3 secrets for dealing with the scammiest industry on Earth

Nomad Soul/Shutterstock
Nomad Soul/Shutterstock
When it comes to email, which industry do you trust the most?

If you guessed social media, congratulations. It topped the latest Agari Email TrustIndex, which measures the adoption of essential email authentication standards across several industries. It revealed the pains to which social networking companies like Facebook and Twitter go to prevent fraud. Given that these online communities are built on trust, no one was really surprised.

But how about the lowest score? That didn’t come as a shock to me either, since I spend a good part of my consumer advocacy practice swimming in its waters. But it might surprise you.

It’s travel.

While social media companies earned a respectable score of 73 out of 100, travel only managed to score a 17. (That’s up 15 percent from the previous quarter, but still — 17 percent? You’d get that for filling out your name correctly on a test.)

Why? Travel is an easy target and we are willing victims. Phishing scams proliferate, and despite the industry’s efforts, it will probably continue to be hit hard, according to the survey. “Cyber-terrorists will return to target the travel sector and when they sharpen their phishing attacks against travel leaders, many may be left stranded on the tarmac,” Agari concludes in its report.

Wouldn’t it be useful to know how to handle the travel industry’s fraudulent emails? You bet.

No, they’re not giving away free tickets to the first thousand “likes.” Some of the most frequently-repeated email scams, like the fake Instagram account that promises you a “free” ticket for liking it, work so well that they continue to be recycled. It’s impossible to know where the next scam will come from or what it will look like. But it’s a safe bet that it will offer something that’s too good to be true, like a ticket in exchange for a “like” or “follow.” Don’t fall for it. Like only the things you really like — and know.

It’s all fun and games until someone asks you to wire money. The most accomplished scammers in travel aren’t going for your personal information, which is exactly what they’re hunting for with a “like” scam. No, they want your cash wired to them directly, if possible. Some of the phishing scams I’ve seen are incredibly sophisticated, and many of my friends who should really know better have fallen for them. The best way to prevent it? Never follow an email link to a page that demands your login credentials and never, ever wire money to anyone.

Don’t lose your mind when it comes to frequent flier miles. Scammers know that when it comes to email, the fastest way to get you to release personal information is to dangle the promise of “free” miles in front of you. It works for two reasons: Award points are often given for “free,” but it’s also like catnip for frequent travelers. It makes them irrational. Repeat after me: miles are earned, and they’re meant to be burned quickly, not stockpiled. A criminal may try to short-circuit your common sense with a generous, but fraudulent, mileage offer. Just say “no.”

Bottom line: email scams in travel work not just because travel companies can’t get their act together. They work because we let them work. So a little dose of skepticism about the latest come-on from an airline, cruise line or hotel may take you a long way.

As the folks at Agari note, email security is everyone’s problem. It’s not a question of if you will be a victim of a phishing or email fraud attack one day, but when.

Which of these is the biggest travel scam?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I say that wiring money is easily the biggest scam. Wiring money to an unknown person routinely rises to the level of criminal activity, i.e. criminal fraud. That may not be true everywhere, but certainly in the United States.

  • backprop

    I love how you threw frequent flier programs in there :)

    Of those three, I also chose wiring money.

    Other possible contenders could be things like “Free” travel that turns out to be timeshare presentations.

    Years ago, I was waiting for my food at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. They had a sweepstakes entry box on the counter. 1st prize: $1000, 2nd prize: a dream vacation, 3rd prize: a diamond necklace. Then on the back were the odds of winning – 1st prize: 1 in 1,000,000, 3rd prize: 2 in 1,000,000, 2nd prize: 999,997 in 1,000,000.

    Then in even smaller print: “Dream vacation does not include transportation, lodging, or meals.” Never was sure what it DID include but I bet there was a sales pitch involved!

  • BillCCC

    I almost took this column seriously until you threw in Frequent Flier programs.

  • EdB

    Those “sweepstakes” are nothing more than a method to get a list of names to put on a spam list.


    I almost took this seriously as well until it changed from dealing with fraudulent emails from scammers to criticism about emails from travel providers–cruise lines, airlines and hotels. A come-on email from a legitimate travel provider is an advertisement, often with many lines of small print the recipient has to decipher. Most of the ones I get I skim and discard. I seldom purchase anything based on an ad.

    Scammers are something else entirely. They are not legitimate travel companies. That may be hard for some people to figure out—they get a lot of people to respond and that is why they proliferate.

    But your statement, “Bottom line: email scams in travel work not just because travel companies can’t get their act together. They work because we let them work. So a little dose of skepticism about the latest come-on from an airline, cruise line or hotel may take you a long way”, heavily implies that major travel companies are behind, or at least support, the scammers.
    I was surprised at that line. I am a skeptical frequent traveler. I ditched flying strictly with one airline in pursuit of status when I realized loyalty with them is a one-way street. I do not belong to any hotel or car loyalty program. I have had problems with travel, but have generally sorted it successfully on my own. But I also recognize that as strangely as most travel providers are run, most of them are not running a scam. All ads should be approached as buyer be ware, but to lump these in with the scammers is a bit much.

