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15 Glaring Red Flags That Scream Online Travel Scam

Whether you’re planning an international escape or a local road trip, travel can be stressful. Before you hit “book” on that next hard-earned vacation, look out for these warning signs to avoid getting mixed up on an online travel scam. 

1: Too Good To Be True 

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According to the Federal Trade Commission, you should be wary of any advertisement for a “free” vacation. More often than not, these attention-getting headlines lead to hidden fees or taxes that can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

2: Robocalls 

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No matter what they’re calling about, companies that use robocalls to try to make a sale are engaging in illegal activity unless they have written consent from you to receive calls that way. Most likely, this is a scam, and you’ll want to avoid going to any website or filling out any online form they ask you to. 

3: Get the Right Documents 

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If you’re planning to travel overseas, you’ll likely see plenty of online ads offering to help you get a travel visa, passport, or other necessary travel documents. These companies are either fraudulent or will charge extremely high fees for services you can get for free on the US Department of State website. 

4: Double Vision 

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Scammers take full advantage of vacation rental sites by either duplicating existing bookings or making up listings for properties that don’t exist. For added security, be sure to book a vacation rental through a legitimate company site. 

5: Fly Free

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Traveling by private plane certainly sounds luxurious, and scammers know this, sometimes advertising chartered flights with lodging and tours included. Before you pay in full, double-check the approved list of public chartered flights kept by the US Department of Transportation’s Special Authorities Division.

6: Mistaken Identity 

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If a travel website is littered with spelling errors, it’s likely a scam. Since many of these digital travel scams originate outside the US, customer-facing tools like websites and ads are often riddled with mistakes. 

7: Not Very Social 

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One piece of advice from the Better Business Bureau is to check a travel website’s social media links. If the links don’t lead to actual Facebook or Instagram accounts, or if you’re unsure if the company is legitimate, avoid it altogether. 

8: Paid in Full 

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Be wary of online travel scams that ask you to pay for your trip in full more than 60 days before your departure date. Typically, to dispute a charge on your credit card, you have to do it within 60 days of receiving your bill, which is why many scammers demand payment so far in advance. 

9: Method of Payment 

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If a company asks for payment in a non-traditional method like reloadable gift cards or wire transfers, it is likely a scam. Always pay with a credit card so you have your credit card’s fraud protection backing your purchase. 

10: Fake It ‘Til You Make It

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Always check out a company’s reviews before booking with them. If they only have terrible or glowing reviews, they could be faking the positive ones. Look through reviews on third-party sites like TripAdvisor or double-check the site’s credentials with the Better Business Bureau to ensure legitimacy. 

11: Stay and Pay 

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If you’re asked to make a payment outside of the booking engine where you’re making your reservation, don’t do it. These online scammers have likely duplicated a booking and are trying to get payment without flagging the website. 

12: Transparency Is Key 

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A legitimate hotel or lodging website should always have photos of the room you’re planning to book. If you can’t find photos online of the hotel room, cruise ship, or wherever you’re planning to stay in advance, it’s likely not real. 

13: Double Check the Check-in Details 

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If you’re booking a last-minute trip, be sure to call the hotel or airline directly to confirm your reservation. Day-of bookings are 4.3 times more likely to be a scam, according to travel fraud research performed by Sift

14: Competitive Rates

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Just like with a free trip, if the rates seem too good to be true, they probably are. If the price of airfare or a hotel room is significantly less on one website when compared to all the other booking engines, it’s likely a digital travel scam. Call the hotel or airline directly to confirm if you’re suspicious. 

15: Insecure

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One of the easiest ways to spot an online travel scam is to double-check the website’s URL. Legitimate websites usually start with the characters “https://” which denotes a secure site. If the URL looks off or contains random letters and symbols, it’s likely an online travel scam. 

The Bottom Line

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In 2022, travel-related scams cost US consumers over $105 million, accounting for 16% of all fraud reported by the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network. As of May 2023, consumers had reported over $265,140 lost to digital travel scams, which averages to $700 per incident, according to the Better Business Bureau

Play It Safe

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When it comes to travel scams, be vigilant. Look out for deals that seem too good to be true, and always book directly with a hotel or airline whenever possible. 

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