This summer’s airline chaos has given charlatans a golden opportunity to take advantage of frazzled travelers.
In the middle of a glorious family vacation to Greece earlier this month, I was tempted to extend our stay — our first big trip since Covid. So I googled the customer service number for the airline and clicked on the number at the top of the search results.
Attempting to make flight changes while admiring the sun setting over Mount Athos and keeping an eye on your small children swimming in the Aegean turns out to be ill-advised. The chaotic summer of 2022 is proving to be a great one for travel scammers, as I was about to discover.
A representative answered at once (which alone should have made me realize something was amiss). He took some personal information, along with my booking confirmation number, and said it would cost about $150 per ticket to change our flights. I knew I had booked a ticket that allowed for changes, but he insisted I had to pay a fare difference.
I decided it was worth it, and gave him my credit card information. Seconds after hanging up, I had a sinking feeling. My fears were confirmed when I received a typo-filled email from ‘Phill Brook’ at ‘[email protected]’ a few minutes later. I called my credit card company immediately — fortunately, they had already declined the charge.
Scams like these, where third parties pose as airlines or hotels and charge bogus fees, are nothing new. But this summer is particularly advantageous for bad actors.
First, there’s pent-up demand. That means lots of travelers to target, many of whom haven’t gone anywhere in a while and may be a little less savvy than they once were. In addition, airline delays and cancellations for US carriers are the highest they’ve been since 2014 (excluding 2020), according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. So it’s easy to prey on travelers who need to make flight changes. And airlines’ call centers are overwhelmed, with some wait times stretching to 10 hours or more (if consumers can get through at all).
Even if you catch on quickly, a scam can be a pain.
While I didn’t lose any money, “Phill Brook” still had vital information: my name and confirmation code, which is all you really need to make changes to a flight. He actually went ahead and booked us on the departure date I wanted — but was trying to charge me for something the airline later confirmed shouldn’t have cost a dime.
And after my card company declined the charge, I kept getting calls and emails from the scammer saying he was going to change my flight back to the original date. And he did, several times — when I would move our flight to the new date, he would change it back to the original.
Contacting the airline was a dead end. The line either just rang and rang, or an automated recording would say call volume was very high and to call back later. The one time I got through, an agent said he couldn’t give me a new confirmation code without canceling my booking and charging me for a new one; when I asked to speak to a supervisor, he told me they were all busy.
The day before we were scheduled to return home on the later flight, I received an email from another “representative” at [email protected] saying that they would be forced to cancel my return flight entirely if I didn’t approve the charge.
When we arrived at the airport, I went directly to the ticket counter to explain the situation. But the counter was closed. As a last-ditch effort, I checked us in online for our return trip and crossed my fingers nothing would change. Somehow, thankfully, it didn’t — the fraudsters had likely moved on to new targets.
How to avoid a travel scam
Here’s what I wished I’d known about how to avoid a travel scam, or mitigate the damage of falling for one.
It may seem like common sense, but always check the web address to make sure it actually belongs to the airline. Scammers may transpose two letters or add a phrase like “low cost” before the airline name in the web address. When I googled the airline’s customer service number as a test after getting back home to the US, legitimate phone numbers were at the top of my search results. That wasn’t the case in Greece, so beware that search results could differ abroad. Christopher Elliott, a travel advocate for consumers, says he uses a VPN, or virtual private network, when traveling to ensure a more secure connection to the internet.
Another option is to download the airline’s app, according to Zach Griff at The Points Guy. That allows travelers to access bona fide customer service numbers or chat with a representative directly within the app. (He also said checking into our flight could have stopped the madness; it may be harder, though not impossible, for a scammer to mess with a flight after the traveler has checked in.)
Flyers who have any status with the airline can usually use a priority phone number to get in touch. If that’s not an option, try the number listed for the airlines’ office in a smaller country for a potentially shorter wait time. You can also try the number for non-English speakers; most of the agents who staff those lines are bilingual and almost always speak English.
It’s also helpful to remember the terms of your booking. If like me, you’re the one requesting the change, you’re generally responsible for fare differences. Rebooking fees vary by airline, but most US carriers started waiving flight change fees during the pandemic (unless you purchased the most budget class of ticket). If the airline is responsible for making the flight change (say, because of mechanical issues or weather), then travelers typically won’t have to pay anything for rebooking.
Finally, if you do fall victim to a flight scam, report it to the Federal Trade Commission, says William McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project. The agency won’t resolve individual claims, but it does aggregate complaints and share them with other law enforcement agencies to spot trends and go after scammers. After I returned from my three extra days in Greece, that’s exactly what I did.
Alexis Leondis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering personal finance. Previously, she oversaw tax coverage for Bloomberg News.