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A drawing of a tabletop with a cup of coffee, a passport, and a hand creeping out of a tablet to steal a checkbook. Naomi Elliott for Vox

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The weirdly common, very expensive travel scam you should avoid

Do not click on that travel website (probably).

Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Kathy could have sworn she called Qatar Airways to change her flight last spring. Looking through her call records now, she clearly didn’t. Instead, she wound up talking to a third-party booker called Infinity Travels. She has paid Infinity thousands of dollars she may never get back, even after spending countless hours trying.

Her labyrinth of a saga is hard to keep straight. In November 2022, she realized she would need to fly back home to Canada early from a trip to visit her husband in the Middle East scheduled for the following March. She called to make the switch. Kathy, who asked to withhold her last name to protect her privacy, spent six hours on the phone in the endeavor.

Initially, she says she was told she’d need to spend 1,650 Canadian dollars on a new flight and would get a CA$2,700 credit from the airline — she wanted a refund, not a credit, and was transferred to a supposed supervisor. The next agent told her she needed to pay CA$6,990 for the new flight and that she’d receive a refund of CA$8,080 after she had taken her departing flights. She took the deal, which was confirmed in an email from Infinity. “It was dumb of me,” she says. “But by this time it was 1 am and I was so tired.”

That refund never came through, and Kathy has been locked in a battle with Infinity for months, which is taking place over WhatsApp and the phone. Infinity claimed the initial agent who offered her the refund was fired for making unauthorized deals. A subsequent agent she spoke to — while on her vacation — told her they would refund CA$4,250, nearly half the original amount promised. That was supposed to come through if she agreed not to dispute the CA$6,990 charge, which she did. That agent seems to have disappeared, too, after allegedly being promoted to a new job.

Kathy isn’t sure how she found that wrong number to make her flight change, but it seems likely she did an internet search and called the number that came up without checking its provenance. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” she says. “For me, the money sucks to lose, but it’s more like how are they getting away with doing this? Because I’m sure there are other people.”

There are. A look at TrustPilot and the Better Business Bureau shows others have had similarly confusing experiences with Infinity.

People all over the world get sucked into a variety of travel-related schemes and scams all the time. In this day and age of vacation, sketchy websites and companies and third-party bookers abound.

Third-party booking websites and companies — meaning entities consumers can use to handle reservations without dealing directly with, for example, an airline — are everywhere. Not all of them are bad. Plenty of people use them without issue all the time, including popular ones such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Booking.com. But some of them employ shady and even fraudulent tactics.

These operations seek to get consumers’ money by saying they’ll take care of their travel plans, booking their plane tickets, hotels, and rental cars, or even helping them get their passports faster. They then go on to charge exorbitant fees for executing the transaction or making minor changes and often give consumers the runaround. Sometimes, they never reserve anything at all. Victims of these scams show up at the airport for a flight that doesn’t exist, or appear at a hotel to sleep in a room that was never booked, and their money’s just gone.

Feelings can run high when people travel, whether they’re going to an event or spending time with family and friends or just getting a much-needed and much-anticipated break. “That’s one thing scammers prey on,” said Melanie McGovern, director of public relations and social media for the International Association of Better Business Bureaus, “the emotion of it all.”

Kathy’s emotions got the better of her the night she made that payment to Infinity — endless hours on the phone will do that to you. Since then, she has gotten about CA$325 back from Qatar Airways. After months of wrangling (and after I reached out for comment for this story), Infinity returned CA$1,816 to her. She’s got all of the documentation from the ordeal: emails, text messages, recorded phone calls. It’s just not clear whether any of that matters.

Kathy still has that number she first called saved in her phone as “Qatar Airways Help,” even though that’s not what it is. When you call the number now, the person on the other end of the line simply says, “Reservations.” It’s easy to see how people get tricked.

Qatar Airways said in a statement that Infinity is a travel agent that is entitled to sell its tickets, like many others, but that as an airline, “we do not forward phone calls to travel agents, and we do not accept agents making promises on our behalf.” Infinity said in an email it was “disappointed to hear about the poor experience by this individual” and did not respond to a follow-up email.

One of the primary ways fraudulent third-party companies suck people in is with the promise of a deal. They offer a price that seems too good to be true — because it is — and people’s internet-driven deal-hunting instincts take over.

“The biggest thing we see are the people who are using a third-party website trying to get something a little bit cheaper,” McGovern said. “We know travel can be really, really expensive, and ... people are trying to find an alternative.”

That’s what happened to Sarah, who asked for her last name to be withheld to protect her privacy, when she was trying to snag a flight to Iceland to see the northern lights in late 2022. Most of the flights she found were above her $800 budget, but she found one option for $755 from a website called Travelcation. After booking the trip, she received an email from the company saying the fare she had agreed to was no longer available and had increased to $995.

Sarah noted the email had weird language and grammatical errors, as did the company’s website, upon further inspection. She then googled “Travelcation scams.” “I started reading these horror stories,” she says. She responded to the email saying she didn’t agree to the new price and alerted her bank that any attempted charge would be unauthorized. “My card never ended up getting charged, so I managed to avoid the worst of it,” she says. She took a budget-friendlier trip to Puerto Rico instead.

A spokesperson for Travelcation said in an email that in the travel industry it’s “not uncommon” for prices to fluctuate because of issues such as airline ticket availability, dynamic pricing, taxes, fees, and other charges added during the booking process.

