When you’re preparing for an upcoming vacation or planning your business travel, booking accommodations is typically part of the equation. For many people, that means heading online to make reservations. But if you’re not cautious, you could find yourself a victim of a hotel booking site scam that costs you money, steals your identity, and leaves you with nowhere to stay when you arrive at your destination. If you want to make sure your accommodations are legit and keep your financial life secure, here are four hotel booking site scams you should know about (and how to avoid them).
1. Fake Booking Websites
One of the most widely used hotel booking site scams involves malicious actors creating fake hotel reservation websites. In some cases, they’re designed to resemble a specific hotel chain’s site. In others, the scam websites look like popular aggregators, either with their own branding or copying a legitimate site’s branding.
How difficult these fake booking websites are to spot varies. However, there are typically some clues. First, if the connection isn’t secure – such as by not having https in the URL – you shouldn’t move forward. Additionally, look for spelling errors, grammar issues, and typos, as those are more common in scam sites. Blurry logos can also indicate that a website isn’t legit, as well as a URL that’s close to – but not an exact match for – a widely-known brand’s site.
Also, when you’re searching for websites that can book you a hotel room, don’t assume that the first listing in the results is safe. Scammers may pay to get ads for their fake hotel booking sites placed near the top of the results, so a high position isn’t a guarantee of safety.
It’s also wise to take a look at the required payment types. Some websites may only use unconventional options – such as cryptocurrency or wire transfers – instead of typical credit card payments. While they may try to justify the payment options stating that they help the site offer good deals, these types of payment are difficult – if not impossible – to recover, which is why scammers prefer them over many conventional methods.
2. Fake Hotel or Room Listings
Some legitimate booking sites that allow people to list their properties to secure traveler bookings can contain fake hotel or room listings. For example, websites like Airbnb and Vrbo are potential targets for scammers. Malicious actors may create fake listings that seem legitimate, offering up solid descriptions and high-quality images, but the properties don’t exist. While sites like Airbnb and Vrbo do work diligently to remove fake listings, they may not catch them all before an unsuspecting person books the room.
One step you can take to reduce the odds of booking a fake listing is to use the internet and Google the property’s address. Many scammers use bogus addresses in the listings, such as an address that isn’t actually in use or one associated with another property. If you research the address and get street-view images other than what you’re expecting based on the listing, it’s better to book something else.
You can also do a reverse image search on any photos within the listing. That lets you see if the pictures are published elsewhere and associated with another property or if they were potentially acquired from a stock image website.
3. Bait and Switch
When a hotel booking site leads you to believe you’re reserving a specific type of accommodation only to stick you into a different kind of room that’s of lesser quality upon arrival, you could be a victim of a bait-and-switch. Essentially, an appealing option was advertised – the bait – and that information led to your decision to make a reservation. However, once you get to the hotel, you’re given a subpar alternative – the switch.
Technically, the issue only qualifies as a bait-and-switch legally if there was no original intention to give you the nicer advertised room. However, even if the issue isn’t due to intentional deception, it leads to challenges. The problem is that when you’re dealing with hotel bookings, you may not have many options for immediate recourse.
Canceling your reservation – even if it leads to a full refund – potentially isn’t plausible if similar accommodations aren’t available elsewhere. A price reduction to offset the change may ensure you have a place to stay, but it might not be the type of experience you expected, which can diminish your overall travel experience.
Avoiding actual bait-and-switch scams is possible with a bit of research. Sticking with reputable hotels with high ratings and no negative reviews that mention subpar accommodations upon arrival can help.
Issues with room changes due to overbooking are harder to avoid. Overbooking isn’t uncommon, as hotels usually book enough stays to offset last-minute cancelations or no-shows. It can also happen by mistake, such as a booking website not receiving refreshed data fast enough to prevent another reservation from going through even though the hotel is full. In some cases, reviews may indicate whether overbooking issues are common at a particular hotel, but that’s not a guaranteed way to avoid this situation, as it can happen only on rare occasions or due to an unexpected booking error.
4. Hidden Fees
Hidden fees can make a good deal on a hotel feel like a scam. Some hotel sites will advertise incredibly low room rates but not as clearly disclose the additional fees guests have to pay as part of the reservation.
Resort fees tacked on to a room’s price are a prime example, though you may encounter other hidden fees, too. If they aren’t disclosed at the time of booking, the practice is broadly considered deceptive and dishonest, even if it stays on the right side of the law.
Generally, the only way to ensure you don’t accidentally commit to a higher price than the advertised one for the room is to read the fine print. Additionally, you can contact the hotel directly and ask about any fees that aren’t part of the advertised room rate. By doing so, you can at least find out whether there are extra costs you may face, giving you the power to decide whether you want to continue with the booking or not.
Do you know of any other hotel booking site scams people should be aware of before planning their travel? Have you ever been a victim of a hotel booking site scam and want to tell others about your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Tamila McDonald has worked as a Financial Advisor for the military for past 13 years. She has taught Personal Financial classes on every subject from credit, to life insurance, as well as all other aspects of financial management. Mrs. McDonald is a former AFCPE Accredited Financial Counselor and has helped her clients to meet their short-term and long-term financial goals.