NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2005
Double Threat Online Travel Scam
by Ira Wilsker
APCUG Director and Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont TX
(click to email author)

Most of us like to travel, and would especially enjoy a travel bargain. We may have checked with reliable travel resources such as our local travel agents, airlines, cruise lines and hotels but were unable to find the deal that we wanted. We check the major travel sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, but still can not find a deal that makes us happy. Since we are experienced Internet users, we go to the major search engines such as Yahoo, Google or Alltheweb, and search for bargain travel sites. We notice some websites that appear at the top of the listings, sometimes in the premium paid listings on the search engines, that allege airline tickets, hotel rooms, and cruises at far below the prices charged by the reputable sources that we are familiar with, so we click on the links. One link may be for CheapClouds.com, claiming deep discounts off published airfares; another link may be for Busysky.net that offers comprehensive travel services with fares far below those offered by travel agents or other online travel websites. Two other websites offering unbelievable travel bargains that appear in the paid or premium listings on the search engines are Crazytickets.net and Submitprice.net.

Tasting a good deal, we click on one of these sites and see a travel site similar to the better-known and reputable sites with which we are already familiar.

We search for airfares and find tickets for about half of what we would pay elsewhere; we find hotels and cruises similarly priced. Unable to resist such bargains, we select our trips and we are asked to enter our credit card information. A familiar window appears that asks us for our credit card number, security code (the three or four digit code on the credit card), expiration date, and name on the card. With a sense of excitement, we eagerly await the confirmation, which we are told may take a few minutes, but are instead presented with an official looking window that says that our credit card information could not be processed. We are then presented with an option to pay with another credit card, or pay by an alternative means. Thinking that it is just a simple glitch, and not wanting to lose the opportunity for a glorious vacation at a bargain price, we enter the required information for another credit card. We are again greeted with the same screen that it could not be processed, and are then told to contact customer service by email, utilizing the link and transaction number provided on the screen.

A short time later, we will receive an email from the travel company apologizing for the inconvenience, and claiming that their bank is having trouble processing credit cards. Since the price quoted is only valid for a very short time, the traveler is asked to use alternative methods of payment – wire the proceeds via Western Union. Readers of this column may feel a hint of skepticism at this point, remembering that sometime ago I wrote that while a legitimate method of sending money, wiring money via Western Union to pay for Internet purchases should raise a red flag of suspicion. Still, eager not to let the bargain of a lifetime get away; we follow the instructions on the email from customer service. The address to wire the money to may raise more suspicions, as the destination is not in the United States, but instead in Bulgaria, Romania or Thailand. An inquiry email back to customer service may bring a prompt canned reply that the reason why the deal is so good is that these prices are only available for tickets purchased outside of the U.S., along with an assurance that they will be honored by the airlines, cruise lines, and the hotels. Still not wanting to lose out on this dream vacation, we send the money via Western Union, exactly as requested. We will then receive an email stating that it will take several days to receive our tickets, and are provided with a web link and tracking number to show our tickets are on the way.

After not receiving the tickets in the time specified we click on the tracking number, and are given another canned response that they are being processed, and should be delivered in the next few days; following up clicks several days later display the identical statement. An email reply from customer service reiterates the message. By the date of the dream vacation, no tickets have arrived, dashing any dreams of a good time.

We have become the victims of another very nasty scam circulating on the Internet. What is especially insidious about this scam is that it is a “double whammy,” in that we are not only out of the money for the trip, since the money sent via Western Union is virtually unrecoverable, but we have also given unscrupulous unknown parties our credit card information!

This is not some fictitious scenario by a mystery writer but a documented scam. The scam has become so pervasive that even some of the antivirus companies have posted warnings about it on their websites. There is anecdotal evidence that, in several of the cases, the victims’ credit cards had been illicitly charged for a variety of goods and services in the days immediately following the fraudulent transaction, possibly committed by the same travel thieves.

The websites mentioned above were real, and are well documented, but are currently offline (as I type this). Based on their success at defrauding countless victims, it is likely that they will reappear under different names.

In order to be safe when shopping for travel bargains, be sure to use a reputable resource, such as a local travel agent, airline or hotel website, or trusted third party website. If you pay with a credit card, there is some degree of protection from fraud from the credit card company. Never wire money, especially overseas, to pay for a travel bargain. We work too hard for our money to have miscreants steal it from us under the false pretenses of a travel bargain.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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