You may not have been traveling much since the pandemic so your guard may be down, but even if you have been on the road, a reminder is in order: scammers have not taken a vacation from trying to rip you off while you are in the midst of a wonderful adventure.
The last thing you need is drama on vacay. While some old-school scams are still around, thieves are clever and keep coming up with new tactics and are especially taking advantage of any opportunity created from COVID. Here’s what to look out for so you can protect yourself.
Fake travel insurance
Many people are choosing to buy travel insurance for the first time. “COVID and all of its uncertainties is the main reason why, but extreme weather has become a big reason as well. Unfortunately, scammers know that more people are wanting to buy travel insurance, and they know exactly what type of coverage they want. Fraudulent travel insurance packages have been popping up that people are falling victim to––giving their money to these scammers and then going on their trip thinking they are protected when they aren’t protected at all,” says Kristen Bolig, CEO of SecurityNerd.
She cautions, “When buying travel insurance make sure to do so through legitimate companies. If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. Also, most legit travel insurance packages don’t actually offer direct COVID coverage, so if you find a plan that says it does, it’s probably a scam,” says Bolig.
David Adler, founder and CEO of The Travel Secret, says one scam that has emerged during the pandemic is companies trying to sell vaccine ID’s or vaccine passports. “The vaccine cards are free to this day, so there’s no need to pay for one.”
Not only are you paying for something that is free, but the transaction can open you up to fraud. “Most scams can be avoided with a few simple steps. You should only make purchases through secure websites. Look for a padlock icon in the address bar of your browser. That indicates the site is secure. Another way to avoid this is to never give out personal information online,” says Adler.
The great pretenders
There’s a spike in travel scams, according to Pauline Manu, the consumer advocate manager at Sitejabber, a consumer protection site backed by the National Science Foundation.
What stories are they hearing? “Scammers are creating fake websites and emails, posing as Airbnb, other travel sites and agencies, and targeting potential travelers. The scammers are either providing fake travel accommodations or intercepting travel plans and conning people out of more money,” she says.
The best way to avoid phishing scams is to know the red flags in order to avoid them.
“Before you click on the email––is this a sender you don’t recognize? Is it an unusual email address? Is it sent to multiple unfamiliar recipients? If any of these answers are yes, you may not want to open the email,” says Manu.
Airbnb also provides a list of official Airbnb domains, so avoid any other senders, she says.
Manu says to pay close attention to the contents of the email. “Are they claiming there’s some suspicious activity or there’s a problem with your account, and you’ve either never signed up with them or don’t recognize the email domain? Is there poor grammar and messaging? Is it giving you a booking link to an unfamiliar website, or using a deceiving domain name? If so, send the email straight to spam!”
When someone has clocked visits to over 40 countries, they know a thing or two about traveling. Becky Moore is the founder of the GlobalGrasshopper blog. In all her years of traveling she’s seen some stuff. Now she warns that there are scammers pretending to be from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and asking for personal information like Social Security numbers. Another she says, is people being offered fake opportunities to be evacuated from areas affected by the pandemic, such as Italy when it was in crisis, for a large fee. Then there were crooks making like they were from the World Health Organization or other legitimate organizations and asking for money in order to help with the pandemic. Lastly, she adds that some folks offer fake flights or hotels at a discount, but then require payment up front and never deliver.
Know mask rules
Tyler Rice, founder of Camp Van Life, an online community for nomads living in vans, RVs and other vehicles, says one of the most common scams he has seen emerging in developing countries is getting “fined” for not wearing a mask in your vehicle. “Local police will target vehicles that are occupied by multiple tourists and pull them over for not wearing masks inside the vehicle––which is not a problem for locals. This is simply an easy way for the local police to shake down tourists and get some extra cash in their pockets,” says Rice.
His advice? “Check the local mask laws. Wear a mask inside a vehicle in certain developing countries that are popular with tourists, and place only small bills in your wallet with your main cash in a safer location. If it comes down to it, simply opening your wallet and only having $5 to give is much better than opening your wallet and a local cop seeing that you have $40 to give up.”
No such thing as a free lunch
Be leery of “free hotel” bookings. “Since everyone is so excited to travel, scammers use free hotel booking as their way to phish information from people. They offer this but request the ‘winner’ give their personal details and use these to access their personal accounts and perform their illegal transactions,” says Anton Radchenko, founder of AirAdvisor, a resource for passengers looking for compensation for flight disruptions.
Crooks capitalize on trends
A growing number of scam sites are targeting travelers eager to secure an expedited screening process through airport security, via services like TSA Precheck and Global Entry. Phony versions of these sites charge travelers an “application fee” or “service fee” and by the time they’re done, fraudsters will have landed not only the victim’s credit card information but passport and social security number as well, warns Lynette Owens, global director, Internet Safety at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.
With car rental rates up 30% over the same time last year, consumers are hankering for a good deal. “In typical fashion, we’re seeing scammers rushing to take advantage of the demand by creating deceptive online ads that direct would-be customers to a hotline where a ‘representative’ will request the victim’s credit card information or offer a ‘special deal’ in exchange for a gift card or prepaid debit card,” says Owens.
The rise of Airbnb and Vrbo has consumers increasingly more comfortable booking vacation rentals on secondary markets like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. However, says Owens, “We’re seeing scammers using fake listings to rent out properties that don’t actually exist.”
The bottom line––get out there and have your fun, but keep your eyes open and your head in the game.