When travel agents handled most planning, it was clear where to turn if something didn’t go as promised. “You could go back to someone and say, I had a bad trip and you steered me wrong,” says Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and journalist.
These days, we take the independent route, organizing nearly every aspect of a trip across an Internet connection. But putting a vacation together piecemeal leaves accountability blurred when users are the victims of scams. And with each website used or travel start-up launched comes another potential access point for scammers.
“Social media is just another channel through which scammers can make their bogus pitches, like free Southwest tickets, with the added benefit, to the scammer, of greater trust,” says Stephen Cobb, security evangelist for ESET, citing a fake Southwest promotion that has appeared on Facebook as an example. With just a few clicks, people can follow, like, and share scams, pushing them out into their online circles with just a few clicks and in seconds—before having time to realize the offers are false.
A recent case in point: the appearance of a few fake Instagram accounts that managed to integrate the names of major airlines like American and JetBlue and offered free plane tickets to anyone who followed them. Even savvy travelers can find themselves swayed by such temptations. “People lose their minds when it comes to travel,” Elliott says. “They think they can get airline tickets for two cents or the free cruise.”
Misleading Pinterest surveys, unauthorized online ticket sellers, fraudulent owner accounts that offer vacation homes for rent, and fake plane ticket reservations sent over email are also among the latest techniques used by con artists. While the presentation of these travel scams continues to evolve, crafty phishers are still after the same things, says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “The outcome the scammers are trying to achieve is to take money from you or collect personal information about you they can use in some way.”
Such scams can affect travelers and tourism industry professionals alike. Elliott, Kaiser, and Cobb suggest online users research thoroughly and act slowly, especially when prompted to plug in personal information, including when connecting a site with your Facebook account.
Keep in mind that these online offers, however alluring in the moment, can end up costing far more than what they would have saved. As the old saying goes, if it is too good to be true, it probably is—especially when it comes to free travel.