One of the most common scams in air travel, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), is what we'll call the Fake Fare Flimflam.
The perpetrators of this particular con take advantage of bargain seekers willing to believe in too-good-to-be-true airfares found online. But unfortunately, the victims end up paying a lot more—and get precisely zilch.
Here's how to spot the grift and evade the grifters.
At the BBB's Scam Tracker, a user-submitted post dated April 19, 2022, describes what sounds like a textbook example of the Fake Fare Flimflam.
"I booked a flight from [a] website," the user writes. "The price was about $50 lower than other booking sites I saw. After providing my credit card information, I received an email with confirmation that I had made a reservation, but no flight tickets were attached. Later the same day, I received a phone call and then a voicemail from [the company] asking that I call back to confirm my reservation. I called and they told me that I would need to pay an extra $200 or so on top of the original price to get my seat."
That little tale has more red flags than a Marxist rally.
It's fairly easy for scammers to set up fake airfare booking sites—or even near-clones, with almost identical URLs, of real third-party booking sites like Expedia or Hotwire—and advertise counterfeit tickets from legit airlines, sometimes using copied logos and other deceptively reassuring text and imagery to persuade you to enter your credit card information.
The fraudsters will even send you a confirmation email from the dummy site with the details of your upcoming trip—but if you look closer, you'll notice there are no actual plane tickets attached.
As the Scam Tracker poster related, sometimes you'll get a phone call from the (fake) travel booking company after you've purchased your (fake) plane ticket using your (real) credit card, and a representative will feed you some cockamamie story about needing to verify your personal or banking information or to charge additional fees to your card in order to confirm or finalize your seats on the plane. The company rep may also claim you need to cover the difference for a sudden increase in the price of the fare.
This, friends, is bull.
An honest third-party travel booking site would never call you up after a purchase to solicit additional details or ask you to approve more charges, and airlines can't jack up the price of plane tickets after you've bought them, either (unless you initiate a change yourself).
As Fast Company puts it, "Once you buy tickets, they’re yours at that price with no increase to come."
Consumers who are duped by the scam usually discover the awful truth when they contact the airline using the carrier's customer service channels to complain about the extra fees or to inquire about the whereabouts of the missing tickets.
The airline's agent soon finds, of course, that the caller has no reservation for a flight—the scammer has charged the credit card and taken the money, and the scammee is out hundreds of dollars.
How to Avoid Airfare Booking Site Scams
To make sure you don't blow your travel budget without actually getting to travel, the BBB recommends taking these common-sense steps:
• Do some research before buying plane tickets from a website you've never encountered before. Search for online reviews and complaints about the company. See if the business has a rating at BBB.org. Consult the meticulously researched, regularly updated ranking of airfare search engines here at Frommer's. Don't let a tempting price distract you from doing your due diligence.
• Do some proofreading. Typos, grammatical errors, and blurry images on a third-party booking site may suggest the work of a hasty scammer as opposed to a careful, legitimate business owner. While you're informally copyediting, check to see whether the website lists a physical mailing address and has a working customer service phone number as well.
• If you do decide to buy, check the URL before entering your payment information. Make sure you haven't accidentally clicked a sponsored link or navigated to an imposter site. Only enter sensitive information on a secure link (the URL should start with "https://").
• Always make online purchases using a credit card. You can dispute fraudulent charges made on your credit card, whereas funds stolen from prepaid debit cards and gift cards are pretty much impossible to get back. And never use a wire transfer to pay for travel.
• If the company you're doing business with calls you (and they shouldn't), don't provide personal info or approve additional charges over the phone. Get everything in writing, and then save all receipts, fine print, confirmations, and other correspondence. If you need to make any changes to your flight, contact the airline directly—and make sure you use the contact info from the airline's actual website. Scammers have been known to post phony numbers to intercept customer service calls, too.
To report a scam or learn about other common travel-related rip-offs, go to BBB.org.