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Can You Tell If a Flight Booking Website Is Legitimate?
Buying airline tickets online is only getting more costly and frustrating — and scammers are using this as an opportunity to trick customers with fake airline, booking, and travel agency websites.
According to a recent survey [*]:
Nearly one-third of Americans have fallen victim to an airline ticket scam — while 18% have had their identities stolen while booking flights online.
If you’re looking for a deal while purchasing a flight online, you want to be sure that you’re booking a real flight and not falling for a travel scam.
In this guide, we’ll explain how fake airline websites and ticket scams work, the common warning signs to look out for, and what to do if you accidentally purchased a fake airline ticket.
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How Fake Airline Website and Ticket Scams Work
Fake airline websites and online ticket scams occur when scammers create look-alike, spoofed, or fraudulent websites, and offer airline tickets at discounted rates.
In the best-case scenario, you could end up paying significantly more for a real ticket purchased from one of these sites (due to scammers adding fees or sudden price increases after you’ve paid). At worst, you could lose your money on a fake flight and become the victim of identity theft.
Here’s how a fake airline or online flight scam typically plays out:
- Scammers create fake or spoofed booking websites, and promote them online. Fraudsters build convincing, yet bogus, travel websites to offer special deals and steep discounts on flights — and then advertise them through search engine ads, phishing emails, or social media sites. Scammers may even spoof well-known airlines or travel sites like Booking.com and Expedia.
- To book a flight, you’re asked to provide sensitive personal information. Some scammers stick to asking for typical flight-booking data — including your name, address, passport details, and payment information. Others request even more, such as your Social Security Number (SSN) or photos of you with your passport. All of this information can be sold on the Dark Web or used to steal your identity.
- After booking, you receive a legitimate confirmation email and booking number. Sophisticated scammers make it look like you booked a real ticket by sending a confirmation email with your flight itinerary and other details.
- Eventually, you’re either asked for more money, or you discover that the flight isn’t real. Scammers may eventually claim your original flight was canceled and that you need to pay for a much more expensive ticket along with a “change fee.” Or, you could show up at the airport only to discover that your flight or ticket doesn’t exist.
Online ticket scams are especially dangerous because most people are accustomed to supplying their most sensitive personal information when booking a flight. This includes Social Security numbers (SSNs), passport details, and payment information such as credit or debit card numbers.
The bottom line: Falling for a fake airline scam can put you at risk of fraud or even identity theft. Consider protecting yourself with Identity Guard. Learn more about how Identity Guard can protect your identity and finances →
9 Warning Signs of an Airline Ticket Scam
- Phishing sites that spoof legitimate airline websites
- Premium tickets sold at steep discounts
- Email confirmations with no tickets attached
- Fake customer support numbers listed in Google searches
- Requests for payment in gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrencies
- Robocalls, emails, or texts offering “Free vacations”
- Emails claiming your flight has been canceled — unless you pay
- High-pressure tactics — such as telling you there’s only one flight left
- Phone calls after you book, with requests for more information or money
Scammers are always looking for new ways to target victims with fake airlines and online tickets. Luckily, there are some clear warning signs that indicate you’re dealing with a scam.
Be on the lookout for these red flags whenever you’re booking travel online:
1. Phishing sites that spoof legitimate airline websites
Scammers know that travelers are more likely to trust recognizable booking sites, so they try to trick victims by creating look-alike or “spoofed” versions of the official Delta or Southwest websites — or third-party websites like Expedia and Travelocity.
These sites look nearly identical to the sites they’re copying — down to the design, logos, language, and flight details. However, the one thing scammers can’t copy is an official website’s URL. Instead, fraudsters use spoofed domains, such as discount-kayak-flights.com/flights (when the real domain is kayak.com/flights).
Pro tip: Double-check website URLs before entering your personal information. Check the domain to make sure you’re on an airline or travel booking company’s official website, and not a fake page.
To see the domain, click on the lock symbol next to the URL and check the website’s security certificate (it should be issued to the website that you believe you’re visiting). If there’s no certificate, it could be a scam or phishing website.
