How to recognize and avoid ticket and travel scams online

Published by on July 28, 2017 in Information Security

Travel scams and ticket scams.

Rogue third party travel and ticketing websites are a growing problem. For US accommodation alone, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), bad bookings as a result of travel scams translate to $1.3 billion per year. Meanwhile, in the UK, according to Get Safe Online, £5.2 million (US$6.8 million) was lost to online ticket fraud in 2015 alone. These numbers are on the rise, and while consumers aren’t necessarily becoming more trusting, many aren’t as aware of scam tactics as they ought to be.

As technology advances, fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated with their methods in earning people’s trust. As a result, it’s becoming even more commonplace for them to get their hands on people’s money. This happens directly through payment for goods and services not delivered, and indirectly through obtaining personal information that they can use for other financial gains.

To add to this, there is also the issue that credit card issuers don’t appear to be doing all they can to solve the problem of fraudulent activity. Even though they suffer losses as a result of fraud protection, it’s insignificant compared to their gains, so it’s probably not worth their time to go after small players. Therefore, the risk for scammers is far less than you might think.

In this post, we’ll explain how some of these travel and ticketing scams work and what motives drive them. We’ll then tell you about the key steps you can take to ensure you don’t become a victim.

Common travel and ticket scams and how they work

In the case of travel scams, you may show up at the airport, a hotel, or a car rental office, only to find they have no record of your booking. Others involve unexpected price hikes, date changes without notification, and cancellations with no refunds. All of these aim to earn the site additional money at your expense.

When it comes to ticket scams, the result is simple – you’ll arrive at the game, show, or concert, only to realize that the tickets you’re holding (in hand or on your phone) are fakes. This is often the case with e-tickets where people will sell multiple copies of the same ticket. The first one scanned might work, but subsequent ones won’t.

These types of scams can play out in several ways, and involve a couple of different goals for those behind them. In many cases, temporary sites are set up under fake company names. They’ll stay up for the duration of the scam and be taken down promptly once they’ve served their purpose. The people creating the sites can simply set up a new similar one under a different name and keep going.

In other cases, you might find seemingly exact replicas of reputable sites, which are actually built for scamming. In both cases, fraudsters are becoming more and more sophisticated so it’s important to always have your wits about you.

So what are the scammers after? Well, again, it depends on the scam. In some cases, they want your data, including things like credit card details, personal information, and passwords. In other cases, they are simply collecting cash for a booking that isn’t actually made or is different to what the consumer is expecting, or a ticket that isn’t real or is never received.

How to recognize and avoid these scams

The most obvious way to avoid scams is to choose a well-known company to deal with, but even then you may find yourself on a fake site. To avoid getting duped, here are some additional tips you can follow:

Do your homework

Typically, those wanting to book travel and tickets online are looking for the most inexpensive and convenient way to make their purchase. Unfortunately, these people make easy targets for scammers. Not only are they more likely to be hooked by a seemingly good deal, they’re also less likely to spend time doing a bit of background work to make sure everything is legit.

With the ease of building a website these days, it can be super simple for scammers to set up professional-looking sites in a matter of days or even hours. They’ll often invest in ads so they can appear at the top of search engine results pages without having to deal with the hassle of SEO. Then, all they have to do is wait for some unsuspecting customers to fall for the trap.

Here are a few checks you can carry out to make sure you stay one step ahead:

  • Look out for red flags: There are plenty of hints (although not always obvious) that pop up across all scam websites, not just those selling travel and tickets. We recently devoted a whole post to recognizing scam sites, but lack of SSL/TLS certificates, and missing ‘About’ and ‘Contact’ pages are some of the biggest red flags.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB): The BBB can come in very handy for two reasons. First, you can check the legitimacy of the company as it should be registered with them. Secondly, you can see if it has received complaints and if/how they have been dealt with. You can also visit general complaint sites like Ripoff Report and Pissed Consumer to see if the company name pops up.
  • Check if they’re listed or accredited: Thankfully, there are plenty of sites dedicated to educating the general public about which websites they should and shouldn’t be using. For ticket sales specifically, there are sites like Safeconcerts and TicketReview.net. In the UK, the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers (STAR) is also a good resource. For travel sites, you can check if they are members of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), or a similar organization within other countries.
  • Give them a call: If you’re in doubt, call the contact number provided (there should be one for a legitimate company). Whether you get an automated message or speak to a real person, you should be able to get a better feel for whether the company is shady or not. Also, watch out for changes in contact information. Some scam companies have been seen to change their contact number multiple times in a day.

