School is out, the hotter temperatures are here, and your summer vacation planning has likely started. As you search out the ideal trip, be on the watch for scams that can turn your relaxing vacation into a time of stress. Be especially aware of anyone using a sense of urgency to get you to book your plans before you've fully checked things out.
Here are five vacation schemes that have been reported to BBBs in recent years:
1. Vacation Rental Scheme. Vacation rentals are a great option to travel and have the comforts of home. But you'll want to watch out for listings for properties that either aren't for rent, don't exist, or are significantly different than pictured. In this scheme, vacationers are lured in with the promise of low fees and great amenities. The "owner" creates a false sense of urgency – such as telling potential clients that another vacationer is interested in the rental – to get payment up before doing sufficient research or questioning the legitimacy of the ad.
Keep these tips in mind:
> Talk with the owner by phone. If you are not using a service that verifies properties and owners, do not negotiate a rental solely by email. Many scammers don't live locally. Speaking with the owner on the phone, asking detailed questions about the property, and local attractions will clarify if the listing is true. An owner with vague answers is a clear red flag.
> Check public records. Investigate online by looking up the address and use Google Street View to confirm the property matches the one advertised. Also, verify distances to beaches, attractions and airports while on the site.
2. "Free" Vacation Scams. When a cruise or travel company advertises a vacation as "free," it does not necessarily mean the trip is entirely without cost or restrictions. Watch out for add-on fees for air transportation to the port, port charges, taxes, tips and other undisclosed fees. Learn more about these cruise scams, and for the following red flags:
> Claims that you've won a trip without actually entering a contest,
> Pricing, accommodations, and several amenities that seem extremely low,
> Pressure to accept the offer now or it's gone forever. Instead, walk away, hang up the phone, or delete the email or text message.
3. Hotel Scams. When staying in a hotel, beware of these techniques used to get hold of credit card information. Scammers count on travelers — tourists and business people alike — being tired or in a hurry. Pay close attention and watch out for these tricks:
> Fake Front Desk Calls: Scammers call late at night impersonating the front desk person. The caller claims there's a problem with the card on file and asks the traveler to "re-verify" the credit card information.
> "Free" Wi-Fi Connections: Wi-Fi "skimming" is a growing scam that targets travelers with the promise of free Internet access. Scammers set up a fake connection that appears to be free, but it's not safe. They will control the connection through their computer and collect all the data the traveler transmits including passwords, card information, and more. Avoid doing any banking transactions or checking personal accounts when using an open Wi-Fi network. Use a secure, private network if it is absolutely necessary to access personal or financial accounts.
> Fake Food Delivery: Scammers will distribute fake menus to hotel rooms. When a traveler calls the phone number and orders delivery, they collect the credit card information and never deliver the food.
4. Third Party Booking Site Scams. If you book your airfare, hotel or other travel through a third-party website, be sure to use caution. BBB Scam Tracker continues to receive reports of scammers pretending to be online airline ticket brokers. In the most common version of the scam, travelers pay with a credit card and shortly after making the payment, receive a call from the company asking to verify name, address, banking information or other personal details – something a legitimate company would never do. Learn more about these booking scams.
5. Timeshare Reselling Cons. Another common travel scam is the timeshare resale con. A timeshare owner who is looking to sell gets a call from someone claiming to be a real estate broker or agent. These scammers claim to specialize in timeshare resales and promise they have buyers ready to purchase. To secure this service, the scammer pressures their target into paying an upfront fee. The timeshare owner pays up, but the reselling agent never delivers.
BBB offers the following tips to help avoid these vacation related schemes:
> Look for reviews and ask for references. While vetting hotels, travel companies, vacation rentals and more, check BBB.org for reviews and complaints or call your BBB at 423-266-6144. Look for photos and a variety of reviews. If the property or company doesn't have any online reviews, ask for references and call them.
> Avoid wiring money or using a prepaid debit card. These payments are the same as sending cash. Once the money is sent, there is no way to get it back. Paying with a credit card dramatically limits liability from a fraudulent purchase and offers an opportunity to dispute false charges before you pay your bill.
> A "great deal" probably isn't the truth. Scammers lure in targets by guaranteeing an amazing trip at a very low price. Research it first. Call the involved hotel to check pricing and to confirm if the business is a reseller for them. If the hotel, travel or tour is much cheaper than similar options, be suspicious.
> Do some snooping. Check the website for links to the company's Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram accounts. Often scam artists will link to Facebook.com instead of a specific Facebook page for their business. If they do have social media accounts, check their activity and see if any other users have left reviews or voiced complaints. Also, look for typos and pixelated images. These mistakes are signs of a scammer, not a company that cares about their online presence.
Michele Mason is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.