensures the connection is secure and the website has some credibility. Include a link to show an example of a site with a lock.
5. Check and double-check reservations
Third-party websites may not relay your booking to the hotel or may make serious errors in your booking request. Simple errors like misspelling names or missing accommodations may ruin your trip. After booking your reservation (whether through a third-party website or the hotel directly), call the hotel to confirm the details of your reservation. If the hotel does not have your reservation and you used a third-party website, call your credit card company to alert them of potential fraudulent charges.
6. Pick up the phone
Your telephone is often your best line of defense. If you are ever unsure of a website, look for its phone number and call the company. Fraudulent websites often provide faulty numbers to call and are difficult to contact. Calling the hotel or service directly can also help answer questions.
Be wary of unsolicited phone calls as they may not be legitimate. Never make a decision on the spot and always take the time to do some research on a business or website. If you are unsure, you can always tell the person on the line that now is not a good time. Ask for the telephone number and say you will call them later. This will provide you the necessary time to do research and avoid fraudulent businesses.
7. Use third-party sites with caution
According to an article from Forbes, the average consumer visits between seven and 10 websites before booking a hotel. While it’s important to do research before booking, know that travel vendors like Expedia and Booking Holdings (which includes Booking.com, Kayak, Priceline) control nearly 95 percent of the online travel market. To ensure you are getting the best and most honest deals, check the hotel’s website or call them.
Avoid “too good to be true” offers. Fraudulent websites will offer incredibly low prices to appear attractive to consumers. If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be skeptical when reading reviews online about websites and products. Fraudulent websites often create their own reviews to persuade customers to buy their product. If the reviews seem too good to be true, they probably are.
Not all third-party websites are fraudulent. These websites can offer bargains if you understand how they work. According to Consumer Reports, 38 percent of hotel rooms are vacant on any given night. Most hotels and third-party websites would rather make a smaller amount for a room than have a vacancy. Using opaque sites like Hotwire or Priceline can meet your requirements for a cheaper price, but you will not find out the hotel’s name until you’ve paid. Third-party websites also offer an opportunity to compare prices and provide a feasible service that combines flights, rental cars and hotels. Using these websites can help you find a great deal if you understand the policies and functions of the businesses. Don’t be afraid to haggle or get in touch if you find a cheaper deal elsewhere.
8. Research the property for safety issues
Always research where you plan to stay. Travel review websites like TripAdvisor use badge icons to inform and advise consumers to do more research about the property. This new feature is used to alert consumers that the reviews may not accurately reflect the property’s safety. Comments about assaults, rape, and other crimes that may poorly reflect a business have been deleted in the past for various reasons. While comments may be deleted, these badges will stay up for a minimum of three months. Not all websites offer the informative badge, so researching the property can help you make an informed decision.
9. Book directly
Booking directly with a hotel or trusted vendor can help you avoid misleading and fraudulent websites. If you stick with a hotel, take advantage of loyalty programs to get those deals and discounts. Hotels may provide a discount or special service if your stay is for a special occasion.
If you believe you have been scammed or misled by a fraudulent website or third-party, contact the Office of the Iowa Attorney General by calling (515) 281-5926, toll free at (888) 777-4590, or emailing email@example.com. You can also contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a complaint.