Fake booking websites and the tangled web they weave

This article is part one of a three-part series on fake booking websites.

On isolated occasions, misplacing a guest’s reservation can happen, but hotels take mistakes such as these very seriously. It’s a different matter entirely when a guest arrives at a hotel having booked a room at a rate that is not being offered by the hotel, with a third-party site that cannot be verified.

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Fake booking websites can cheat guests out of money and cause operational headaches for hotels, and are such a danger that the Federal Trade Commission is now targeting them. Online bookings comprise the vast majority of hotel bookings the world over, and travelers are susceptible to offering money and their personal information to entities not affiliated with hotels, stranding themselves when they eventually arrive at their destination.

Anywhere a monetary transaction can take place, so, too, can scams occur. “We realized when we first created and published our own site that there was potential for online fraud,” said Felipe Carreras, director, eCommerce for Best Western International. “Over the years since, we have taken a number of steps to ensure not only the security of guests when they are on our site, but also to position our site so as to avoid confusion with guests.”

Confusion can be difficult to combat in an environment that changes as quickly as the Internet. Creating a website has never been easier, and Carreras said that over the past 12 to 18 months the number of travel sites online has exploded. “There are so many tools available to make sites from templates that technical skills are no longer necessary,” Carreras said.

Increased development of travel websites, and by extension sites designed to capture traveler information, can be linked to holidays such as the summer season. The American Hotel & Lodging Association recently released a statement on Internet booking scams showing that an estimated 480 online hotel bookings take place per minute, creating an environment perfect for scam sites the thrive.

The main way these sites operate is by acting as a false “affiliate” of a hotel or brand, when instead they are an unknown vendor. These vendors will use false advertising and other strategies to confuse customers into booking with them rather than with the hotel or a legitimate online travel agent. In many cases, these sites use a targeted hotel’s full name, trademark, logo, official images, maps or wayfinding information. This is all data found on a hotel’s actual site, and is simple to replicate.

Maryam Cope, VP of government affairs for the AH&LA, said that because online bookings are going nowhere but up there has been a renewed interest in investigating fake sites such as these.

“We were tracking these sites more anecdotally in the past, but we are doing it in more earnest now,” Cope said. “In the absence of government action there is no rule of law in regard to these sites. In most forms of marketing their actions are considered unfair and deceptive, and the laws that are on the book need to be enforced.”

While hotels are losing bookings to these sites, the biggest blow is being dealt to consumer confidence. Carreras said the greatest challenge these sites present is reversing the negative guest experience and loss of trust in a brand’s site.

“When a guest makes a booking through one of these sites, which is masquerading as the brand site, and has a customer service issue – that negative experience and sentiment falls on the brand,” Carreras said. “Similarly, such an experience may cause a guest to seek out sites that don’t look anything like the brand site, such as online travel agency sites or travel aggregation sites.”

The number of guests falling prey to these sites is not insignificant. According to Cope, the AH&LA estimates that fake sites, posing as legitimate booking sources, garnered 2.5 million bookings (roughly $220 million) during 2014, and called that a “conservative estimate.”

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