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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.
Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

Let's go phishing

Flash but fake hotel booking sites can lead unwary travellers to penury instead of paradise. Caveat emptor.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Fake hotel booking sites are out to grab your credit card details
Fake hotel booking sites are taking people to the cleaners

BOOKING is easy online. Or is it? An online travel agent – or an OTA as an acronym-obsessed industry likes to term him – is simply an agent serving customers online, but with one major difference. You can't see him. Unlike a walk-in travel agency with the predictably musty shelves packed with dog-eared tourist guides and agents eager to please with answers to the dumbest of questions, with an OTA you encounter no humans.

This is a pretty critical issue. It is fashionable to argue that latter day frequent traveller dweebs and twenty-somethings care little about social contact, yet a human being is accountable. A booking algorithm is not. The former will deal with your complaint and make a few calls at the very least; the latter will shoot back an automated note, terse and tough, notifying you that you have signed your life away by accepting the small print terms when you clicked the "I accept" button.

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Humans are what make the difference in the hospitality industry, from sweating travel agents, and helpful check-in counter staff, to cabin crew, the quick-stepping doorman and, that rarely spotted but terminally overweening species, the hotel general manager (though there are many elegant exceptions). Through that most elementary of human devices – eye contact – a human can be made to stop, listen, and correct wrongdoing.

An OTA provides none of this. What it does provide is convenience, speed, fast confirmation and the ability to shop for the best prices – all from the comfort of your desk or bed. And this is the foundation of its success. At the end of the day, an OTA is simply a travel agent performing business through the online medium – not much different to working the phone, a video screen, or the vocal chords. This, for some reason, is referred to as e-business. Oddly, when the telephone was invented and people began transporting sound across vast spools of underground cable, no one called it "t-business". Business was business.

The chief suspicion centres on the fact that these [fake sites] offer room bookings at any time, even when a hotel's own website shows that all available rooms are taken...

People have gone to town with this new buzzword. E-business. It sounds modern and hi-tech and sufficiently daunting to enable young bespectacled graduates to lord it over geriatric hotel management, terrifying all with a blitzkrieg of jargon. E-business is simply highfaluting humbug. Business is business. So let's look at the mode of business. Humans. Shake their hands, or slap them. You'll have a resolution. Online travel agents? Well... The bigger names like Agoda, Expedia, CTrip, Zuji, and Kayak, have carved out a reputation for efficiency and honesty despite the silly and surreptitiously sly pop-ups warning you two other people are looking at the very same hotel deal, the very last one before Christmas, that very instant.

Then there are sites that prey on travellers' growing predilection for blind bookings online. Friends in the hotel industry recently brought to our notice a site called ThailandHotelRewards.com. It is fancy, detailed and offers huge depth of information and visual data. It also seems to take bookings, which of course require your credit card details and authorisation. We investigated the site and checked for reviews. There are none. Webutation lists it as a "safe browsing" site but not much more. It lists no reviews and offers a question mark over a filter it terms "Web of Trust" (crowd-sourced reputation rating). Apparently shut down for a while, the site returned with a twin sibling in tow, ThailandBookingRewards.com. Then along came BookingLoyalty.com with an identical website. It’s a slippery business.

On Lonely Planet and Trip Adviser readers have questioned the legitimacy of these sites and found no satisfactory answers. The chief suspicion centres on the fact that they offer room bookings at any time, even when a hotel's own website shows that all rooms are taken. One Trip Adviser patron comments, "It seems strange that it is possible to book a double room for as many people as you like i.e. 20 kids." The site accepts bookings yet when they turn up at their destination, the hotel has no knowledge of their arrival.

Says Anthony van Sleeuwen, Director of Marketing for SALA Resorts & Spas, ““We first become aware of the site [ThailandHotelRewards.com] following the unexpected arrival of a couple holding what they believed to be reservation confirmations for one of our properties. On further investigation we discovered a range of websites set up to mirror our own and mislead guests in to believing they had made legitimate reservations with our properties. The layout of the sites was very convincing, with real time rates and availability. However, enquiries never led to a legitimate booking agent.”

Phishing is easy online. Keep your credit card details zipped up and share only grudgingly.

Intercepted e-mails result in numerous phishing scams too (where an unauthorised party grabs your details unbeknownst to you or the supplier). Scores of travellers have fallen victim to phishing scams when their e-mails or details are compromised on sites like HomeAway, FlipKey and VRBO. As one report in the Sydney Morning Herald put it, “The victim arrives in paradise only to discover the communication had been faked, the genuine owner has never heard of them, and the accommodation is booked out – leaving them broke and stranded.”

Like many others, Delta Airlines runs a disclaimer on its website warning passengers of “fraudulent e-mails, social media sites, and gift card promotions” claiming to be from them. Luxury hotelier Jumeirah devotes an entire page to this problem with a clear message: “Please remember that Jumeirah International LLC and its affiliated businesses will never send unsolicited emails which ask you to provide personal or financial information or request you to confirm details of business transactions by email.”

There are other online pitfalls. In 2003 during the SARS scare a number of businessmen were marooned in the Metropark Hotel Hong Kong (Wanchai) as police swooped to cordon off the place. As TV crews from all over the world descended to peer into the hotel and the lives of those trapped within, it was quickly apparent that many “wives” were in bad humour and several spouted strangely familiar Wanchai accents. While the city chuckled at these antics there was more bad news for stranded guests. Their online tickets (now past the flight date for the return sector) simply would not be honoured by budget carriers.

As the Romans said, caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. Forewarned is forearmed.

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