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Keep an Eye Out for the Latest Travel Scams

Don’t let criminals steal your fun with fake booking sites, bogus deals and other rip-offs


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Photo Illustration: Danielle Del Plato

Americans ages 50 and up say they plan to spend more than $6,650 dollars on vacations in 2024, and about half say they’ll spend more than in 2023, an AARP survey found.

Yet our vacation fantasies can have a dark side. Scammers can turn your dream trip into a financial nightmare: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 55,000 reports of fraud linked to travel, vacations and time-share plans in 2023, and travel is one of its top 10 fraud categories. Thirty percent of Americans have been scammed or know someone who’s fallen victim while booking or taking trips, and 34 percent lost $1,000 or more, according to a 2023 survey by online protection company McAfee. 

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Common travel scams

1. Fraudulent travel services online

There are loads of fake travel company websites touting hotels, car rentals or other services. You can often find clues (such as misspellings) that a site isn’t legit, but AI tools can help criminals create more professional-looking websites, without the typos and grammar mistakes, says attorney and scam authority Steven Weisman. Scammers create these sites “to lure you into clicking on malware-infected links or provid[ing] credit card or debit card information,” Weisman notes on his website, Scamicide.com.

2. Free trips and bargains from unsolicited sources

Bogus travel deals can arrive through emails, text messages, social media, postcards, robocalls and online pop-up ads. Even if they look real — some scammers copy the logos of legitimate businesses — treat these offers with extreme caution. They will typically advertise free trips to get your attention, then charge hundreds of dollars in fees and taxes, the FTC warns. Specifics about the trip are often missing: Instead you’ll see vague references to “five-star” resorts or “luxury” cruises (AARP offers specific advice on cruise scams). “If the organizer can’t or won’t give you more specific details, like the address of the hotel or the cruise company’s name, walk away,” the FTC states. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

4. Unscrupulous and fraudulent travel “professionals”

If you search for travel scams on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker, you’ll find numerous complaints about bogus travel agencies, third-party booking companies, solicitations for free vacations and time-share memberships (check out this AARP guide on time-share exit scams). Some complaints involve bait-and-switch practices. Others involve complete deception. A man recently reported losing $440 when a travel consultant, who’d lied about his credentials, said he’d paid the client’s flight cancellation fee but hadn’t. Another consumer said she lost $975 after a travel agent was supposed to book her a hotel in Aruba but took the cash instead.

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5. Hotel credit card scams.

Some scammers will call your hotel room (often in the middle of the night), claim they’re from the front desk and say they need to verify your credit card information due to a computer glitch. “Hang up immediately and contact the front desk to verify the call,” recommends the Arkansas attorney general’s office. Another scam, according to Weisman: You arrive in your room and find a flyer underneath the door to order pizza or other food, but the phony menu is from a scammer who wants you to order dinner to get your credit card number.

How to protect yourself from travel scams

Determine if a website is real. You can look up a domain to confirm whether it’s legit using WhoIs.com ; enter the site’s URL and you’ll find out who owns it and where the owner resides. “When a site for Hyatt or Hertz is based in Nigeria, you know you’ve got a problem,” Weisman says. Also be suspicious if you don’t see a contact page or a physical address, phone number or email address on the site.

Don’t trust phone numbers. Scammers can impersonate phone numbers through a process known as caller ID spoofing. If you’re renting a car, for example, confirm that you’re dialing a real customer service department (and that you’re using a legitimate company website to find contact info) before you call or click to reserve your rental.

Do your homework. If you are planning to rent or use a travel booking agency, do some research before working with them. Search for the company’s name online, along with words like “scam,” “review” or “complaint” and see what pops up. Also check for complaints on the BBB website. “If you’re looking at a car rental company that you haven’t heard of, and it’s a great deal, be skeptical — especially if they tell you to act now because it’s such a great price,” Weisman says. Ask people you know and trust for referrals.

Be cautious of travel businesses that ask you to pay before confirming reservations. “Most reputable travel agents will confirm before payment,” says the Georgia Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. And stick with reputable companies.

Avoid using search terms like “cheap rental cars.” Words like “cheap” can draw a higher number of bogus companies among your search results. And sometimes phony companies can appear higher in search results than real companies, says Weisman. A scammer might purchase an ad for the phony website, for example, which places it near the top of the search.

Confirm who really owns a vacation rental. “Search online for the rental location’s address, together with the name of the property owner or rental company,” the FTC suggests. “If other ads come up for the same address but with a different owner or rental company name, that’s a sign of a scam.” When Weisman wanted to rent a place on Cape Cod, he went to the tax assessor’s website. “The name of the person who was supposedly renting it to me wasn’t the name of the owner,” he says. “That’s always a good indication that it’s not legitimate.”

Never pay for travel services or rentals with a gift card or by wiring money. Scammers want you to pay this way — or with cryptocurrency — because “once they’ve collected the money, it’s almost impossible to get it back,” the FTC states. It’s safest to pay with a credit card, which has more protections than even debit cards. The same is true with services like Zelle and Venmo, adds Weisman. “They should never be used for commercial transactions, because they lack the fraud protection of a credit card,” he says.

Be wary of Wi-Fi. Whether you’re at an airport or a coffee shop, connecting to public Wi-Fi can expose your personal information to hackers. Instead, connect to the internet via your smartphone’s hot spot or purchase a virtual private network (VPN), which encrypts your data.

Avoid third-party visa programs. Americans are required to obtain visas when visiting certain countries, such as India and Australia. Third-party websites often promise to provide visas quickly for a fee, but many are scams that seek not only cash but personal information for identity theft. Instead, go to the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs website. You’ll find procedures and links for the countries you’re planning to visit.

AARP has more information on overseas travel scams here.

What to do if you’ve been targeted in a travel scam

  • Report fraud to the FTC online or by calling 877-382-4357.
  • File a complaint with your state’s attorney general. The National Association of Attorneys General ConsumerResources.org website has contact info for each state.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.