En español | Patricia Frolander, 78, walked into the Rapid City, S.D., Regional Airport in April with a ticket to St. George, Utah. She was on her way to visit a dear friend — but never got there. “After a year of isolation in my small town in northeast Wyoming, I was ready to travel,” she recalls. But an airline employee broke the bad news: Her $398 ticket was for a nonexistent flight.
"I booked my trip through a travel agency website that looked legitimate,” Frolander says. The only red flag: fine print on page 5 of her ticket saying she couldn't contest the reservation once purchased. “When my granddaughter checked online, she traced the website to a travel agency with a very bad history with the Better Business Bureau,” Frolander says. Her credit card company investigated and has agreed to refund her money.
As more Americans venture out of pandemic isolation after being vaccinated and head for long-awaited vacations and reunions with family and friends, they are whetting the appetite of a class of scam artists who target travelers, says Lois Greisman, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Marketing Practices.
Here's how experts say you can avoid five current travel scams.
1. Free or rock-bottom deals
Phone calls, emails and postcards with enticing travel offers look tempting, but a deal that's way under the value of a trip — like five nights in a hotel plus airfare to Maui for $200 — means it's probably a scam, says Amy Nofziger, AARP anti-fraud expert.
Avoid this scam: Simply walk away from any deal that seems too good to be true. And if a company asks you to pay with a prepaid gift card instead of a credit card or debit card, it's a scam, Nofziger says. Always work with a trusted travel agency or company that has a long, proven history of offering travel opportunities, she says.
2. Rental-car cons
Several travelers alerted AARP this spring to fake rental-car-company scams. Crooks set up phony customer service numbers online that look just like those of major rental-car companies. When you call, they take your money and personal information, then leave you stranded.
Avoid this scam: Before you call or click to reserve a car, verify that you're calling the real customer service department, or that you're on a legitimate rental-car-company website.
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3. Third-party websites for TSA PreCheck and Global Entry programs
Look-alike websites are popping up that claim to help you renew or enroll in the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program that speed you through airport security for a fee. But these sites are actually trying to con you out of money and personal information.
Avoid this scam: Travelers interested in enrolling in or renewing TSA PreCheck should start the process by going to the official government website, tsa.gov.
4. Disappearing vacation rentals
Scammers capitalize on the popularity of vacation properties rented out on legit sites like Airbnb and Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner) by offering online or via social media properties that don't exist, don't belong to them or don't measure up to the gorgeous photos.
Avoid this scam: Keep all of your interactions with a vacation property's owners on the website of legitimate companies. A request to take your conversation off the site is a sign of a likely scam. If a property has few reviews or seems too good to be true, search the address online, or check it on Google Maps.
5. Airport and hotel Wi-Fi hacks
Connecting to public Wi-Fi gives savvy hackers easy access to your personal information.
Avoid this scam: Use your smartphone's hot spot to connect to the internet more securely. Or invest in a virtual private network (VPN), a service that encrypts your data to keep unscrupulous hackers from stealing sensitive information online. A VPN costs about $30 to $100 per year.
Sari Harrar is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor to AARP publications.