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6 Sneaky Travel Scams to Watch Out For
Look out for these red flags to avoid getting duped on your next trip.
Don't let scams ruin your travel plans.Getty Images/iStockphoto
In the summertime, when the temperatures sizzle, there are few things as alluring as skipping town to enjoy a cool breeze and enticing outdoor attractions in an exotic locale. While deciding to plan a relaxing summer getaway is simple, pulling off a stress-free trip that dodges common pitfalls – from petty theft to currency scams – can present a challenge. In the summer, when the majority of jet-setters are infrequent, leisure travelers, "scams are ubiquitous," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and journalist. For this reason, we consulted top travel experts for advice on avoiding rip-offs and outsmarting swindlers on your next trip.
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The Fee-Free Online Listing Hoax
With a growing number of online travel booking sites, there's an influx of hoax third-party domains across the web. According to research conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, some $1.3 billion is funneled into the hands of scammers each year. And with a rapidly increasing number of mobile bookings, it's become more challenging to distinguish between trustworthy and dubious travel sites. These sites offer fake reservations, which lack services or amenities or advertise higher nightly rates and can even lead to identity theft.
Travel booking sites are also starting to quote low nightly rates but tack on extra fees throughout the reservation booking process, Elliott says. "You can end up with a grand total that's 20 to 50 percent higher than when you started. You're already psychologically invested in the transaction, and they know it," he explains. Recently, travel companies have also started "hiding the disclosure of these fees in pop-up windows or at the bottom of the screen in even smaller fonts," Elliott says. "Why? Because they can. And because it's very profitable. But it's not an honest profit," he explains. To avoid this vacation-ruining misstep, Elliott suggests closely evaluating the initial price quoted along with the final price, with taxes and other mandatory fees rolled in. "That's particularly true for hotels, many of which charge a mandatory 'resort' fee, but only disclose it after you've started the reservation process," he explains.
"Sometimes, you'll see fantastic flight deals or hotel deals that are only available from one booking site," explains Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of the points-and-miles site The Points Guy. But if it's not a major online travel agency that you're familiar with – think: Expedia or Priceline – or one with user-generated reviews from reputable forums, such as FlyerTalk, stay away from it to avoid a fraudulent listing, he says.
The Free Wi-Fi Trick
If you come across free Wi-Fi access in an empty and unfamiliar internet cafe and it seems too good to be true, it might be. "This is an old trick," explains Shaun Murphy, communication security expert and inventor and co-founder of Sndr, a platform that enables users to share files, emails and social media messages on a single device. While you surf the internet and check your email, a scammer can easily steal your credit card and other sensitive information, he explains. There are also plenty of small devices schemers use to track information through your cellphone. For example, WiFi Pineapple, a $100 wireless platform meant for security auditing, can be used by hackers to get instant access to your phone as soon as you connect to a fraudulent Wi-Fi network. Murphy also recommends avoiding downloading free apps in a suspect location, especially if you're asked to provide your credit card information. And to protect yourself, "always make sure your devices are locked and encrypted," he says, noting it's also critical to have a decent password to safeguard sensitive data while traveling.
The Dynamic Currency Conversion Scam
When it comes to making purchases overseas with a credit card, the key is to avoid paying in your home currency (also known as a dynamic currency conversion), Honig explains. Paying in the local currency can make a 1 to 2 percent difference in the exchange rate, he explains. What's more, you may be asked to pay an extra service fee, so while it may seem convenient to pay in a familiar currency, it can be costly. And don't forget, you'll still have to pay foreign transaction fees for dynamic currency conversions, and that fee will likely be a higher dollar amount since the conversion will have hiked up the cost of the purchase.
The Streetside Cash Exchange Trick
While it may seem like a smart idea to skip converting your currency at the bank to get the best rate, the reality is, it's easy to get duped. Honig recalls a trip to Buenos Aires a few years ago when tourists were incentivized with a favorable exchange rate on the street, with twice as many Argentine pesos offered compared to the bank, and visitors walked away with fake bills. That said, "you can be brought into a currency scam wherever you are," Honig says, making it critical to know the particular security features of the bills in your travel destination to better verify authenticity. When in doubt, it's best to exchange your currency at your bank or an in-network ATM, he adds.
The Skimmer Swindle
ATM scams are nothing new, but nowadays hackers are finding novel ways to trick travelers into providing personal information through skimming technology, which allows thieves to read cards not only at ATMs, but also at gas stations and other public places. "Criminals are trying to do anything they can do to grab onto that magnetic strip," Murphy says. With the chip and pin, it's becoming more difficult for fraudsters to retrieve this information, but it's still essential to have safeguards in place. "See if you can use a digital app," Murphy suggests, pointing to Apple Pay and Android Pay as safe bets. Apart from using a digital wallet while traveling, he recommends using a separate credit card, rather than a debit card for gas purchases. Honig echoes similar sentiments. "If you're suspicious of an ATM, don't use it," he says, pointing out that while it's easy to spot a fake pin pad, a skimmer is hard to spot. "If you can – always pay with a credit card," he adds, noting they have enhanced security features to protect against fraudulent activity.
The Phony Vacation Rental Listing
When booking a vacation rental, Honig recommends only using trusted peer-to-peer platforms with a well-regarded reputation, such as Airbnb or HomeAway, which offer added support and security features. With Airbnb, for example, you can protect yourself thanks to tools such as user reviews, a vetted messaging system and verified ID badges, which are given by Airbnb when a user or host confirms their personal details, provides their personal social network or offers an official ID. Honig also recommends renting through a venerable rental site for peace of mind, noting that if you book a bogus stay on Airbnb, you'll get access to alternate accommodations, among other protections.
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