Is It Safe To Book With an Online Travel Agent?
It’s more common than ever for Americans to book travel online, either directly or through a third-party booking site. But is it safe to book travel online? Not always.
Scammers use fake, spoofed, or misleading online travel booking websites to steal your money and passwords or gather personal information that they can use to steal your identity. According to a recent survey [*]:
35% of American travelers say they’ve been scammed while booking online travel.
While travel agency scams pose a year-round threat, they become especially dangerous during the holiday scam season when more people are looking for travel deals to visit family or get away on vacations.
In this guide, we’ll explain how online travel booking scams work, the latest schemes to watch out for, and how you can stay safe and find a great deal on your next flight, hotel, or vacation.
What Are Travel Agency Scams? How Do They Work?
Travel agency scams occur when fraudsters advertise cheap airfare or “free” vacations on fake websites and social media ads, or through phishing emails, texts, and calls — and then trick you into sharing sensitive information or sending money.
What makes travel booking scams so dangerous is that travelers are accustomed to providing payment and personal information when paying for flights. This includes everything from your credit card numbers to your Social Security number (SSN), passport details, and full address.
Here’s how a typical travel agency scam works:
- Fraudsters create fake travel agencies, or they spoof popular booking sites like Booking.com and Expedia. Most travel scams involve fake — but legitimate-looking — websites for travel companies. Fraudsters may create their own discount travel websites or even spoof popular booking sites. Some scammers even post fake support phone numbers on Google in hopes that you’ll call them when you need to book or change flight details.
- When you call or book online, you’re asked for personal and financial information. These scam services are designed to harvest your personal information or steal your payment details. Even if you end up with a legitimate flight, your information can be sold online to other scammers or identity thieves. (Stolen and forged American passports sell for an average of $850 on the Dark Web [*].)
- After booking, you discover that the flight details are different. Fraudulent airline ticket confirmation numbers won’t match real flights, and hotels won’t know about your reservation. If you try to call the “agency” back to resolve these issues, either their number will be disconnected or they’ll pressure you into paying more to “solve” the problem.
While some travel scams are flat out fraud, others are run by legitimate companies that charge excessive add-on fees, have non-existent refund policies, or sell misleading offers at too-good-to-be true discounts.
The bottom line: Falling for a travel agency scam can put you and your family at risk of fraud or even identity theft. Consider protecting yourself with Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution. Learn more about how Aura keeps you safe from scams, fraud, and identity theft →
The 5 Latest Travel Agency and Online Booking Scams
- Spoofed Booking.com, Expedia, and other booking sites
- Unfamiliar websites offering bargain deals for expensive flights
- Fraudulent airline customer support numbers in Google searches
- Robocalls or messages offering "free" vacation packages
- Follow-up phone calls asking for more information about your booking
Creating online travel and airline scams isa high priority for scammers who know that people are willing to pay serious money and provide sensitive information to get good deals on flights and hotels.
Here are some of the latest online booking scams to look out for.
1. Spoofed Booking.com, Expedia, and other booking sites
Scammers know that many people who book travel online trust sites like Expedia, Booking.com, and Airbnb.
In this scam, fraudsters create look-alike websites to mirror these booking platforms, and then link to them via phishing emails or social media ads. But if you book a flight, hotel, or vacation rental through one of these spoofed sites, you’ll lose your money and hand over sensitive information to cybercriminals.
These look-alikes aren’t limited to booking sites. Scammers also spoof major airline carriers — phishing for airline credentials and stealing credit card information that users store in their accounts.
How to spot and avoid a fake or spoofed travel booking website:
- Double-check the URL. Scammers create websites with URLs that look similar to sites with which you’re familiar (such as Airbnb-booking.com). Always make sure you’re on the company’s official domain before entering any information. For added protection, check the site’s SSL certificate by clicking on the padlock icon next to the URL, and make sure it was issued to the travel company through which you’re trying to book your reservation.
- Hover over links in emails before clicking. If you receive an email or see an ad promoting a travel deal, check the link before clicking to ensure that it leads to the company’s official website.
- Be wary if your usual login information doesn’t work. Fake websites won’t know your username and password. If you get an error when trying to log in, or if you’re redirected back to the login page, you may have given your password to fraudsters. Quickly log in and change your credentials to secure your account.
