(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.)
Booking travel online offers lots of perks — the ability to compare prices and scour online reviews among them. But it also comes with some risks. And recently, certain scams that target consumers booking travel online have been popping up more and more.
SiteJabber.com — a website that was partially funded by the National Science Foundation, where consumers review online businesses
— analyzed data for MarketWatch to look at what types of travel complaints were popping up most this year among consumers who booked their travel online.
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Founder Jeremy Gin says he’s seeing “significantly more” bait-and-switch complaints, where consumers think they’re getting one thing and end up getting another. “This kind of practice has been around forever, but it seems to be amping up,” he says.
To be sure, sometimes consumers may feel like they’ve gotten the bait-and-switch trick, when they simply didn’t read the fine print or understand the terms. And not all online reviews of online travel agencies are accurate.
Still, Gin says the concentration of such a high number of complaints about certain bait-and-switch-type issues may mean there’s something shady — sometimes legal and shady, and sometimes not legal — going on with some online travel booking sites. Here are four of the issues he says are on the rise:
1. We have no record of your travel. This happens when a third-party site claims to have booked travel and takes a consumer’s money in payment for that, but the hotel or airline has no record of the site having done this. While this is rare (and usually illegal), it’s happening more often this year than last year, says Gin.
How to protect yourself:
While you can’t always prevent getting scammed in this way, Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com
, says you can help protect yourself by vetting the companies online.
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First off, he says, try to only book with reputable companies whose names you’ve heard of (they often appear at the top of Google search results for travel, he says) — and even then, search their name plus the words “scam” and “review.” “You’ll find a lot of forums where people talk about companies,” he says, including consumer-advocacy sites like RipOffReport.com and PissedCustomer.com. If you see a lot of negative reviews for a company, proceed with caution.
Siciliano also recommends looking up third-party companies on the Better Business Bureau and opting for ones with a B+ or higher rating.
Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of identity management company Identity Theft 911, says you may also want to ask friends for recommendations of online travel agencies (be sure you type in the URL they gave you correctly, though, as some scammers set up sites that look like real travel agencies but are one letter off in the URL). He adds that “if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” so don’t book with that company unless you have vetted it.
Levin adds that it’s also essential that you pay for travel booked online with a credit card and not a debit card. When you use a debit card ,the money comes right out of your account, but with a credit card, you can typically more easily dispute the charges without having to pay out-of-pocket should the deal turn out to be a scam.
(MORE: How to Combat Hidden Travel Fees)
2. You want a return or refund? Fat chance.
This bait-and-switch scam has garnered the most complaints on SiteJabber.com, says Gin.
It happens when a consumer believes (rightly or because she was led to believe it by the company or otherwise) that the online travel booking site has a certain refund or return policy, when in fact it has no returns or requires a steep fee to change or cancel a trip.
Then, "if a consumer decides to change or cancel the trip, they will lose their money entirely or be charged an exorbitant fee,” Gin explains. “Consumers are used to airlines where you pay about $100 to change flights so this really surprises them.”
How to protect yourself: Unfortunately, avoiding this one often comes down to reading the much-dreaded fine print, which many consumers don’t do, says Gin. Even if the site says something like “satisfaction guarantee” or “refunds available,” you still need to read the fine print before booking to fully understand the refund policy.
3. We changed your travel date — and didn’t tell you. Here's how this works: You might book a travel package with the company for a flight on a Monday; the flight would then change times or dates (either because of the airline or because the company wanted to put you on a cheaper flight) and the company would neglect to tell you. “This can create a snowball effect where other parts of the trip get messed up too,” says Gin.
How to protect yourself:
Gin says it’s important to verify all hotels and flights you booked through a third-party site with the hotels and airlines themselves. Call to make sure the reservations are correct and ask the company to notify you of any changes.
Siciliano notes that you may be protected from this issue if you book using your credit card, which sometimes offers travel insurance as an added perk.
4. That rate you were quoted? We’re upping it. Gin says his site has seen a number of complaints — the second-highest number of online travel complaints, behind sketchy return and refund policies — among consumers burned booking international hotel rooms online. Sometimes this happens because somewhere buried in the fine print, the company notes that if the exchange rate changes in a way that’s not in your favor, you’ll have to pay the difference; sometimes it’s an illegal scam.
How to protect yourself:
First, read the fine print and look out for an exchange rate or currency language, says Gin.
Second, says Siciliano, make sure you use your credit card to book; in particular, he says, consider using an American Express card, since the company often will put pressure on merchants it believes are using shady practices.
Catey Hill is a freelance personal finance writer who has written for Next Avenue, The Wall Street Journal, SmartMoney and Worth.
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This article is reprinted with permission from MarketWatch.com. © 2015 Dow, Jones & Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.