Prepaid gift cards, fake deals: How scammers con unsuspecting travelers
A woman in Missouri booked a hotel through Booking.com. But when she realized she had booked the incorrect date, she did a Google search for the website’s customer service line, and that’s where things went wrong.
The woman found a number that appeared to be legitimate. The customer service representative she reached instructed her to pay for the hotel with prepaid gift cards. She sent $120, and before she knew it, the money had disappeared.
“Obviously, we know she was not talking to Booking.com,”says Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP, which received more than 70,000 calls last year from people who lost money to such scams, including the Missouri woman.
Criminals are always looking for new opportunities to defraud unsuspecting travelers. If you know the warning signs, you can protect yourself.
“It is hard because we all want to go on these fantastic trips and want to get the best prices,” Nofziger says. “But we have to know what the red flags are.”
Gift card fraud
Scammers like gift cards because they're like cash: untraceable and untrackable. (Photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)
Nofziger says scammers place ads to game the search engine, producing results that look like legitimate travel websites. They’ll then ask unsuspecting customers to pay with prepaid gift cards from iTunes, Amazon or Google Play. That’s a huge red flag.
“The thing to do is verify you’re on the website you want to be on,” she advises. “(Booking.com) isn’t going to ask for prepaid gift cards.”
Retail stores that sell prepaid gift cards train their employees to recognize signs of fraud, according to AARP.
Still, Nofziger notes the scammers have found ways to avoid detection: They’ll instruct their victims to lie about the purpose of their card purchase or to use a self-checkout kiosk where an employee might not be present to ask questions.
Scammers like gift cards because they’re like cash: untraceable and untrackable.
“It’s a new currency of fraud,” Nofziger says.
Credit cards usually offer the best protection from fraud, she adds. “Gift cards are for family and friends only.”
"Once you wire that money, there is no recourse," says the State Department's Yolanda Parra. She recommends doing money transfers through the State Department, which can verify the citizenship of the recipient. (Photo: tillsonburg/Getty Images)
Travel-related scams can cost consumers as little as a few hundred dollars or as much as hundreds of thousands. Though older Americans often fall victim to these schemes, it can happen to younger people as well. And travel fraud has become a global enterprise.
“It’s all over the world,” laments Yolanda Parra, director of American citizen services at the U.S. State Department in Washington. “It’s not just coming from one region.”
According to the FBI, Americans reported $362 million to overseas scams in 2018, up from $211 million in 2017.
Parra says the damage from most scams falls into the $3,000-to-$5,000 range, but she’s seen some cases reach as high as $300,000 to $400,000.
“There’s a lot of money leaving our country,” she notes.
There are romance scams on dating sites, where a person will pull at the heartstrings of a prospective target, claiming to be injured or sick and in urgent need of money. Or they might say they’re a member of the U.S. military, and they need money to get back to a base or travel to the United States.
Other overseas schemes target older Americans, with scammers pretending to be their children or grandchildren or claiming they are contacting the seniors on the relative’s behalf.
Of course, it is all a lie.
“It’s really kind of pathetic and sad,” Parra says.
She says one woman sent $200,000 because her overseas contact said he was in a car accident. Some people even sell their homes or use their home equity to send money overseas.
Parra noted that the State Department can send money overseas on behalf of U.S. citizens, and also can verify the citizenship of the recipient.
“Once you wire that money, there is no recourse,” she points out.
Where to get help
You can contact these entities if you think you might be the victim of a travel scam. They can also help you avoid travel fraud in the first place.
U.S. State Department
Federal Trade Commission
Better Business Bureau
Tips from Rick Steves: Defend yourself against 21st-century travel scams
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