Can You Get Scammed Buying Airline Tickets Online?
If you feel like booking air travel reservations online is more difficult than ever, you’re not alone. It’s now estimated that one in five Americans got scammed while booking vacations online [*].
Here’s just one of thousands of airline scams listed on the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) scam tracker website:
After one victim bought airline tickets with United Airlines through a discount booker, they were told that their flight was canceled and they’d need to pay an extra $80 for a new flight [*]. The only problem? The original flight was never actually booked — and the victim’s money disappeared.
Ever since the pandemic introduced a new era of online shopping, internet scammers have sharpened their focus on people making online purchases. And, now that travel is once again popular, con artists are zeroing in on those who are planning trips.
If you’re buying tickets online, you need to know the warning signs of the most common airline scams and how to avoid them.
What Are Airline Scams? How Do They Work?
Through fake websites, deceptive advertising, and phishing attacks, airline scams target travelers who are looking for good deals on air travel.
Criminals behind airfare scams seek financial gain — either directly by stealing your money or indirectly by collecting your personal information. If they’re able to collect personal data, they can commit identity theft, fraud, or even sell your data on the Dark Web.
Not all airline scam tactics look the same, but they do have a lot in common. Here’s how most airline scams work:
- Scammers create fake websites that list heavily-discounted airline tickets, or, pose as legitimate airlines, offer free ticket giveaways via social media and scam emails. Sometimes, they might even resell tickets bought with stolen credit cards. The tickets you buy may be legitimate; but when the fraudulent charges are discovered, your purchase will be canceled and your trip ruined.
- When you buy tickets, you’ll be asked for the usual information — name, address, passport number, and credit card information — and even receive a legitimate-looking confirmation email.
- After booking, the scammers may contact you to say that your flight was canceled (and you need to pay a rebooking fee). In other cases, you’ll show up for your flight only to find out there’s no record that your tickets were ever booked.
In best case scenarios, airline scams lead to small financial losses and rebooking headaches. But in worst case scenarios, these scams can lead to your identity being stolen and used to open fraudulent loans, empty your bank accounts, and worse.
The 7 Latest Travel and Airline Scams To Watch Out For
- Bogus flight-booking websites
- Sudden price increases
- Enticing deals for last-minute tickets
- Fake flight cancellation emails
- “Declined” credit card payments
- Robocalls offering “free” vacations
- Fake airline customer support
To avoid being caught up in an airline scam, you need to know exactly what to look for. Here are the latest airline scams that are ruining people’s travel plans:
1. Bogus flight-booking websites offering great deals
This travel scam offers fraudulent tickets on fake websites at prices that seem too good to be true. In one example, travelers from California thought they got a great deal on tickets through Delta Airlines. But when they called the airline, the confirmation code was invalid and there was no record of their purchase [*].
How the bogus flight-booking scam works
- Scammers create a fake website that looks very similar to the airline or travel agency website you think you’re booking with — but they offer huge discounts on tickets.
- The fake website might send a confirmation email; in reality, however, there is no flight. Instead, the scammer steals sensitive information such as your credit card number, phone number, physical address, and more.
How to avoid a fake flight-booking website
- Verify the URL of the site on which you’re booking your tickets. Check the spelling of the domain name along with other signs that could indicate it’s a fake website (typos, poor design, etc.). You can also do a Google search for the legitimate company’s website.
- If you’re unfamiliar with the travel agency or booking site, do more research or look them up on the BBB website (www.bbb.org).
- Verify the security of the website in your browser by clicking on the padlock icon to the left of the URL. Check that there is a valid security certificate issued to the company you think you’re booking with.
2. Sudden price increases on discounted air travel tickets
In this fraud, con artists contact people who recently booked a real flight and tell them that they need to pay additional fees. For example, one victim reported being charged $259 in scam fees after booking a legitimate flight [*].
How the price increase scam works
- After finding cheap flights online, you’ll be contacted by someone claiming to be the travel agency or airline.