What is uncommon, or at least should be, is for prices to fluctuate after booking.

Reporting for this story, I spoke with multiple experts and individuals about their experiences with scammy websites and travel agencies and combed through complaints to the Better Business Bureau. Many of the strategies these entities employ are quite simple — and effective.

Some websites will figure out how to game search engines like Google. Travelers might think they’re calling Delta or Hilton or Hertz but are actually on the phone with someone else because they just called whatever number came up in search results or on some website without verifying it’s right. The numbers can be completely different from the actual phone number, or they might be one or two off — and 888 instead of 800.

In the same vein, consumers wind up on these websites because they appear in their searches, sometimes because those websites have paid to rank higher. People then book there, not realizing the website is untrustworthy. The site in question then follows up with a call or email saying that the price of the booking has increased to try to squeeze more out of consumers there, or they charge super-high fees for small changes. (Assuming they make the booking at all, which doesn’t always happen.)

Jim still isn’t entirely sure how he wound up in his predicament. He called Delta’s phone number on a voice over internet service (VoIP) to book a flight to San Francisco; in his first interaction, everything seemed fine. He got a confirmation email from a company called Boketo, not Delta, but he didn’t immediately notice. A while later, he realized his middle initial was incorrect on the reservation, so he called to change it. After agreeing to pay $200 and receiving a follow-up email, this time from an outfit called Travel Makers, it dawned on him he had been duped. “That’s when I recognized that I’m an idiot,” he says.

Jim reported the charges as fraud to his credit card company, which he thought would be the end of it. But in the lead-up to his trip, he says the agent he first dealt with began calling him and harassing him, saying she would not issue his tickets unless he restored the $200 payment. In the end, the flights went just fine, although Jim was worried until he successfully boarded his plane. He asked for his last name to be withheld out of fear of more harassment from the agent.

Jim’s phone records show he did indeed call Delta’s real number, which is quite disturbing. A spokesperson for Delta recommended consumers take extra precautions when using VoIP internet calling to make sure their service is secure. “Whenever we become aware of an alleged scam targeting our customers, including in this situation, we immediately conduct an investigation. Using the facts gained from an investigation, when able, we can then address each unique situation as appropriate with the necessary legal means at our disposal,” the spokesperson said.

Boketo did not respond to a request for comment for this story. When I reached out to Travel Makers for comment, someone purporting to be from the company said that it has nothing to do with Boketo and that the situation “seems like a case of misplaced anger.” They defended the extra $200 charge. Their email address was listed as Fly Cheapest Online.

There is no surefire way to scam-proof your life or even your next vacation, but there are measures you can take to try to protect yourself.

The first step is really to slow down, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what you’re doing, said Amy Nofziger, the director of fraud victim support with AARP. It’s not always easy — people’s lives are busy, and we’re often distracted or in a hurry or stressed. But those situations are where we’re likeliest to make mistakes.

Nofziger also said to be wary of offers that are really out of step with the rest of the market. “If you find the best deal on a flight or on a car, I would be really suspect of why it’s the best deal. Go into this with the mindset that I think this is a scam until I’m proven otherwise,” she says. “Even if you think you’re going to get the deal of the century, they’re going to get the deal of the century, not you.”

If the website’s charging you $500 less than everywhere else, question why that might be. Yes, it feels good to beat the system, but there might not be a system to beat. This goes not only for hotels and flights but also, for example, for expedited passport processing, which Nofziger says AARP gets complaints about weekly. Consumers pay some website extra to get their passports faster, only to hand over sensitive personal information in exchange for no quicker service. “There really is no ‘beat the system’ with the State Department,” she says. “I suggest everyone pull their passport out today, look at when it expires, and start the process.”

If you see a website offering what appears to be a good deal, open up another browser and type the name of that site in along with words like “scam,” “fraud,” and “reviews.” You might save yourself a real headache, depending on what you find. “Do your research,” McGovern says.

Experts say it generally is better to book directly with the hotel or airline or whatever you’re trying to accomplish, or at least to start there. And triple-check the number you’re calling. Really. “Travel agents can be reputable ... but you need to be clear that who you’re talking to is who you intended to talk to,” says Summer Hull, director of content at The Points Guy. “If you intended to talk to American Airlines and you’re now talking to a travel agency, that’s a red flag.”

You should also be suspicious if you get a follow-up phone call asking for more information. “Never provide personal information to an inbound call, even to an airline,” Hull says. “They should not be calling you to ask for your confirmation number or your credit card number or your flight plan,” she said. If you’re not sure it’s legitimate, say you’ll call them back.

There can be some recourse in the event you are scammed. You can try to dispute charges as fraud with your credit card company, which is why it’s always best to pay with a credit card (and not with Venmo, crypto, or a prepaid card). You can also report your experiences on websites such as the Better Business Bureau, TrustPilot, and other places, and, if necessary, contact law enforcement. Still, options are limited.

“Most people don’t think they’re ever going to be scammed, but unfortunately, I’ve had this job for 21 years, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon,” Nofziger says.

As for Kathy, she remains stuck in what feels like a doom loop, most of her refund still pending.

We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.

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Have ideas for a future column or thoughts on this one? Email emily.stewart@vox.com.

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