One final word of advice here is to do a reality check. If it looks to good to be true, then it probably is.

Get a referral

One of the best ways to determine if a website is safe is to obtain some social proof. Social media, online reviews, and comments sections on blog posts, can all serve to help the general public work together to avoid scams. Here are some things that can help you decide if a site is worthy of your business:

  • Word of mouth: Try to get referrals about good (and bad) websites from friends and family, either through conversation or social media. However, also bear in mind that some victims of scams, especially common ones like travel and ticket scams, might be too embarrassed to admit it.
  • Influencer websites and forums: There are tons of websites and forums dedicated to offering and sharing advice about both travel and ticket purchases. Information often revolves around how to get the best deals and how to avoid some of the scams we’re talking about here. Ask questions in these communities about which sites to look out for. However, also be aware that some travel forums might be the perfect place for fraudsters to post their links.
  • Reviews: Aside from listening to family and friends, people often turn to online reviews to find out if a company is legit and is worth doing business with. Unfortunately, scammers leverage this trust in social proof, and create fake reviews to cater to the market. Check the timing of reviews and the language used, and even delve into the reviewer’s profile if possible. Lots of reviews posted in a short timeframe and overly promotional language can be red flags.

Think of it this way: you’d probably seek advice when buying a car, a television, or even a sweater. Travel bookings and ticket purchases should be no different.

Cover yourself

If you’re feeling pretty certain that the site you’re dealing with is safe, there are still a few steps you might want to take to make sure there are no hidden surprises and that you are covered:

  • Read the fine print: Even if you don’t suspect a site of malpractice, you should always read the fine print to make sure you’re prepared for what might happen in certain scenarios.
  • Follow specific guidelines: This applies mainly to tickets, but if you’re buying from a seller through a site like eBay or Kijiji, be sure to heed advice offered by that particular website. For example, Kijiji advises that you should always purchase hard tickets and receive them in person, preferably at the actual venue so you can have them verified and authenticated.
  • Use a credit card: Check with your institution first, but credit cards typically offer better protection than debit cards when it comes to fraudulent activity. Better still, look for sites that offer more secure payment methods, such as PayPal.
  • Call to confirm: This is less applicable to ticket sales, but if you’re booking a hotel room, plane ticket, or car rental online, it’s likely because you’ve found a better price than you would get booking directly. This doesn’t mean you can’t call the hotel, airline, or rental company to check that they do indeed have a relationship with the travel site, or if you’ve already booked, that they have your reservation on file.

Don’t forget to help others by spreading the word about reputable (or non-reputable) sites, to give scammers the worst chance of prevailing. You can start by sharing posts like this one with friends and family through social media. Unfortunately, scammers target the most vulnerable, especially the elderly. Take the time to let family members and friends who are less connected know about the information you’ve learned here. If you do end being the victim of a scam, you can file a complaint with the BBB or Federal Trade Commission.

Keeping information secure while you travel

Of course, when it comes to travel, staying secure while you’re at your destination represents another set of hurdles. When it comes to physical items, be sure to lock up things like passports, credit cards, and return tickets when they’re not in use. Also, when using a credit card, manually keep track of your purchases so you can easily spot any discrepancies on your bill.

Aside from keeping physical items safe, you also have to continue to think about your digital information. Most people now carry at least a smartphone, and often a tablet and/or laptop while travelling. While it’s nice and convenient that so many places offer free wifi, this offers the perfect opportunity for thieves and hackers to access and steal your sensitive information.

Therefore, there are some basic measures you should take to keep your data safe, such as favoring secure networks, avoiding activities like internet banking, and turning off sharing features. As an extra layer of protection, we highly recommend using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to encrypt traffic to and from your device. Remember, this applies both at home or abroad, so it’s a good idea to consider using a VPN consistently.

Do you have any more tips to help recognize and avoid travel and ticketing scams? Let us know in the comments section below!

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