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December 15th, 2011

Holiday Travel Scams Make a Blue Christmas

An estimated $465 billion will be spent this holiday season. A big chunk of a family’s expenses come from holiday travel. The American Automobile Association (AAA) projects that U.S. travel during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday weekends will increase 1.4 percent from 2010 to the highest level in five years. Cybercrooks create new travel scams and recycle tried-and-true ones to help relieve you of some holiday cash. Here’s a run-down on some popular travel scams, and what you can do to avoid them, while you prepare to visit Grandma or go skiing this Christmas.

Gasoline Rebate Card

Eighty-three million travelers will take to the open road rather than fly the friendly skies this holiday season, and they’re all looking for the cheapest gas station. The average nationwide price of regular gasoline has increased 6.2 percent to $3.264 a gallon this week, according to AAA data.  Attractive offers for free gasoline vouchers and rebates are sent to mailboxes, email accounts and offered by telemarketers. The idea is that you activate your account on the phone or through online registration, sometimes pay a registration fee (red flag!), buy a certain amount of gas from a certain brand, then send in the receipts within a certain time, and supposedly get rewarded for following directions well with a gift card for free gasoline. Only it doesn’t work that way. Consumers never receive the gift cards and have willingly given away personal information.

What to do:

  • Go directly to a company’s Facebook page or website to verify the offers are legitimate.
  • Look out for activation processes that ask for personal information and credit card numbers.
  • Don’t give out any personal information to people on the phone.
  • Get a loyalty card from your preferred brand. The Marathon Platinum MasterCard, for example, offers a 5% rebate on fuel purchased at Marathon stations.

Imaginary Vacation Rentals

Renting private homes or condos for holiday getaways has become an increasingly popular alternative to hotels. Many people make arrangements themselves instead of going through a rental agent – and scammers take advantage of this. Cybercrooks set up a vacation rental site for homes (complete with snazzy property descriptions and photos), and they rent it out, sometimes requiring money to be wired to them (red flag!). Trouble is – the house may not even exist or if it is a real house, it’s not actually for rent. Imagine the owner’s surprise and holiday maker’s disappointment when they arrive for an extended stay.

What to do:

  • Use trusted travel sites and rental agencies when booking.
  • Pay with a credit card.
  • Look up the property online using Google maps, for example. If it doesn’t exist online, odds are good that it doesn’t exist.
  • Blurry photos and super-low rental prices are red flags.

Fake Hotel Confirmation

The fake hotel confirmation email is similar to the UPS delivery scam we told you about already. You get an email stating that there is a problem with your reservation. It instructs you to download a form, fill it out with more personal information and send it back.

What to do:

  • Do not click on the link in the email.
  • Delete the email immediately.
  • Go directly to the hotel’s website or contact the hotel via telephone to confirm whether there is a problem with your reservation.

Fake Posts Offering Great Deals

Cybercrooks are using a classic ploy with a social networking twist to promise something for nothing. The chance to win free airline tickets on Southwest Airlines and JetBlue are the bait to entice people to give their personal information freely. These offers usually appear in the form of a Facebook friend’s status update exclaiming about free tickets and how friends can also win. When you click the link, you are directed to a bogus site which asks for personal information.

What to do:

  • Delete suspicious content on your wall.
  • Edit your privacy settings by checking the apps and websites that have access.
  • Go directly to a company’s Facebook page or website to verify the freebies are legitimate.
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