Updated: Oct 6, 2021
If you feel as if you have a target on your back, then you have a lot in common with Mary Munez. She fell for a clever travel scam on a recent visit to Miami.
Munez, an event producer based in Chicago, returned to her room one evening and was famished. She found a takeout menu for a local pizza restaurant under her door.
"I love to support small businesses – and I was hungry – so I didn't think twice about it," she says.
Maybe she should have. The order arrived two hours later in a Domino's pizza box. She hadn't ordered from Domino's. Then the fraudulent charges started appearing on her credit card.
"I started getting small charges of 35 cents to my account once an hour. Then the charges became more frequent and larger," she says.
The pizza delivery scam is just one of several schemes that ensnare unsuspecting travelers. There are illegal scams, like the one Munez encountered, and "legal" ones that technically don't violate any laws (but should). Fortunately, there's a way to spot a travel scam before it happens to you.
"There's an entire industry built around targeting travelers for scams," says Rachel Willson, an investigation coordinator for the Smith Training Centre and the Smith Investigation Agency, a Canadian private investigator. "It's critical for travelers to be aware of the types of scams out there and ways to best protect themselves."
This is how to spot a travel scam
Munez had a few warnings. The homemade flyer on the floor as she walked into the room should have raised a red flag. Legitimate offers don't look like that. But in case she had doubts, she could have Googled "pizza delivery scam" or asked someone at the front desk. That would have changed her dinner plans.
Take the taxi scam, for example. That's where a taxi driver grossly overcharges you for a ride to your hotel. The telltale sign? "They'll say that the taxi meter is broken," he says. "If that happens, either get out of the taxi and find another taxi or get their ID number and report them."
It probably won't surprise you that most travel scams happen where you find a lot of tourists – busy city squares or popular attractions. If you're traveling somewhere touristy this summer, be on your guard for pickpockets, scammers hawking fake jewelry, and anyone who approaches you and offers you anything.
"If anyone approaches you with an offer, idea, or request for help in a touristy area, it's almost certainly a scam," says Konrad Waliszewski, CEO of the online travel guide TripScout. "You should avoid it."
In other words, if they're selling, you're not buying. Problem solved.
And here's how to spot the 'legal' travel scams
The "legal" scams aren't as easy to fix. That's because travel companies openly prey on their customers, with the apparent blessing of the government and lawmakers.
"Legal" travel scams include:
Hotel resort fees. These extras, often added to your room bill after you book your hotel, can add up to 20% to the cost of your hotel. Hotels typically disclose these fees just before you click the "book" button, so pay close attention. Resort fees are a scam. If you see one, close the screen and book elsewhere.
Airline junk fees. These extras for seat assignments or ticket changes cost the airline nothing. They seldom disclose them in the initial ticket price quote. The worst offenders are the "discount" airlines that offer rock-bottom fares but then upcharge you. If a fare looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Fees added for your "convenience." Any time someone says a charge is for your convenience, they really mean it's for their convenience. For example, tips added to your cruise bill. Or surcharges for large parties at your restaurant. It's nothing more than a money grab – a way to make an expensive product look cheap. Run away!
Fixing these legal scams is way above my pay grade, unless you'd like to elect me to higher office. But you have been warned. Often, travel companies hide these absurd fees in their contracts or on their site.
"The best way to avoid surprise fees and questionable offers is to thoroughly read through all related agreements before signing," says Chris Carnicelli, CEO of Generali Global Assistance. "Always read the fine print."
That's true. If travelers just took a moment to review the terms of their purchase, most of these travel scams wouldn't exist. Then again, half of America's airlines and hotels might also file for bankruptcy protection because you would refuse to do business with them.
Now, wouldn't that be something?
What to do if you spot a travel scam
Don't panic. If you think you've encountered a travel scam – if you even suspect it – just walk away (or if you're online, abandon the booking). Remain calm.
Report the scam. After you're at a safe distance, tell someone about the scam. Either report it to local authorities or write an online review. Or, ahem, you can tell a travel columnist like me. I love to hear your horror stories.
Blacklist the business. If it's an established business pulling the scam, put it on your personal "do not stay" list. Then tell all of your friends. Businesses that try to pull a fast one on their customers don't deserve to be in business.
Author: Christopher Elliot - USA Today Special
Date: August 20th, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.