- Don’t store financial data in your loyalty accounts. Scammers can crack your password or steal it from a bogus site, giving them full access to your credit card details. Although inconvenient, it’s much safer to physically type in your credit card or loyalty plan number each time you make a purchase.
2. Sketchy travel agencies offering bargain deals for expensive flights
One of the most common travel booking scams involves con artists advertising cheap travel packages on social media platforms or via phishing scams. But this is much more elaborate than just a fake ticket scam.
Fraudsters purchase and sell what’s called a “reservation hold.” This is a tool used by legitimate travel agencies to hold a ticket price without paying the full amount. When you purchase a “hold,” you receive an official email or text from the airline with a booking confirmation number that works — but only for a week, until the hold expires.
How to spot and avoid a discount travel scam:
- Avoid “too good to be true” deals. Heavily discounted plane tickets or vacation deals are red flags. If you can’t find the same or a similar deal on the airline’s website (or on trustworthy third-party booking sites), it’s most likely a scam.
- Always request that an e-ticket number be sent to you. Holds can look identical to travel confirmations but won’t contain a ticket number. If you haven’t given up your payment information yet, don’t — it’s a scam.
💡 Related: How To Spot and Avoid the Latest Airline Scams →
3. Fraudulent airline customer support numbers in Google searches
Scammers list their phone numbers as airline customer service hotlines to attract a constant flow of potential victims. People desperate to change or rebook their flights search for the airline’s customer service phone number via Google, and call one of the first results to show up — not realizing that it may have been manipulated by scammers.
How to tell if you’ve called a spam number:
- You called a number that appeared in a Google search. Victims have reported calling spoofed customer service numbers that appeared to be from Air France, Delta, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines [*]. The best way to ensure that you call a verified support line is to go to the airline’s official website, find its customer service center, and call the number listed there.
- You’re redirected multiple times. Scammers use technology to spoof their phone numbers to include U.S.-based area codes. When you call those numbers, you’ll speak to someone who redirects you to an international phone number. This may happen several times before you speak with a “representative.”
- They send you texts from a different number. Help desk employees send a confirmation to you via text from a phone number you’ve never seen before. Sometimes, these texts contain spelling or grammatical errors or incorrect flight information.
4. Robocalls or messages offering "free" vacation packages
While the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) prevents legitimate telemarketing companies from calling you without your consent, scammers still use robocalls to target millions of potential victims every day [*].
One of the most popular schemes involves offering “free” vacation packages, or claiming you’re the winner of a sweepstakes you never entered. If you accept the prize, you end up either paying more for a bad vacation — or worse.
Here’s what could happen on a “free” vacation:
- You’re hard-sold during a timeshare presentation. As part of the “prize,” fraudsters may pressure you into buying into an expensive real estate timeshare in Mexico (or other foreign countries).
- You have to pay for taxes, fees, and other hidden costs. While the flight and hotel may be free, scammers ask for your credit card information to pay for expensive (and unmentioned) fees, taxes, and costs.
- Your hotel and flight are significantly worse than promised. When you ask specific questions about accommodations and activities, scammers say it’s “highly rated” or “luxury” instead of providing concrete details. You’re almost certainly not getting a five-star hotel for free from a random robocall.
- You won’t have travel insurance. These holidays won’t offer or be covered by travel insurance, meaning that if you have a medical emergency, or if a natural disaster prevents you from traveling, you’ll be on the hook.
The bottom line: If you’re offered or told that you’ve won a free vacation from a random robocall, it’s a scam. To keep you safe, Aura uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically screen your incoming calls and texts, and can block scammers before they reach you. Learn more about how Aura saves you from spam and scams →
5. Follow-up phone calls asking for more information about your booking
In this sophisticated scam, fraudsters use cheap or last-minute flights as bait — and then call you directly after you book to claim that there was an issue with your personal information, credit card, or the flight itself.
For example, they may claim they need your SSN to “secure” your ticket, or that your credit card was declined and you will lose the ticket unless you use a wire transfer or payment app.
How to tell if someone is scamming you over the phone:
- They called you. Consider any incoming call from an unfamiliar number or person a red flag. If someone calls you claiming to be from an airline or travel agency, hang up and call them back via the company’s official phone number.