2. Premium tickets sold at steep discounts
Scammers often prey on budget-conscious travelers by advertising flights at significant discounts via email, social media, and Google ads. Fraudsters hope that the allure of a cheap ticket will persuade you to enter sensitive information on an unfamiliar or questionable website.
Pro tip: Scrutinize any too-good-to-be-true flight deals. While it’s possible to find great travel deals online, consider it a red flag when legitimate-looking booking sites are offering flights at much greater discounts than competitor sites. For example, if you find a $50 flight from JFK to Heathrow, and the second cheapest flight is over $300, there’s a good chance that the $50 flight offer is a scam.
💡 Related: How To Avoid Social Media Identity Theft →
3. Email confirmations with no tickets attached
After you book, many scam airline sites send a confirmation email with flight details, such as your flight number and departure time. However, the actual plane tickets won’t be attached to the email.
In these cases, you’ve either been sold a fake ticket or what’s known as a “reservation hold.” This is an option that travel agencies have to “hold” a ticket for a low price before actually selling it. You receive legitimate information about a real trip, but no flight ticket.
Pro tip: Don’t trust online reservation checkers — call the airline directly. A reservation hold will show up on an airline’s website when you check your flight status, making it seem legitimate; but it will disappear before the flight date. If you don’t have an actual ticket with your reservation, contact the airline or booking website directly.
4. Fake customer support numbers listed in Google searches
In this scam, fraudsters create fake customer service phone numbers for airlines or booking websites, and promote them online. When you call to change your flight details or resolve a question or problem, the fraudulent travel agent persuades you to pay a massive amount of money to get on a new flight (often with the promise that you’ll be refunded later on).
Pro tip: Make sure you only contact airlines and booking sites by using their official phone numbers. Don’t immediately trust Google search results. Instead, go directly to the airline’s website, check the URL, and find their official customer service number.
5. Requests for payment in gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrencies
When you purchase a flight with your credit card, you’re protected by the card issuer’s fraud policies. That’s why scammers try to get you to pay with an alternative payment method that is harder to trace, refund, or dispute.
Pro tip: If a booking site requests that you pay with anything other than a credit card, it’s likely a scam. Be extremely careful on sites that request payment in gift cards, cryptocurrencies, wire transfers, or via payment apps like Venmo, Zelle, and CashApp.
6. Robocalls, emails, or texts offering “Free vacations”
In this scam, fraudsters call, email, or text with offers of free air travel, vacation packages, and getaways — all you have to do is provide your personal information and payment details for taxes or specific expenses.
This scam can play out in a few ways. You may actually end up getting a “free” vacation — but basic amenities cost a fortune — or a “free” flight with exorbitant fees. However, it’s more likely that you’ll just end up giving away information that scammers can use to steal your identity or empty your bank account.
Pro tip: Air travel, vacation packages, and hotels are almost never free. In general, the only way to get free travel is to use credit card rewards or airline miles. No major airline or booking website gives away free flights in exchange for filling out a survey.
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7. Emails claiming your flight has been canceled — unless you pay
If you book a flight through a fake booking website, you might receive an email claiming that your flight was canceled — and the only way to rebook is to pay a fee. In reality, the flight most likely never existed in the first place, and scammers are just trying to fleece you for more money.
Pro tip: If you’re asked to pay a rebooking fee, it’s likely a scam. If a legitimate flight gets canceled, the airline will reach out directly to help you rebook for free. If you’re asked to pay a large rebooking fee, it’s a scam.
8. High-pressure tactics — such as telling you there’s only one flight left
Many fake airline websites use misleading and high-pressure sales tactics to get you to buy. For example, scammers may use short countdown timers to get you to quickly enter your payment information, or tell you there’s only one flight left so that you’re more likely to book with them.
Pro tip: Slow down before booking on unfamiliar websites. Many legitimate booking sites warn you if a flight is almost sold out. However, you need to be especially cautious on websites that you’re not familiar with, as these tactics could be used to hide the other warning signs of a scam.
