Morgan Macfarlane arrived at her hotel in Orizaba, Mexico, last May, ready to quickly drop her bags off and go get dinner. But when she tried to check in, an employee told her they weren’t fully operational yet and didn’t have an advanced booking system.
She had booked the room and prepaid about $40 through Airbnb and pulled up the confirmation on the platform’s app on her phone.
“And he was like, ‘That isn’t our listing,’” the 27-year-old digital advertising associate and travel content creator said.
While the address was the same, the listing she booked turned out to be fake, she said. Airbnb refunded Macfarlane’s money, and she paid in cash to stay the night at the hotel. An Airbnb spokesperson said the host had since been banned.
“False listings of course have no place on our platform,” the spokesperson said in an email. “The host never received any money through Airbnb since we handle the payments for reservations and hosts do not receive initial payouts until 24 hours after a successful check-in.”
Macfarlane is not alone.
A recent survey of more than 7,000 adults in seven countries – including over 1,000 in the U.S. – from online protection company McAfee found that 35% of American respondents had been the victim of a scam while booking travel online, or know someone who has. The survey results released earlier this month also showed that 40% of those who had money stolen lost over $1,000 prior to their trip as a result.
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Among U.S. adults surveyed, 13% also said they had given credit card information to a fake website that was then used for fraudulent payments. Here’s how travelers can avoid falling prey to travel booking scams online.
How can travelers avoid scams online?
Steve Grobman, McAfee’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, said travelers should be on their guard while browsing. “The scammers know that there are people that are bargain hunting,” he said.
◾If travelers are looking at listings through a third party, they need to read reviews for the specific property, in the case of a vacation rental, for instance. Macfarlane said the listing she booked didn’t have any reviews but had photos that looked legitimate.
◾If travelers are not browsing on a well-known travel site, such as Airbnb or Vrbo, they should pay close attention to the payment methods accepted. Grobman warned never to pay by wire transfer, cryptocurrency or gift cards, which they often will not be able to get back.
“The scammers will actually sometimes use the fact that something is a good deal as rationale for why they’re insisting on those forms of payments,” he said. “They’ll say, you know, ‘How can we offer such a good deal? It’s because we don’t have the overhead of traditional credit cards.’”
◾If a deal looks too good to be true, Grobman added, it probably is.
He said that fraudulent sites look “almost identical” to legitimate ones, making it very difficult to tell them apart. Those running the fake site may even add forged ratings, and vary them so they look more real.
“They’ll do things like that to add credibility, because people have gotten in the habit of looking for things like ratings or looking for certain telltale signs that we all see on legitimate sites,” Grobman said.
He suggested trying to validate that the site exists, such as checking to see whether it has been referenced in legitimate media outlets.
Fake booking sites may also use some of the same techniques as above-board businesses, like buying keywords on Google and tracking users who may be looking for those sites. “That’s why if you visit one of these sites and decide not to make a transaction, you could still get a targeted ad popping up in your browser and social media a couple of hours later, that would be for the same location that you might have been researching,” Grobman said.
◾Using a VPN, or virtual private network, that hides your IP address and physical location can help prevent that kind of tracking, he noted.
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What can you do if you get scammed online?
If a traveler paid by credit card, they can call the credit card company and dispute the charge, which a scammer will have a much harder time justifying than a real business. For those who have booked through a reputable broker but run into an issue with the person who listed the property or other service, Grobman said those platforms can typically mediate.
Travelers who may have been the target of a scam can also report it to the Federal Trade Commission and their state attorney general, according to the FTC’s website.
“If you can stick to sites that have a high reputation and have safeguards in place, that’s always preferable,” Grobman said.
Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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