- The fraudster will tell you over the phone that there are either additional fees you need to cover, or that the flight cost has simply increased.
- If you share your card details to pay the fee, you’ll find out later that there was no price increase — but the scammer now has your information.
How to avoid a price increase scam
- The biggest red flag for this scam is any communication requesting more money after purchasing your ticket — no matter the reason. Legitimate airlines do not operate like this.
- If you’re not sure about a potential phishing email or spam call, try to contact the airline directly. Look up their customer service phone number independently — don’t trust the one provided in any emails or call that you receive requesting payment.
3. Enticing deals for last-minute tickets from private sellers
Sometimes, scammers do have legitimate tickets for sale — purchased with someone else’s stolen payment information. When the cardholder discovers the fraud, the airline will invalidate the tickets.
A traveler from New York lost almost $6,000 purchasing tickets through a phony third-party website [*]. The victim’s flights were canceled, and the airline explained that the flights were bought with someone else’s frequent flyer miles.
How last-minute ticket deal scams work
- Fraudsters use stolen financial information to buy airline tickets. They then put the tickets up for sale at a major discount through a phony travel agency, Facebook marketplace, or airline website.
- These scams usually include requests for payment in cash, bank transfers, cryptocurrency, or even gift cards — all of which are difficult or impossible to reverse.
- Even if the tickets are voided, the scammer keeps your money.
How to avoid last-minute ticket deal scams
- Be cautious if ticket prices seem too good to be true.
- Be wary of third-party websites offering cheap tickets for flights that are only one or two days away. This could indicate the work of a fraudster.
- Any business that only accepts money transfers, cryptocurrency, or gift cards is a scam.
4. Fake flight cancellation emails
This scam occurs when fraudsters tell travelers that their flight has been canceled and they’ll need to pay a fee. Scammers target legitimate customers and victims of ticket scams.
One victim with legitimate tickets called a fraudulent support hotline and was told that they’d been bumped from their seats on a flight [*]. The agent claimed they needed to upgrade by purchasing gift cards at a nearby Walgreens.
How fake flight cancellation scams work
- Scammers claim a recently booked flight has been canceled and needs to be re-booked for a fee. But the flight isn’t canceled, and the fee goes straight to the scammers.
- Sometimes, the scam also involves emails that link to phishing websites or trigger malware downloads. From there, the scammer can access sensitive data on the recipient’s computer or phone.
How to avoid fake flight cancellation scams
- If a legitimate airline cancels a flight, you’ll be rebooked for free. Any flight cancellation that requires a fee is a scam.
- When you receive an unexpected email, don’t click on any links or attachments. Contact your airline directly.
- Don’t give away any information during an unexpected phone call. Find your airline’s customer support number online, and double-check any details with them directly.
5. “Declined” credit card payments for airline tickets
Some websites that appear to be selling tickets will collect your payment information and then “decline” your credit card.
One victim from Texas was sent a flight confirmation from a fake travel agency, but then received a message saying their card was declined [*]. However, the bank confirmed that the card had not been run. Unfortunately, the scammers still had the victim’s credit card information.
How declined card scams work
- You visit a website to buy tickets; but when you try to pay, the website tells you that your card was declined, or the site has technical problems.
- The website then prompts you to use an alternate payment method, like money transfers, postal money orders, cryptocurrency, or gift cards.
- In the end, scammers collect your credit card information and get paid through a method that’s hard to reverse. But you never get your tickets.
How to avoid declined card scams
- When in doubt, check that the website has a secure link before purchasing anything online. Click on the padlock symbol to the left of the URL.
- To follow best practices, only purchase airfare tickets directly from the airline company, and avoid third-party websites altogether.
- Before making any online purchase for your trip, verify the website’s legitimacy by searching for it on BBB.
6. Robocalls, emails, or social media posts offering “free” vacations
Scammers try to draw internet traffic to their shady websites by advertising free vacations or travel vouchers with the goal of tricking victims into clicking on corrupted links.
