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Planning Scam-Free Summer Fun

With temperatures getting warmer, you may be looking forward to relaxing at a sandy beach or excited to explore a new city abroad. But travel scams can make summer more stressful than relaxing, resulting in millions of dollars lost each year. To help your vacation go as smoothly as possible, here are some tips on how to avoid the most common traps.

Too Good to Be True

This time of year, ads pop up all over social media, web sites, and your email inbox offering a free or unbelievably cheap, all-inclusive vacation package that includes airfare, hotels, and excursions. Unfortunately, those who accept these prizes often find they don’t actually have airline tickets when they get to the airport. Or they make it all the way to their destination, only to discover there is no hotel or it’s much lower in quality than advertised. As my dad always tells me, TINSTAFL – There Is No Such Thing As a Free Lunch. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

A red flag for this type of scam is if they use pressure tactics to get you to accept their offer quickly. They may advertise the deal for a very limited time so you don’t have the chance to fully research the offer. Another red flag is that your “free” or “low-cost” prize requires you to pay a large amount in fees or taxes. And of course, be wary of winning any contest that you don’t remember entering.

Know Who You’re Booking Through

Exercise caution and only use trusted sites to book airline, hotel, or travel perks. Don’t follow ad, email, or untrusted links. Instead, go to a trusted site by typing in their URL or using their official app. Scammers can create clone sites that create fake bookings. Make sure that the website URL is the official domain (for example, for TSA PreCheck).

Also look out for fake emails informing you that your flight or hotel reservation has been canceled or the payment did not go through. These can direct you to a fake site to “rebook” or “update your payment method”.  Any communication should come from a recognizable domain (, for example) and include the confirmation number and reservation details. To confirm your reservation status, go directly to the website you originally booked through. Don’t click any links or call phone numbers provided in a suspicious email.  

Third Party Headaches

Sometimes, even booking through reputable third-party websites, such as VRBO and Airbnb, can pose threats to your vacation. Listings may use fake pictures or contain misleading details. Before booking, check the ratings on the property and the rental owner. You can even look up the address on Google Maps to ensure the exterior matches the description.

Beware of any listing that requires you to leave the official website to complete or communicate about the booking. Stick to the official website so there is a record of your conversation. Never pay via a wire transfer; it is best to use a credit card for any type of vacation purchase, as it is much easier to recover your money if you are scammed.

Also, be aware of any limitations while booking from a travel aggregator vs directly with the hotel or airline. While these sites make it easy to compare prices and options, the reality is that hotels and airlines tend to offer the best rate when booking directly with them. At the same time, they are also usually more clear about their prices and policies. When you book directly with them, prices are usually final and free of hidden fees, and they also allow more wiggle room to make changes. So consider using third party sites for initial research, but booking directly once you’ve made your choice.

Event and Site Scams

Not all travel scams involve flights and hotels. Tickets to popular tourist attractions or special events and concerts are also way too common. As with other travel scams, search for the official website for the attractions you are interested in, and buy tickets directly from them. Only buy concert tickets from an authorized seller (like Ticketmaster), especially for tickets being resold by an individual! Seat scams can sometimes result in you having tickets to the event, but not the ones you were promised. For example, fraudsters will sell you a seat that they haven't secured; after getting your money, they'll use it to buy you a cheaper seat.

En Route Dangers

Once you have your vacation legitimately booked, there are more scams you can encounter, starting as early as at the airport. Make sure your device connects to the legitimate airport Wi-Fi. Turn off auto-pairing or auto-connecting, as scammers can set up hot spots and other compromised connections.

Taxi scams are shockingly common. Someone with an airport lanyard approaches you to ask if you need a cab and directs you to an “alternate taxi stand.” This fake taxi can do something as minor as overcharging you, or as serious as taking you or luggage hostage unless you pay them a large sum of money. Another variation of this scam occurs when you pre-arrange transportation. Scammers can easily see the name written on a sign, and make their own! Be sure to confirm your driver's identity before accepting a ride.

Once you arrive at your destination, many scams are specifically designed to trick tourists. Beware of commotions that are intended to draw your attention while an accomplice robs you. Keep an eye on your luggage and purse at all times, including while purchasing trinkets. Many scams are much more common in some countries than others. For example, in Italy, scammers commonly lay paintings on the ground in high-traffic areas. When tourists looking at the sites accidentally step on them, the scammers then demand payment for the damaged “artwork”. Do some research ahead of time on scams that are common where you are traveling to minimize your chances of becoming a victim. 

Protect yourself and your trip this summer, so you can enjoy a much-needed vacation!

-- By Julia Zeiser, Pitt IT Student Blogger