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Travel scams: Here’s how to protect yourself

After more than a year of sticking closer to home, many Americans are feeling the itch to travel.

A whopping 97% of Americans in a TripIt survey said they're planning on traveling this year, with 54% saying they’re ready to travel by plane domestically.

Unfortunately, scam artists know that Americans are eager to get out of town, and they’re attempting to cash in.

“Since a lot of us are vaccinated and ready to go explore the world, scammers are out there meeting us online and posing as legitimate travel outfits,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

That’s why it pays to be careful when making travel-related purchases, especially now. Here are some precautions to take.

An airplane of German air carrier Lufthansa passes the moon over Frankfurt, Germany, April 9, 2017.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An airplane of German air carrier Lufthansa passes the moon over Frankfurt, Germany, April 9, 2017. (REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Read the fine print

Even if the travel deal is technically legitimate, that doesn’t mean it won’t cost you.

“We all want a good deal, but if you see the ticket at $250 on most sites, and you find it for $75, what’s the catch?” Nofziger said.

Always read the tiny type at the bottom of a travel deal before you book it. Some might tack on extra fees or restrictions that turn your good deal into a bad one. You can also do an online search for the name of the company and “reviews,” “complaints,” or “scams” to unearth issues, Nofziger said.

Keep your conversations onsite

If you’re booking a rental on a legitimate site like Airbnb or VRBO, keep all your conversations with the person whose property you want to rent on the site. If a renter wants to move your talks to email or text, especially before booking, that can be a sign of a scam, according to Nofziger.

Triple check the URL

Whether you’re simply reading up on an intriguing travel deal or you’re ready to book it now, always type in a website directly instead of clicking on a link. Especially beware of pop-up windows that might take you to a different site, one that could be fraudulent or add on costly upcharges, Nofziger said. After booking a flight or hotel through a third party, it’s a good idea to follow up with the airline or hotel directly to make sure they’re expecting you.

Be cautious with car rentals

An attractive brunette woman sitting in her brand new car and taking keys from vehicle dealer.
(Photo: Getty Creative)

Car rentals are a hot commodity right now because car rental companies sold a large percentage of their fleets when travel tanked at the beginning of the pandemic. Rental car costs were up 30% in May 2021 compared with the same time two years ago.

Because of that, “there’s been a huge uptick in scams where someone does a search for ‘cheap car rentals’ and believes they are getting a great deal, but it’s a scammer who has placed a fake customer service phone number,” Nofziger said. To avoid being scammed, go directly to a rental company’s website and call the number listed on the site.

Never pay with prepaid gift cards

“If anyone asks you to pre-pay with a gift card, it’s not just a red flag, it’s a scam,” Nofziger said. Gift cards are a favorite payment method of scammers and no reputable company should ask you to pay that way.

Always pay with a credit card

The safest way to make a large purchase is with a credit card. That’s because most credit cards come with fraud protections and the ability to cancel a charge. Never pay with a debit card because that could potentially allow a fraudster to drain your bank account.

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