Beau Bergman had planned a romantic evening in Paris with his girlfriend, but the two were running late for their dinner reservation. As they waited in a taxi line, a man approached them and offered to give them a ride and let them skip the line for $20. Bergman agreed and handed over the money. Then, the man disappeared.
“Halfway through, I was like, ‘I’m an idiot, this is a scam,’” recalls Bergman, the co-founder of a travel budgeting app, TripCents. “The worst part is, we had to start over again in the taxi line.”
The couple ended up arriving at the restaurant an hour late, but their reservation was still honored. The incident, which took place about four years ago, turned into a learning experience for Bergman, who spent the rest of his trip on guard against potential scam artists.
Travel fraud rising
Travel scams can include everything from pickpockets on the street to websites posing as travel companies to steal credit card information.
Numbers on physical theft can vary greatly by destination and local police enforcement. But according to e-commerce fraud prevention firm Forter, travel and online agency fraud rates rose 37% between the first quarters of 2017 and 2018.
“There are so many different types of scams out there, whether it’s booking a car, hotel or airline,” says Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian. “There are chances throughout the process for people to lose money.”
Bruemmer attributes the growth in scams in part to the fact that people are overly trusting of online bookings, especially in pursuit of what they think is a great deal. If it sounds too good to be true, he says, then it probably is, and consumers should take a closer, more skeptical look.
The good news for travelers is that there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of falling victim to one of these scams.
Play it safe and plan
As Bergman discovered the hard way, you can’t always trust everyone you meet who offers you a deal. Indeed, Keith Nowak, spokesperson for Travelocity, warns against accepting rides from someone who approaches you.
“Even if the official taxi line is long, waiting in it is a far safer option,” he says.
You can also pre-book ground transportation through a site like Travelocity or use a ride-sharing app.
Safeguard cash and cards
Pickpockets are common in many urban areas and often target tourists. Bergman recommends keeping a wallet in a zipped jacket pocket or front pocket, but not the back pocket of pants, where someone could grab it. He also keeps his hand on his wallet when walking through crowded areas.
If your hotel offers a safe, you can use it to store your passport and any forms of payment you don’t need while you’re out for the day, such as an extra credit card and cash. And if you’re using an ATM to withdraw cash, walk away if it looks like it may have been tampered with; criminals sometimes install credit card skimming devices that can steal your information.
Using a travel wallet with RFID-blocking technology can help protect your digital credit card information. It’s also smart to avoid entering bank passwords, either on your laptop or phone, when connected to public Wi-Fi networks.
Side-eye ‘free’ offers
Scam artists often capture their victims’ personal information, including credit card numbers, by enticing them to click on a link for a giveaway, such as a free vacation or rental car.
“It is often followed by a high-pressure tactic,” says Bruemmer, such as a follow-up phone call asking you to share your credit card number or you will lose the offer.
He says many scams can be avoided by always booking through reputable sites with companies that you know and trust, and not with third-party sites that you’ve never heard of.
Travel search engines like Kayak vet the companies that show up on their search results pages so you know you’re booking with a legitimate vendor.
“To ensure accuracy, each month we reject or correct millions of fares before they reach our users,” the company said in an emailed statement to NerdWallet.
Review user reviews
After you’ve identified a place you want to stay, Nowak suggests checking out what other travelers have said about it online before booking.
“One great thing about the reviews on Travelocity is that they are from actual customers who have stayed at that hotel, making it a lot harder for anyone to post fake positive reviews,” he says. Travelocity requires that reviewers be logged in and allows them to leave a review only if their account history shows they have stayed at the hotel.
Rely on your credit card’s fraud protection
Of course, you could still fall victim to a scam no matter how vigilant you are. Credit cards come with fraud protection, which means that generally the most you could be liable for in a fraudulent transaction is $50.
Bruemmer cautions against using a debit card to book travel, as debit cards are connected to your bank account. He also recommends reviewing your credit card statement regularly so you can promptly report any suspicious activity to your card issuer and shut down your credit card if necessary.
Whether you’re traveling overseas or closer to home, keeping your guard up with these tips can help protect your money, so you can focus on enjoying your trip.