- You’re put under pressure to act now. Phone scammers want you to act while they have you on the phone. If someone threatens you with fees or “losing” a flight that you’ve already paid for, this is a huge red flag.
- You’re asked to pay via alternative methods. Legitimate companies will not ask you to pay via gift cards, wire transfers, cryptocurrencies, or payment apps like Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App. Always try to book and pay with your credit card, as it offers the highest level of consumer and fraud protections.
Did You Fall for a Travel Agency Scam? Do This!
Whether you sent money or gave sensitive information to a fake travel booking site, you need to act quickly to protect yourself from fraud and identity theft.
Here’s what to do if you think you’ve been the victim of a travel agency scam:
- Secure your identity and online accounts. Fake travel booking websites can steal your passwords or give hackers enough information to access your other online accounts (email, online banking, etc.). Make sure you’re using unique and strong passwords across all of your accounts. For added security, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever possible.
- Freeze your credit. A credit freeze can prevent fraudsters from using your stolen information to take out loans or open accounts in your name. To freeze your credit, contact each of the three credit bureaus individually: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax.
- File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). An official identity theft report with the FTC is required to dispute fraud and protect you against some of the worst dangers of identity theft. You can file a report online at IdentityTheft.gov.
- Check your bank and credit statements. Carefully review your latest transactions, and look for any suspicious activity. You can also run a free credit report on AnnualCreditReport.com to look for signs of identity theft, such as unfamiliar loans, accounts, or mortgages.
- Notify your bank’s fraud department. Call your bank’s official customer service line and ask to close any compromised accounts or cards. They’ll be able to help you open new ones and recommend additional security features.
- Report the scam to the proper authorities. There are different agencies to contact, depending on the type of scam to which you’ve fallen prey (and what happened). If you have information that could lead to an arrest, file a police report with local law enforcement. To file a consumer complaint against a company in the travel industry, contact your state’s attorney general’s office. You can also help protect other victims by reporting the scam to the FBI and the FTC.
- Try to get your money back. Your ability to get a refund after a scam depends on the payment method used. For example, if you sent a scammer gift cards, contact the company or retailer from which you bought the cards. For payment apps like Venmo or Zelle, you can try to reverse pending payments. Here’s a full guide on how to get your money back.
- Monitor your passport numbers and other sensitive information. Scammers may wait to use your stolen personal information, which is why it’s so important to monitor your identity and credit. Try Aura’s award-winning identity theft protection solution free for 14 days to monitor your sensitive information and get access to 24/7 White Glove Fraud Resolution support and up to $5 million in identity theft insurance.
How To Stay Safe While Booking Online Travel
While everyone would love to get a great deal on their next trip, legitimate deals are hard to find.
The truth is that, in most cases, the best and safest thing you can do is book through official channels. It may cost a bit more, but you’ll know that your flight is real and that you’ll have access to proper support in the case of a problem.
If you choose to use a third-party booking site or travel agency, make sure you follow these steps to keep yourself and your family safe:
- Google “travel agencies” and check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Do a Google search for [Agency/website] + “scam” or “fraud” to find reviews or warnings from previous customers. You can also check the company’s reviews on the Better Business Bureau’s website.
- Use standard payment methods. Credit card providers offer fraud protection and limited liability if you do get scammed — which is much safer compared to other payment options such as debit cards, payment apps, wire transfers, and gift cards.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN) when shopping for flights. A VPN will block your location, IP address, and other information from websites, making it harder for scammers to target you with tailored airline scams. As an added bonus, using a VPN can often uncover legitimate deals on flights.
- Don’t disclose personal information over the phone. If someone calls you and requests sensitive information — such as your passport details, SSN, credit card numbers, or 2FA codes — it’s almost certainly a scam. Hang up, and contact the company or agency directly.
Booking travel online doesn’t have to be risky — especially if you protect yourself with Aura’s all-in-one digital security solution.
With Aura, you get award-winning identity theft protection with the industry’s fastest fraud alerts, advanced digital security tools to protect you from hacking and online scams, 24/7 U.S.-based White Glove Fraud Resolution support, and up to $5 million in identity theft insurance for you and your family.