Don't Get Taken for a Ride!
How to Avoid Travel Scams
By Kathy Klofft Photos by Jeff Klofft
Unless you called for an Uber, you don't want to get taken for ride when traveling or planning travel. The internet has made travel planning easier and it's made it harder. Today there are many trustworthy sources of information on the internet, but there are also lots of cyber criminals trying to steal your information and money or operators promising more than they deliver. I've collected a few here, let's play a little game: Scam or Not a Scam, to see which are legit offers and which you should avoid!
Get nights/miles for opening a new credit card!
Not a Scam- You'll get the points, but at what cost? I like to make sure the card fits my needs. Does it offer other benefits such a lounge access, free checked bags, and early boarding or check in? If paying for these things would cost less than the annual fee of the card, then it's not worth it. If I travel with a checked bag 4 times, then the $200 annual fee might be worth it. Another question I ask is will I use the nights or points? I find redeeming airline miles tiresome and expensive, it takes a really savvy person to use miles and pay the fees to redeem them and still get more value out of them than just buying a discounted fare for the same route. I like to male sure the card meets my needs and isn't costing me more than the value of the benefits before signing up.
You've won a free trip!
Somewhat scammy to outright scammy- Some of these are outright scams, getting you to pay some up front costs or wiring a claim "fee" and being promised to be sent travel vouchers which you discover later are worthless or are never sent.
Sometimes legitimate companies offer free trips as part of a sweepstakes. Even these come with unexpected costs. I once won a "free" flight to one of 4 Caribbean islands at a travel show. The company and flight offered was legitimate, I won it in a drawing, but I had to book a hotel room and to pay airline taxes AND was responsible to report the prize as income (at the full fare) and pay income taxes on that income also. Between those two expenses, my "free" flight was still cheaper than a commercial flight, but it still wasn't a "free vacation". Sometimes "free" hotel rooms or cruises can cost MORE than paying a discounted fare on the same trip after you pay the taxes on the full fare (which almost no one pays) Be sure to know what other expenses you'll incur redeeming a free trip and to talk to your tax accountant before redeeming a prize to make sure it would be worth it.
Please take this travel survey!
Not a Scam to Sort of Scammy- Most of the time the survey is a phishing expedition. Sometimes it's a legit company just doing a little market research so they can target their ads and mailings to you (and you might win a "free trip" - see above before taking it!) But it could also be a nefarious actor trying to get your sensitive information. The first surveys are mostly harmless and will help you learn about a travel companies products, but as always be careful not give sensitive information!
Click this link because you need to reset your password! (your cruise or flight is canceled! There's a problem with your account! etc.)
Scam! Beware of any email from a company with alarming information that requires you to click a link in the email. This is a classic scam, a website is built to look so much like the legitimate one, you click on the link because you want to solve the problem immediately! Don't do it!
We've fallen for these twice ourselves, once my daughter clicked a link in an email she thought was from her college to reset her password to her online account. The hackers immediately began sending spam to other users in the system, and the college had to shut her out of the account until she could reset her account. She was lucky, the school was vigilant and aware of the scam and could take quick action, so she was back in business after a phone call to the school. She was in a Paris train station and taking an online summer class where missing a day of access to the class was like missing a weeks!
Another time, my husband who is very careful, clicked on a link from PayPal after reading a realistic email that a transaction he made recently hadn't gone through. After clicking the link and putting in his password, he immediately realized it was a mistake and went to the PayPal site to change the password, so no harm, no foul, but had he waited even an hour, bots could have done some serious financial damage to his account!
It's very easy when traveling to fall for an email scam because most times we are rushing around and seeing our communications on mobile devices where we have less time to check out their validity. The lesson for ALL of us is never never NEVER click on a link within an email to access an account that requires a password. Most legitimate businesses won't even send a link to your account in their emails! Go to your browser and enter the address for the legit company. Look at the address bar, make sure it has the "secure" lock and the correct address for the business. Only then do I feel safe to enter account and PW information.
Your nephew is in Nepal and emails you that they've been hurt in an accident and need you to wire money immediately!
Big scam! How awful! Playing on the fears of loved ones to extract cash from people. The problem is if you or a loved one travels a lot, it could seem more plausible! I worry that my elderly MIL will get an email like this when one of her travel-loving children or granddaughters is away. These are always scams!
If you are the traveler, you can protect your loved ones by taking these steps
- Register with the State Department STEP program when traveling out of the country.
- Have travel insurance, which will provide you with an emergency assistance number so you'll never need to rely on vulnerable family.
- Have a competent well traveled person listed as your emergency contact, you can even arrange a password or to share a tidbit of something only you and they would know to tell them in the case of needing help in a real emergency.
- Give your loved ones a reliable way to contact you, and tell them to contact you first before sending money.
- Also give them a detailed itinerary before you leave, which allows them to see where you are and realize you aren't actually being held by rebels in some country you didn't visit!
Tell vulnerable family members that you will never email them for money and because of all the steps you took listed above, there will be no reason to wire money to you. If you need help, or there is an emergency you will place a real voice call to them. In almost every case of true emergency I've seen during travel, travel operators allow guests to make emergency phone calls. Once a woman died in Istanbul of natural causes and the hotel allowed her travel companion to make all the calls she needed. I was offered a similar courtesy by Royal Caribbean when the Boston Marathon bombing happened and I needed to check in with loved ones at home.
Now, if one of your loved ones calls and asks for money to just to extend their fabulous vacation...I'm not a family therapist (and I don't play one on the internet) so I can't help with advice about that!!