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Booking a vacation? Beware third-party hotel booking sites

Posted at 7:38 PM, Mar 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-16 10:27:45-04

More travelers are being deceived every year by third-party travel sites disguised as dream destinations.

Hotel booking fraud is a growing problem — 1-in-4 American travelers say they've been duped.

Molly Fay says one of these sites took advantage of her. She booked a dream vacation last year to wine country. In the interest of full disclosure, Fay works at Scripps station WTMJ in Milwaukee, the station that originally broke this story.

"I thought I was booking directly with the resort," Fay said.   

She searched the web for the name of a California Inn and clicked on the website to reserve a room,.

"(It) absolutely looked like the property's website with the picture, their name top line and didn't have mention at that time of the booking service," Fay said. 

She actually booked through a third-party website, something Fay realized when the confirmation email came through.

A few months before the trip, Fay had to cancel.  She was hoping to get some money back.

"I thought maybe the resort will make an exception or work with me. Maybe give me half of my money back," she said. 

The third-party website told Fay it was checking with the owner about her request.  

"They got back to me immediately and said 'the owners of this property said they will make no exception for you," she said. 

Fay said she later discovered the site never actually made contact with the inn. 

The number of travelers duped by third-party websites is growing, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.  In 2015 only 6 percent of vacationers reported being a victim. In 2017, it was 22 percent.    

Many result in bad bookings.  People are charged hidden fees, they don't get the accommodations promised, or reservations are lost.

It's one of the reasons some people are trending back to travel agents.  

"They do like to know they have that security," Holly Faith, with Fox World Travel Brookfield, told us.  

With so many choices, and the pitfalls of online booking, they're seeing more travelers book through the agency.

"They get very overwhelmed. So they do come back kind of full circle now, to our advice," Faith said. 

There has been some oversight by the federal government. The FTC recently filed a complaint against a company that sells hotel reservations through third-party websites. It found the defendants engaged in "deceptive acts and practices" creating the impression consumers are booking rooms directly through the advertised hotel.  

Fay was able to get some of her money back by bypassing the booking site and reaching out to the general manager at the California inn directly. Now, Fay says she's more careful when making a reservation.      

There is federal legislation in the works called the Stop Online Booking Scams Act. It would require all third-party websites disclose they are not affiliated with hotels. The bill would also give state Attorneys General the ability to go after violators in federal court. right now only federal authorities can pursue charges.

Some key things to look for so you don't fall into a scheme: Many of these third-party sites use the hotel name in the link. If the website doesn't have a locked symbol or an "https" in the web address don't do business there.

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