The Internet has brought wonderful accessibility to the process of booking a hotel. From your smartphone or desktop, you can make all the room arrangements for your trip online. And increasingly, sites like Priceline and Expedia allow you to compare hotels and rates, and book online. In most cases, they’re convenient and can save you some money.
But a disturbing trend has emerged in the past couple of years; customers are increasingly targeted by scammers, who cleverly disguise their websites to fool customers into thinking they are visiting official hotel websites. It works like this: you’re looking for accommodations, and Google your favorite hotel chain. Lots of results pop up, and it looks like one of them is the hotel’s direct booking site. So you go online, select a room and make your reservation. The only problem: it’s not really the hotel’s website.
Various agencies have been sounding the alarm on this scam in recent months. And this week, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) released a study indicating that fear of being scammed is causing potential hotel guests to think twice about visiting hotel websites.
The AH&LA reports that up to 15 million bookings (amounting to more than $1.3 billion) have been conducted through so-called “rogue” websites. About six percent of consumers have reported these experiences, but what is really worrying the hospitality industry is that about one in three people are thinking about it.
“These findings clearly show that online hotel booking scams have eroded consumer confidence among third-party vendors,” said Katherine Lugar, president and CEO of AH&LA. “Consumers deserve transparency in knowing who they are booking with. That is why we have been actively working with state and national government agencies, including the FTC, as well as consumer advocacy groups, to ensure that consumers are protected and can feel comfortable in the booking process. It’s always safest to book directly with the hotel.”
Booking through a rogue website can mean that you not only will not have a room when you arrive at the hotel, but you’ll likely be on the hook for late booking fees and lost room charges and face the potential of identity theft.
The AB&LA release also took the opportunity in their release to encourage customers to book directly with the hotels, and avoid third-party sites. While they did not name any specific sites, they noted that the consumers in their survey reported various problems with these services such as unmet expectations, hidden fees, problems with reward points, and even identity theft.
The hotel industry has historically had an oddly symbiotic relationship with third-party booking sites such as Priceline and Expedia. These services rely on being able to work with hotel companies, which in turn need them to fill rooms. But lately, the hotel industry has tried to slow down the growth of third-party vendors. A New York Times article in September, for example, focused on the industry’s opposition to a potential merger between Expedia and Orbitz, which would create a behemoth in the booking industry. Expedia has been gobbling up competitors like Travelocity at a rapid pace. The AH&LA noted in a letter to the Justice Department that consumers should be alarmed; a merged Expedia-Orbitz — along with competitor Priceline — would allegedly control more than 90 percent of the online booking market.
It’s hard, however, to argue with the logic of contacting the hotel directly to make your reservations. It can be frustrating to book by phone; some hotel chains redirect phone calls to a centralized reservation system, so finding that local property can be difficult. Most hotels do offer online reservations, but you have to be careful. If you’re not sure of whether the hotel website is legitimate, the BBB has some great tips at http://go.bbb.org/1cZxxVt.
“As we heard from consumers, booking hotel accommodations directly is always your best option—eliminating headaches and hassles during any step of the process,” added Lugar. “When dealing directly with the hotel, consumers can rest easy knowing they have direct access to those who can accommodate their needs.”