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Travel Scams FAQ

Travel scams exploit various psychological and emotional responses. For example, many scams appeal to your desire to save money or get something for free. They can also exploit the exciting prospect of a dream vacation, capitalizing on how these emotions can cloud your judgment. Scammers use many different tactics to make even savvy consumers susceptible to scams.

Commonly, travel scams offer free or steeply discounted vacation services, such as:

  • Vacation rental homes, hotel rooms, and timeshares
  • Premium vacation packages
  • Charter flights

This article answers frequently asked questions (FAQ) about how to spot and avoid travel scams. You'll also learn about your rights if you've encountered a travel scam or fraudulent activity.

How can I spot a travel scam?

Here are some red flags to look for when evaluating an offer:

  • They want you to pay a fee before receiving your prize. This can include shipping and handling or a "claim" fee for a sweepstakes prize.
  • They want you to pay via wire transfer or cryptocurrency. Always try to pay by credit card. Credit cards offer fraud protection that debit cards don't. Credit card issuers also allow you to dispute charges. Scammers know this and instead ask you to pay by wire, crypto, or even a gift card.
  • The offer is highly time-sensitive. Many legitimate offers have a "limited time only" catch. But watch out for sellers advertising an extremely short time to claim an offer (like 12 or 24 hours).
  • The price seems too low to be true. An offer 10% cheaper than offers by well-known, reputable companies may be reasonable. But, a travel services offer for substantially below the price of other travel companies is likely suspicious.
  • You need to disclose personal financial information. If you plan to purchase something, you must provide payment information or a credit card number at some point. But beware if an offer asks for other information, like your Social Security number or bank account number. Scammers use this tactic to engage in identity theft.
  • They inform you that you were "specially selected." Many scammers try to appeal to your ego. Legitimate businesses generally don't engage in this type of targeted marketing.
  • The travel description is big on hype and small on details. Be careful of offers that promise generic perks like a "major hotel" or an "international airline" without being specific. For example, a small airport with one flight to Canada can legitimately call itself an international airport—even if it only has two flights per day.
  • Beware the hard sell. Almost all scams rely on hard-sale pressure tactics. They require you to make decisions in the moment. Hard-sells typically appeal to your desire to feel special and capitalize on something others are already doing.
  • The solicitor has personal information about you. It's not uncommon for scammers to do their research before they contact you. Specifically, scammers use your social media accounts to gather information. This makes their scams more convincing. Beware if a solicitor references your hobbies, family members, occupation, or other information on your social profiles. They do this to create a false sense of familiarity and gain your trust.

How can I tell if a travel website is a scam?

First, check the SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate. You can find this in the URL bar of your browser—look for a padlock icon. If you don't see a padlock icon, click the menu bar next to the website's URL. You'll see options regarding the site security and its SSL certificate.

The SSL certificate will tell you who the website is issued to. Make sure it's the travel company or travel agency you're trying to book with.

Most legitimate websites also have a privacy policy. You can usually find this at the bottom of the page. Also, check for contact information on the page. Look up the listed phone number and address.

You should look for misspellings and grammatical errors on the web page. This is a common indicator of an imposter website. You can also look up the company's social media pages to assess for legitimacy. Legitimate social platforms usually link to and from a company's official website.

I received an offer for a free vacation. How can I tell if it's legitimate?

It's highly unlikely that a legitimate company will ever offer you a free vacation. Reputable companies are more inclined to offer discounts to reward loyalty or attract new customers. It's rare for any travel provider to offer a service they won't profit from.

Indicators of illegitimate vacation certificates or vouchers include:

  • Using beautiful images and flashy descriptions but not providing the names of the actual hotels, airlines, and other providers
  • Not giving specific dates or prices for the travel services or travel planning
  • Using official-sounding words like "certificate," "seal of authenticity," and "guarantee"
  • Using imagery meant to mimic the federal government, such as red, white, and blue coloring, images like the eagle, and names like the "American Institute of Foreign Travel"
  • Concealing terms and conditions in the fine print and not encouraging you to read the entire contract before signing

This airline price seems too good to be true. How can I tell if it's legitimate?

Although major airlines likely won't commit outright fraud, they're still likely to hide information in the fine print. Examples include:

  • Quoting you one-way prices, even if there are few (if any) one-way tickets available
  • Offering a two-for-one deal, but the price of one ticket is so high that the bundle may be more expensive than two separate tickets
  • Quoting prices for routes with extremely limited seating and conditions
  • Restricting how you can use your frequent flyer miles, like limiting flights to weekdays, issuing blackout dates, and increasing the miles needed for rewards

I've been offered a ticket on a charter airline. What does that mean? Is it legitimate?