For example, a fraudulent Facebook post from an account claiming to be Southwest Airlines offered free round-trip tickets in May 2022. While the post was fake, it collected over 1.4 million comments.
How free vacation scams work
- Scammers lure people to their websites with dreamy, tropical photos and promises of free (or discounted) vacations.
- Sometimes, you’ll be notified via email or robocall — congratulating you on winning a travel voucher prize or a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
- When you take the bait, you’ll find that there are many fees and taxes involved — so it’s not free after all (and it’s probably not legitimate, either).
How to avoid free vacation scams
- The bottom line: don’t trust websites, emails, phone calls, or social media posts that offer you something for free. This is especially true if the item or service is normally quite expensive, like a flight.
- Avoid any notification, call, pop-up, or email that claims you’ve won an extravagant prize that you never signed up for.
7. Fake airline customer support phone numbers
Scammers create websites listing fraudulent support numbers. Sometimes these sites even show up as the first result in your search results.
One customer from Missouri called a fake Southwest Airlines support number that she found online when she wanted to add her infant to her flight reservation [*]. The scammer, posing as a Southwest agent, tried to trick her into paying $125 — but Southwest doesn’t charge for infants.
How fake customer support scams work
- Scammers send emails or create websites listing fake customer support numbers.
- When you call the customer service number, the scammer will charge you extra fees or request personal or financial details.
- After booking the flight over the phone, you might get a fake confirmation email. But you’ll discover later that the booking doesn’t exist.
How to avoid fake customer support scams
- If you need to call an airline’s customer support number, don’t trust the number that shows up when you search online. Only use the number on the airline’s official site.
- In general, avoid making large purchases over the phone, and never give information to someone who calls you.
📚 Related: Is Hotel Wi-Fi Safe? How To Secure Your Devices When Traveling →
Did You Give Up Money or Information in an Airfare Scam? Do This
- Check your bank statements for signs of fraud. If scammers have your financial information, they’ll probably take advantage of stolen account information. Keep an eye on your credit card statements for suspicious charges — even small ones. Scammers often start with tiny purchases to verify your card details.
- Freeze your credit. If you suspect identity theft, freeze your credit with all three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. This stops anyone from accessing your credit report, making it harder for scammers to take out loans or open new accounts in your name. Aura can also lock your credit file with a single click.
- Alert financial institutions. Even if you don’t see suspicious activity on your accounts, notify your bank’s fraud department immediately. They’ll cancel your cards and accounts, and get you set up with new ones.
- Request a credit report. If you gave your Social Security number (SSN) to a scammer, check your credit report immediately for signs of fraud. You’re entitled to one free report from each bureau every year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Navigate directly to an airline or travel agency’s website. If something doesn’t feel right after booking travel plans with a well-known company, confirm or allay your suspicions by finding the company’s official website and contacting them directly.
- Alert the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Report fraud to the FTC at ReportFraud.FTC.gov and start an official identity theft report at IdentityTheft.gov. This step helps protect future victims — and provides documentation that you may need to repair your credit.
- Use your credit card to pay for future flights online. Any other form of payment (i.e., cash apps, debit cards, etc.) makes it harder (or even impossible) to dispute if fraud occurs.
- Sign up for credit monitoring and identity theft protection. Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution monitors your financial and online accounts to ensure that you know right away if a scammer is using your information. Plus, if the worst should happen, every adult member of an Aura plan is covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.
The Bottom Line: Don’t Let Scammers Ruin Your Next Vacation
Vacations can be tough to pull off financially. But typing “cheap flight deals” into your search engine can put you at risk of falling prey to airline scams and dangerous fake websites.
Don’t get swept up in the moment and miss the red flags. Whether you’re booking a place to stay or transportation for a getaway, be diligent about which websites you trust. Better yet, opt for Aura’s comprehensive digital security system that shields you from fraud and disaster.