💡 Related: What Is Credit Card Fraud (How To Secure Your Cards) →
9. Phone calls after you book, with requests for more information or money
This is one of the most common warning signs of an airline ticket scam. After booking, fraudsters call you to claim there was an issue with your purchase and the ticket isn’t actually valid. You’re told that you need to pay more to secure your ticket and get on the flight.
In reality, scammers sold you a discounted ticket that didn’t exist and are now upselling you to the flight’s actual price (or more!).
Pro tip: Don’t pay extra — ask to cancel instead. If someone calls you and demands extra money for a flight, it’s a scam. Ask for a refund and threaten to report them if they don’t comply.
What To Do If You’re the Victim of an Airline Ticket Scam
If you fall victim to an airline ticket scam, it’s important to act quickly to protect any of your personal information that could have been compromised. Here’s what to do:
- Freeze your credit. With your stolen personal information, fraudsters can take out loans or open new accounts in your name. If you think you’ve been the victim of an airline ticket scam, freeze your credit with all three bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax — to prevent scammers from ruining your credit.
- Contact your bank, and check your statements. If you gave scammers your banking information, contact your bank’s fraud department and ask them to cancel your cards and accounts. Keep a regular eye on your statements so that you can find and dispute fraudulent charges and transactions.
- Try to reverse any payments made through alternative methods. If you paid scammers via gift cards, payment apps, or cryptocurrencies, contact the company or exchange and request that they freeze the funds and reverse the transaction.
- Update your passwords and enable two-factor authentication (2FA). Hackers may use airline scams to access your online accounts. It’s a good idea to update all of your passwords, and enable 2FA whenever possible.
- Notify the airline. Airlines should know if scammers are impersonating them — even if you booked through a spoofed airline website or fake booking website. The airline won’t be able to help in your situation but will want to know about scams associated with their company.
- Report the scam to the proper authorities. Report the airline website scam to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at ReportFraud.FTC.gov. You can also submit an identity theft report at IdentityTheft.gov if you think your personal data is at risk.
- Sign up for credit monitoring and fraud alerts. Identity Guard monitors your most sensitive personal and financial information (including your credit reports) and can alert you in near real-time of fraud.
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How To Stay Safe While Booking Online Travel
Airfare can be expensive; and while everyone is looking for a great deal, legitimate deals can be hard to find. The safest way to book flights is always through official websites, even if the prices aren’t the cheapest.
Here are a few more ways to safely book your next trip online:
- Avoid using third-party booking websites. Although the prices might be higher, it’s always best to book travel through the official airline, hotel, car rental, or vacation website. Before paying, however, you should still check the URL to make sure you aren’t on a spoofed website.
- Do a Google search of travel agencies, and check for reviews. Before you book through a travel agency, check the company via the Better Business Bureau (BBB) page or through the Scam Tracker website. If the agency has shady business practices, you can probably find out by reading the complaints and reviews. You should also Google the agency’s website to make sure it’s legitimate.
- Book your travel on websites that the IATA accredits. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) maintains a database of verified travel websites. Only book travel with websites or companies that are IATA-accredited.
- Look for warning signs of a phishing website. Scammers are often non-native English speakers, and their websites may include strange grammar, spelling, or formatting. Trust your gut if something feels off about a site.
- Beware of non-standard payment methods. Using a credit card is the safest way to pay for travel and other big expenses. Never use alternative payment methods, like Venmo, PayPal, or cryptocurrencies. If a booking website requests payment through one of these alternatives, it’s probably a scam.
- Don’t give out extra personal information. When booking travel, especially over the phone, don’t provide more personal details than necessary. For example, if you’re booking a flight and the agent asks for your SSN, find out if there’s a more secure way to provide it.
- Deals that are too good to be true usually are. Discovering a great deal can be exciting, but don’t let this blind you from the warning signs of a scam. Extremely cheap flights and hotels are often too good to be true — and are likely fake.
- Use a VPN when shopping for flights. A virtual private network (VPN) hides your IP and blocks sites and other entities from tracking you online, making it harder for scammers to target you with phishing attacks. As a bonus, using a VPN can also help you uncover legitimate deals on flights.
Ultimately, the risks and consequences of online booking scams make it almost always worth the money to pay more and book directly.
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