Vacation rental scams keep spreading, thanks in large part to the creativity of crooks.
Bamboozled wrote about the issue last winter, which was a prime season for those looking to book a trip filled with days on a hot beach at the shore.
But still, the rental scams came. Like one in Sea Girt, where someone offered fake rentals for properties they had no right to rent. The hopeful renters paid upfront and only learned the supposed landlord was a scammer when the renter was unable to get into the home.
It would seem booking a hotel is a safer bet, but that’s not what a recent study said.
Some 15 million bookings each year are the victim of deceptive practices by online booking sites that pose as the real thing, said the study, which was performed by GfK Custom Research on behalf of the American Hotel & Lodging Assoc. (AH&LA).***
“The study revealed that nearly one-third of consumers who have booked online using an online travel company booking website say they worried about it, have personally experienced a multitude of issues from not getting what they wanted to losing their reservations altogether,” said Maryam Cope, vice president of government affairs for AH&LA.
Trickery is at the root of the problem.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put out an alert over the summer, warning consumers about fake online booking sites.
It said consumers have reported searching online for a hotel’s web site, only to learn — much later — that it was a fake.
The reported problems included arriving and finding no reservation, being charged undisclosed fees and getting credit card charges from a third party rather than from the hotel itself. Others found they had trouble canceling or modifying a reservation, or disputing charges through the hotel.
Still more consumers did get a room, but they were charged a higher rate than what was advertised by the hotel. And others didn’t receive their special requests, such as disability access, or they didn’t earn points with their hotel rewards program.
The AH&LA study had similar findings.
It said six percent of consumers who booked online thought they were booking directly with the hotel, but were instead booking through an online booking site that posed as the real hotel company. AH&LA said that translates into some 15 million bookings per year.
Another 20 percent of those surveyed said they were “not sure” if they had also been scammed.
Those who had concerns about online bookings had quite a few negative experiences:
32 percent got a room that was different than what was expected
17 percent were charged unexpected or hidden fees
15 percent did not get their rewards points
14 percent were charged an extra booking fee
14 percent could not get a refund for a cancellation
9 percent had reservations that were lost or cancelled
3 percent had their identity or private information stolen.
AH&LA recommends booking directly with a hotel to avoid misunderstandings and outright scams.
DON’T FALL FOR A PHONY
The web sites created by scammers who impersonate real companies have become pretty sophisticated, making it hard to tell the difference between fakes and the real thing.
The solution is simple, but it requires consumers to be vigilant when they’re trying to book online.
Know that some fakes use the hotel’s name in the URL, but it’s a variation and not the real web address. Sometimes the frauds use an intentional misspelling, or they use the real name but with additional words to make it look real. For example, if the read address is USAHotels.com, the fakes may say USAHotels-us.com or USAHotels-reservations.com
They’ll also hijack the logos of the real hotel brands to make the fake site look authentic.
The best thing you can do is to look closely at your search results, the FTC recommends.
“If you know you want to deal directly with a hotel, take the time to look for signs you might be on a third-party site, like another company’s logo,” the FTC said. “It’s also a good idea to find the hotel phone number yourself, rather than rely on what’s listed on the site.”
That’s because the phone numbers can be as fake as the web sites.
“Consumers also need to know that some call centers are not really connected to the hotel at all,” AH&LA’s Cope said. “Some of these rogue affiliate websites operate fake call centers that purport to be the official reservation line of the intended hotel, and often times request guests to pre-pay for the reservation, which makes it nearly impossible to be reimbursed at the front desk upon arrival since the hotel has no record of those transactions.”
If you’re part of a hotel chain’s rewards program, use the URL or toll-free number found on your rewards card. Or, look for television or print ads for the hotel, and call those numbers.
No matter how you book, be sure to read the booking details carefully, specifically looking for fees or surcharges that may be hiding in the fine print or behind hyperlinks that you have to click on to read the details.
Hold on to your email confirmations and bring them with you to the hotel, the FTC said.
And before you hit the road, be sure your reservation will be there when you arrive.
“Use a number you know to be genuine to call the hotel directly,” the FTC said. “Double-check that your reservation is in the system.”
*** The original version of this story stated an incorrect number of bookings.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.