Avoiding Online Travel Scams

Use care when answering travel ads online. Photo by J Durham, morgueFile.

We were almost duped this week. Having left our holiday travel plans to the last minute (that’s six months or less in advance for travel within Australia during school holidays), John and I were desperate to find accommodation in Sydney for the period between Christmas and the New Year. We have a yearlong trip ahead of us so saving money is vital. And there they were: two different apartments, at the too-good-to-be-true price of $100 a night, advertised on Craigslist. This still would have been a splurge, but we figured we wouldn’t do any better for a room with a private bathroom at that time of year. So John enquired with both, thinking we could spend half our time in the city and half near the northern beaches.

We’ve been swamped with work and wedding plans, so we didn’t think twice about the trustworthiness of the advertisers. In the past we’ve had six positive experiences renting apartments in Amsterdam, New York, Maui, Paris and San Francisco, from people we found through Craigslist and similar websites. In two of those cases we were able to meet the owners beforehand and view the properties because we were staying over a month. The other three were short-term holiday rentals and we were not asked for money in advance. In fact, we could have inconvenienced the owners by not showing up. One woman never even saw us: she told us to leave the cash in a drawer and where to stash the keys on our way to the airport. There’s a person far more trusting than I am! On another occasion, I swapped my San Francisco flat with a fellow student from New York over the holiday period and it worked out wonderfully: we never even met each other.

New Years Eve in Sydney for $100 a night? Highly unlikely. Photo by sioda, morgueFile.

So I have faith in private ads for rental accommodation. Most people aren’t crooks and you can get a great deal while staying in someone’s home. But when John received a response from one of the Sydney apartment advertisers written in terrible English, he forwarded it to me asking what I thought. The other person had responded with a much more legitimate looking email, however, I decided to check them both out on the basis of the one’s bad grammar. Lo and behold, the less suspicious of the two had similar ads posted in every major city on Craigslist, one of which had a notice that it had been removed. John went ahead and asked the other person for their “booking form,” which requested hundreds of dollars in deposits and partial payment to be wired to a US bank account. The scary thing is, if we had not enquired about both of them, we might not have caught on to the advertiser who seemed genuine. I think that once we sat down and looked over the booking forms, we wouldn’t have gone through with them because of the way they asked for money in advance, but I wonder if anyone has given money to these fraudsters?

John has been quiet on this blog so far, but one of his favourite mantras is “awareness.” We’re smart people and have never been victims of any other scams. But fatigue and the desire to save money can sometimes impair the judgement of even the savviest of travellers. It was a sobering reminder of the many ways saving money can end up costing you.

ps. We've decided to head to Auckland and surrounds for the holidays instead. And we booked our hotel and hostels through reputable websites.

Have you had a near miss or been the victim of an online travel scam? How do you protect yourself when booking travel or making private arrangements?

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Diverdaisy

Thanks for using my photo 🙂

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