Consumers who book through a travel agent can avoid falling prey to online travel scams

This story originally ran in the June 27, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — A travel agent’s value proposition includes personalized service, sales savvy and an expert in their client’s corner when travel plans go awry. They can also help shield clients from all the online travel booking scams out there. The numbers are staggering.

Anyone who’s on social media, especially Facebook, has seen them: the posts purportedly from established airlines promising free airfare if users just click on the link and forward to friends.

Except the post isn’t from a legit airline at all, and the scammers get access to contact lists and worse, user names and passwords.

Fake hotel booking sites are also rampant, with online travel bookers misled by sites that look like hotel online booking engines, but aren’t. In the U.S., the American Hotel & Lodging Association says 15 million travellers are duped by online hotel booking scams every year, resulting in billions of dollars in losses.

Online travel booking fraud is an issue in Canada too. Cyber security experts McAfee surveyed 1,000 Canadians and found that about one in eight had been scammed or nearly scammed when booking a vacation online. Not surprisingly, bargain-hunters were most at risk for travel booking frauds, with nearly a third of vacation scam victims (33%) being defrauded after spotting a deal that looked like a great offer – but turned out to be a scam. Almost one-third (30%) of travel-related scam victims reported that they lost between $1,000 and $3,000. The situation is even more dire for the 14% who reported identity theft after sharing their passport details with cybercriminals during the booking process.

Search terms most likely to yield potentially malicious websites in the results, according to McAfee, included ‘2019 vacation’, ‘All-inclusive vacation’, ‘Best vacations 2019’, ‘Cheap trip deals’, ‘Last minute vacation’, ‘Travel deals’, ‘Trip accommodations’, ‘Vacation’, ‘Vacation deals’ and ‘Vacation packages’.

All the more reason to use a travel agent. In light of the stats, a travel agent’s ability to help clients zero in on the right vacation isn’t just a time saver – it can be the difference between dreams fulfilled and dreams dashed. Online travel booking scams are thriving “largely because consumers are overwhelmed with choices,” says McAfee Gary Davis. He’s the company’s ‘Chief Consumer Security Evangelist’ and knows a thing or two about cyber security. Today’s distracted consumer mindset is just exacerbating the problem, he says.

“Hackers are betting that consumers aren’t going to research their site or offer deeply enough to know that it’s fraudulent.”

Just like with any scam, the biggest warning sign “is when an offer appears too good to be true”, says Davis. “If everything a consumer searched is aggregating around a certain price point then someone comes across a dramatically better offer then it’s probably fraudulent. Another warning sign is if they ask for payment in advance with a cheque or cashier’s cheque.”

The retail travel industry is rife with fraud, much of it directed at travel agents themselves, especially when it comes to bogus ticket sales purchased with fraudulent credit cards.

Long on the receiving end of travel booking fraud, agents are now a consumer’s best bet for avoiding a scam.

TICO has been active in educating Ontario consumers about online booking scams. “The biggest warning sign of an online travel scam – if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” says TICO President and CEO, Richard Smart. TICO directs consumers to its database to search for TICO-registered agencies and wholesalers.

Online travel booking scams are everywhere, and they’re getting more sophisticated, adds McAfee’s Davis. “Hackers and scammers are always trying new techniques to dupe consumers into engaging with them,” he says, adding that one emerging approach is trying to interact with an unsuspecting consumer via their mobile device.

Agents can also remind their clients about best practices for accessing WiFi while travelling. Davis says that while 36% of people say have concerns about having their personal data stolen while on vacation, almost half (47%) said they either don’t check the security of their Internet connection while travelling, or they willingly connect to an unsecured network.

Most Canadians use their personal devices on vacation and many checking and sending e-mails (64%) and managing money through a banking app (32%), both data-sensitive.