  • $16635417

    Interesting how social media rates so high, yet that seems to have become the preferred method of communication by the scammers.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Can I vote in my own poll? ;-)

  • Joe_D_Messina

    The depressing part is that the first two require the IQ of a turnip to be duped, yet people still fall for them. It’s akin to how railroad crossings can have lights, bells and gates, but some moron will ignore them all and get hit by a train.

  • Goldie

    “some moron will ignore them all and get hit by a train.”

    And then sue the city or train company for not making the crossing impossible to cross even if you ignored the other warnings.

  • emanon256

    Funny that this is today’s topic. Last night Mrs. Emanon got a letter from “US Airlines” stating that she won 2 free Round Trip tickets anywhere in the US, and that they have been trying to reach her unsuccessfully, and this letter is their final attempt before they draw a new winner. It said she had to contact them by today. Last I heard, the airline was called “US Airways”, not “US Airlines”. It was mailed from Arizona, hand addressed with no return address, and hand signed. Someone went to great lengths to send this.

    @elliottc:disqus let me know if you want a copy, but I have a slight recollection that you reported on this very scam before.

  • emanon256

    I also voted fro wiring money. It’s sad how many people do it too.

    While I believe there is a lot of fraud with free tickets, there is another side to it. My wife has called many resorts back in the day when we couldn’t afford much, and then simply asked if they gave anything in turn for a time share presentation. Many of them offered us free vacations. We had 5 total weekend trips, all courtesy of going to a time share presentation. I told her we were scamming them. I still feel slightly guilty about it.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    It’s difficult to comprehend how many people still think there’s a free lunch out there … kind of like voting for a politician with a criminal record because you saw him on TV and he seems sincere.

  • Healthcare Labor

    I know it’s not the main thrust of your article, but the point about not stockpiling miles bears repeating. Do not try to save up a “mileage 401(k)” for retirement! You will see those miles get devalued by airlines year after year, as they raise award prices. And – unlike your cash – the only return you can get from miles is by spending them.

  • TonyA_says

    I just love your second to the last sentence. You know how to play the game well. Maybe others can learn to. We can all have a party and celebrate how we beat them in their own game. That includes the airlines, too.

  • MarkKelling

    Oh, there are plenty of free lunches out there. They just usually consist of things you really don’t want to eat. :-)

  • MarkKelling

    Many years ago I was saving my miles for my dream vacation to Australia. I was within a couple thousand miles and then — the airline I had the miles with cancelled their code shares with Qantas. So I ended up taking three friends with me to Hawaii on the same airline but all for free using those miles I had saved. Now I spend miles as fast as I can, but I fly so much I can’t keep up and my total keeps climbing.

  • MarkKelling

    There’s a sucker born every minute. And a smart person who devises new ways to scam those suckers as well.

    The travel industry is really not that bad. There are many companies and individuals that still sell valuable travel services at good prices and truly want their customers to enjoy their experiences. Your friends and family who travel probably have numerous stories to tell about how well they were treated or how much they enjoyed a trip because one of their travel providers did something for them that was unexpected in a good way. But you have to prod them to get them to talk about these.

    Unfortunately, travel also seems to attract the multitude of scam artists because they know there are enough of us travelers out there that are actively looking for the travel deal that is too good to be true and are willing to throw money away on the chance that the unbelievable offer is real. And these are the stories you read about every day because everyone tells everyone when something bad happens. So it’s no wonder that people rate the entire travel industry so low.

  • AJPeabody

    US Airlines is an oldie but goodie. I frequent a travel board where you aren’t anybody until you have gotten your US Airlines offer. Welcome to the club!

  • Chris Johnson

    There’s also the that sister company, “American Airways”. I’ve gotten offers from them before. Can I be in your club? :)

  • Carchar

    And here I thought the scammiest business on earth was the rental car industry…

  • devansroc

    In my work as a sales manager for a company with a well-trafficed Webstore, I see up to a dozen scam emails each day. They come in with many different pitches and angles, and a few of them are more believable than the norm, but they all have some of these characteristics in common:
    1. They are often loaded with misspellings and odd use of words. In a few cases there are few or no misspellings, but the phrasing does not sound like it was written by the purported sender.
    2. The email domain is abnormal. One example: you get a message allegedly from a well-known organization, and the sender is using a Yahoo or Gmail address. Another example: you get an email from a university and the email domain is xxuniv.edu.us instead of xxuniv.edu.
    3. The more believable emails these days will sometimes use the name and street address of a real person (maybe even the CEO) in a real organization. The email domain will look appropriate — zcxinc.net, for example. However, the correct email domain is actually zcxinc.com. Since some companies use more than one email domain, I sometimes call the organization to investigate. When I’ve confirmed that the odd email domain is wrong, it gives me the opportunity to let them know that a scammer is using their information for no good. They can then warn their customers and contacts.
    4. A few clever scammers still use snail mail. Masquerading as would-be benefactors or customers they will send a cashier’s check with an order (generally with an overseas ship-to address) or a request. They are hoping you will ship the goods or fulfill the request before you discover the check is worthless.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Worse. They will send an overpayment and demand that you wire the excess back to them. The check is worthless. That was a scam that hit several attorneys about 3-4 years ago.

  • Judy Lovejoy

    Sounds like “dream” was the operative word in the scam.

  • BMG4ME

    Frequent flier programs are not scams.