Charter airlines can be legitimate, but they can also be unreliable. The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates charter airlines, so consider investigating the airline with them to confirm their reliability and financial stability. Some charter airlines have gone out of business overnight, leaving passengers stranded.

Also, look for customer reviews on online platforms like Yelp and the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Charter airlines are subject to regulatory oversight, just like major airlines. They must meet certain safety standards to operate legally.

I'm a college student and see great vacation deals advertised to me. Are they real?

Some companies cater to students and offer discounted spring break trips lawfully. But some are outright scams or unstable operations that may shut down unexpectedly.

You can verify a company's legitimacy on the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET) website. CSIET verifies companies by requiring them to submit to an independent certified public accountant and provide documentation of such.

While traveling, I kept seeing offers for timeshares. Are they a good deal?

Some timeshares can be a good deal. But you must be comfortable with the significant restraints placed on them. You also must be aware of all the fees attached. Because of the restrictions and costs, many consumers regret signing a timeshare agreement.

If you're considering a timeshare, consider the following:

  • Many timeshares have significant time-period limitations. A timeshare may benefit you if you're comfortable getting locked into a period that may be off-season or not ideal for travel. Many timeshares are very rigid with their time allotments. They require you to pick your slot well in advance.
  • Many timeshares have costly fees. Don't just look at the expected annual payment. Dig deeper and identify every fee associated with the timeshare. Ask specifically about fee hikes. Unfortunately, it's a regular practice for timeshares to increase their fees by as much as 100% over just a few years.
  • Reselling a timeshare can be difficult. There are typically more timeshare sellers than buyers. You may be stuck with the fees and increases because you can't resell your interest in the property.
  • Many timeshares use hard-sale tactics. Many providers offer a free or highly discounted resort stay or other gift for attending a timeshare seminar. These seminars can be several hours long. Presenters create a sense of urgency by claiming limited availability or other time-sensitive offers to push you into making an immediate decision. These seminars often aggressively counter legitimate customer concerns and worries.

Despite these considerations, there are still legitimate timeshare providers. Take your time to decide if a timeshare makes financial sense for you. Check consumer reviews and the company's BBB listing. Resist attending a hard-sales pitch with attractive incentives and freebies.

Don't make a decision in the moment. Make sure you understand every detail.

I recently signed up for a timeshare but have reconsidered. Is there anything I can do?

Some states have mandatory "cooling-off" laws to counteract hard-sale techniques employed by many timeshare providers. These laws let you cancel the deal within a few days, even if you signed a contract.

If your state doesn't have a cooling-off law, your only likely recourse is to sue the timeshare provider for deceptive practices. This is an expensive and long process—proving fraud can be complex. Consult a lawyer to explore your legal options and determine if you have a viable claim.

How can I get my money back if I paid a scammer?

If you've already paid a scammer, recovering your money is difficult but not impossible.

If you paid with a credit card, contact your credit card issuer immediately. Report the charge as fraud and request a dispute. Your credit card company may reverse the charge, but this isn't guaranteed and won't happen immediately.

If you used an online payment service like Venmo, PayPal, or Cash App, report the payment as fraudulent as soon as possible. These platforms have procedures that may help you get your money back.

If you paid by wire, contact your bank or wire transfer company immediately. Ask if they can reverse the transfer.

You should also file a police report and report the scam to the appropriate agency. The next question answers where you can report scams and fraud.

Depending on the amount of money, it may also be worth contacting an attorney with expertise in consumer fraud. An attorney can provide legal guidance and review your options for recovering your funds.

Even if you do all the above, there's no guarantee you will get your money back. Still, taking these steps can increase your chances of recovery and help protect others from the same scam.

Where can I report travel scams?

There are several organizations and government agencies to report travel scams and consumer complaints:

If you're unsure what agency to report the scam to, use the 'Where To Report a Scam' tool from the U.S. General Services Administration.

The following private organizations may also be able to help:

You can also file a report with your local police or law enforcement agency.

Travel Scammed? Get Legal Help

If you've encountered a travel scam or suspect fraudulent activity, legal help is available. A consumer protection attorney can review your situation and help you understand your legal options. An experienced attorney can address your concerns, protect your rights, and fight for an appropriate remedy.

Contact a local consumer protection attorney to learn how they can help.

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