New tricks abound but pickpocketing remains top travel scam: Internet Scambusters #547
You probably don't give it a second thought, but what if that hotel you booked online for your 2013 vacation doesn't exist?
Or what if the hotel is real but the site you booked it on was a phony?
These are just a couple of new travel scams we've spotted for 2013, which we'll be exploring in a two-part travel scam special starting with this week's issue.
Now, here we go...
Travel Scam Alert 2013 Part 1: 7 Tricks to Watch For
You think you've heard or read about them all, but with the vacation season upon us, the travel scam experts have come up with a new batch of tricks to catch out the unwary tourist.
We've been writing about travel scams almost since Scambusters Day One, and if you're planning to hit the road or the airport, it's worth checking out some of our earlier issues because almost all of the tricks we reported then are still in play.
Once you've done that, here is the first batch of new travel scams being lined up for the summer of 2013.
1. Fake Hotel Websites
It seems inevitable in this age of bogus websites that crooks would hit on the idea of setting up online pages to scam victims.
Often these pages use the name of legitimate hotels, but it's not unknown for websites to promote totally fictitious hotels, especially in China and Southeast Asia.
The usual aim is to steal your money via phony room deposits, or identify theft using your credit card details.
Some also conceal a cunning jobs scam.
In this case, the websites, which often have names very similar to those of the legitimate hotels, offer work in exotic locations, but, of course, applicants are told they have to pay an upfront fee for background checks or airfares.
Action: This is potentially the most dangerous and worrying of our latest collection of travel scams.
Ideally, book your hotel through a reputable travel site or agent.
If you plan to book direct, ensure you have the correct Internet address, and check out the hotel's reputation with other users via travel networking sites like TripAdvisor.com.
Look for full street addresses and phone numbers and, if possible, phone to authenticate.
And, of course, never pay upfront for any kind of job application.
2. I'll Keep the Room
Many hotels offer a rapid checkout service that means you don't have to visit the front desk when you leave. Instead your bill is just slipped under the door.
After you leave, a scammer patrols the corridors, looking for vacated rooms and open doors.
Then he calls the front desk, posing as the guest and says he's decided to extend his stay a couple more days -- paid for on your credit card.
A man was recently arrested in Florida for allegedly doing this and living free for almost two years!
Action: Shut your room door when you leave and make a point of returning your card key to the desk.
3. Bogus Driving Permits
We've previously covered International Driving Permit (IDP) scams in Understanding the International Driving License Scam and Poetry Scam.
Slightly updating that issue, the only two organizations that can issue these permits are the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA).
However, in a new variation, online marketing companies claim to offer a substitute for the IDP.
These are nothing more than office-printed, supposed verification documents. They are not recognized internationally and therefore do not validate driving abroad.
These phony permits are also sold as supposed identification that, it's claimed, can be used by undocumented US immigrants. They can't.
Action: Stick with AAA and AATA for your international permit. But note that these still aren't recognized for identification purposes in the US.
4. Missing Duty Free
You find fragrance or other gifts at a great price in the airport duty free shop and are told your purchases will be available for collection at the gate or the jet-bridge as you board your plane.
But they're not there when you board and, with the flight about to depart, there's not a lot you can do about it.
Action: Sadly, as we just said, there's not a lot you can do about this.
The particular incident that alerted us to this scam was at Guatemala City Airport but it could happen anywhere that you're not allowed to take your duty free purchase with you at the store.
Sometimes there's been a genuine slip-up and you might manage to get a refund.
You might also be covered for reimbursement if you paid with your credit card.
Otherwise, you'll likely end up out of pocket -- so just be wary about how much you spend in these stores.
5. Pay to Pose
This is another one that's been around for some time but has become increasingly troublesome and even scary.
It's the street "artist," who may be wearing a fancy costume, carrying a pet animal or acting in some other way that just makes you want to have your photo taken with them.
But after you do, they demand money as payment. In some recent cases they have become threatening and aggressive.
Contrary to popular belief, this happens in the US as well as abroad.
In one recent case, a man dressed as the Cookie Monster was arrested in New York for alleged hostile begging.
Action: Don't take photos or have your photo taken with these characters unless you're prepared to pay.
In isolated places, where there aren't others around to support or help you, don't do it at all.
6. Pay to Protest
Another cunning ploy to demand payment has been spotted in Italy, where vacationers were invited to sign an anti-drug petition.
It seemed fair enough. But after signing, victims were told they had actually signed up to financially support a campaign and must now pay. If they refused, again they were threatened and intimidated.
Action: In our judgment, it's not wise to sign street petitions. You never really know who the organizers are.
7. Watch Your Pockets
Finally, a reminder that the Number 1 travel scam is, and always has been, pickpocketing and purse snatching.
Often this involves distracting victims with a range of tricks from seeking directions to spilling liquid onto your clothes.
Spain (notably Barcelona) and Italy (notably Naples) have the dubious distinction of being the worst places for this type of theft -- but, in truth, they can happen anywhere, even on cruise ships where you think you can trust everyone because they're all vacationers like you. You can't!
That's about all we have space for this week. But, believe us, there are many more tricks out there, so we'll be back next week with a second installment.
In the meanwhile, if you're about to vacation, we wish you an enjoyable and travel-scam-free break!
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!