Online booking scams: Help educate your guests

NATIONAL REPORT—Having a guest show up to a property without a reservation can be problematic, especially when the guest presents the “confirmation paperwork” to the front desk clerk. When the guest is notified about having been scammed by a fake booking site, things can turn ugly fairly quickly—even more so when there isn’t a room available for the guest to stay. Preventing this scenario from occurring in the first place removes the burden of the property having to resolve the guest’s predicament. The solution to this ever-growing headache depends on the alignment of several forces.

“Yes, it happens all the time,” responded Nolan Wrentmore, VP of revenue management and e-commerce at Aimbridge Hospitality, when asked about how often properties are faced with guests who had been deceived by online booking scams. “At the end of the day, we are in the hospitality industry and here to serve our guests. We do everything in our power to ensure we are accommodating—no matter how the guest books.”

More often than not, guests don’t realize they’ve been victimized until they’re already at the property checking in—luggage in hand, with the expectation of crashing on a clean bed after a long trip. “Deceiving the guests into believing they’re working with the hotels seems to be the most common theme [across online booking scams],” he said. For example, a common scam is where fraudulent booking sites post a pay-per-click (PPC) ad in a hotel’s name and lists a 1-800 number. Instead of the number going to the hotel being advertised in the ad, it sends the guest to a call center—and the scammer on the other end of the line becomes even more deceptive by claiming they’re at the hotel.

“I think this particular scam is interesting because it’s actually the oldest scam in the book,” noted Maryam Khan Cope, VP of government affairs at AHLA. “It’s actually a type of scam a lot of industries are facing—which is the imposter scam.”

In fact, during a meeting of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security, held late last month, Terrell McSweeny, commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), testified on this particular type of scam: “The growth in imposter scam complaints is striking; they surpassed the number of identity theft complaints for the first time ever last year. In imposter scams, someone poses as a friend, family member, romantic interest, legitimate company, or government agency, in order to obtain money or personal information.”

Another booking scam involves meeting pirates and poachers, where scammers are pretending to be the housing authority for major conventions and events. These defrauders obtain registration lists of conferences, and then they email registrants about making hotel reservations. “What’s particularly bad about that situation is the city’s usually sold out, so the GM can’t call around and find any other room,” Cope explained. “The person is probably going to have to go an hour away or something like that.”

Stopping online booking scams is one of the AHLA’s top policy initiatives for this year. Commissioned by the AHLA, an independent consumer poll found the following: Nearly 20% of online shoppers had been exposed to hotel booking scams—with 5% of respondents admitting to having had actually fallen for a scam in the past. Survey results revealed 15 million online booking scams in 2015 ($1.3 billion in bad bookings).

“Some online booking sites can be scams that are out to steal your money or steal your identity,” said Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson of the Better Business Bureau (BBB). “They can also be legitimate companies that have legal relationships with hotels and resorts and are legitimate representatives of those vacation sites. In-between are deceptive sites that don’t have rights to market the properties but do it anyway. They may overcharge their customers, or they may market luxury rooms, but when you show up the room doesn’t look like anything like the photos.”

The AHLA has been meeting with legislators on online booking scams; it believes the government should crack down on websites posing as hotels to prey on travelers. Bills were introduced during session last year in Congress; however, those bills have not yet been reintroduced, although the AHLA is confident they will be.

As legislators on Capitol Hill reassess priorities for the new session, the hospitality industry itself can help guests avoid scams by informing them of how these schemes work and providing them with red flags. What to be on the lookout for includes bogus URLs. “Oftentimes, they’ll use a URL with the hotel’s name in it, but it might not have HTTPS—which is secure,” Cope said. Additionally, scroll through the hotel’s website to see if anything looks off (e.g., examine and compare the logo). As far as rates, consumers should be encouraged to call up the hotel about a specific offer being advertised. “If it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably a scam,” she explained.

“Scammers can be quite clever about copying existing sites, using logos and colors to make a site look legitimate, stealing photos from real hotels and resorts, etc.,” Hutt said. “We’ve seen them get rather sophisticated, so consumers need to be even savvier.”

Another way to help guests: Encourage them to book directly with the hotel instead of through a third party. “Booking direct will always be the guest’s best option, as they are eliminating the middle and any potential for information to be lost or not passed along,” Wrentmore said. “This ensures the guest has the most updated accurate information, and in the chance something needs to change, direct communication with the hotel.”

While pushing the direct booking message will help alleviate some concerns, there’s something more at stake—the guest’s online booking experience; it shouldn’t be like navigating a minefield. “Customers should feel comfortable booking online,” Cope told Hotel Business. “The customer shouldn’t feel like booking online is an unsafe way to book. We want them to book however they choose: online, on the phone, walk in. Online is the future, and it’s really important to us that it’s a safe process for them.” HB

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