As summer nears, cyberthieves are dusting off their playbooks and finding new ways to fleece unwitting travelers, according to new research from the cybersecurity company McAfee.
After months of persistent inflation, post-pandemic travelers are showing a greater price sensitivity than last year. Domestic airfare costs about the same as last year, but hotel rates and restaurant prices are up, according to the forecasting site Hopper, whose recent travel trends report found that while 60% of travelers expect to spend more on this year’s summer vacation, they are returning to check the price of their trip before booking up to 50% more often than in previous years.
McAfee’s new Safer Summer Holidays Travel Report, released Thursday, finds that more than half of travelers (56%) say they are more likely to use the internet to search for travel bargains in light of inflation, with over a third (35%) saying they are more likely to use booking sites they haven’t used before in order to snag a good price.
Unfortunately, this mental state can increase the chances of falling for a deal that’s too good to be true.
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“A vacation is one of the more expensive discretionary expenses that somebody has during the year,” says Steve Grobman, senior vice president and chief technology officer at McAfee. “So especially in tight economic times, there’s this natural instinct to really look for a deal, to get the biggest bang for your buck. And if you combine that deal-searching mindset with the ease that cybercriminals now have, it just leads leads to a tremendous opportunity to conduct these scams.”
Nearly a third of adults have fallen victim or know someone who has fallen victim to a scam while trying to save money on a trip, with 34% of those victims losing between $500 and $1,000 before their trip has even begun, according to the California-based company’s survey of 7,000 people in seven countries.
These scams can take many forms, with 14% of people tricked into making payments through fraudulent platforms, 11% having personally identifiable information stolen, 9% being robbed of their payment details, and 7% having their identity cloned after submitting their passport details to a fake website.
Travelers make particularly easy targets because they tend to let their guards down. “You want to get online in order to book a restaurant and you can’t get cell service. You see an open Wi-Fi network and think ‘why not?’,” says Grobman. “What’s important to you at that moment is booking the dinner reservation, not thinking about ‘am I connecting my device to the internet in a secure fashion.’”
How travelers can outsmart cyber scammers this summer
Be wise to scammers’ tactics. We’ve all had the experience of searching for a product or service online only to be inundated with ads for those items on social media and search engines. For example, you might search for campsites and suddenly start seeing ads for tents and sleeping bags.
“One of the things that we know about scammers is they use the same marketing tactics that legitimate businesses use,” says Grobman. “There are underground marketing services that help track what users have been searching for. A lot of scammers use these tactics. Some of them are buying search terms and encroaching into legitimate ecosystems.”
A problem, says Grobman, is that social media sites and search engines are not vetting the legitimacy of these advertisers. “The scammers can record your network address, and see what you’ve looked at. And then if they see traffic coming from your network address again, they can target specific ads,” Grobman says.
Scammers’ ads can look very legitimate. So if you search for a Barbados vacation and suddenly start seeing ads for Barbados deals, it pays to be extremely skeptical about clicking into those sites.
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“Certainly there are legitimate third-party travel booking sites,” says Grobman. “But it takes a bit more effort to use a site that you haven’t used before to ensure that it’s reputable.”
Use a VPN when planning your trip. You can make it much more difficult for scam sites to track you by using a virtual private network (VPN), which boosts security by creating an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server.
Grobman says the perfect time to turn on the VPN is when you’re in the exploratory stage of trip-planning. “It’ll add an extra layer of anonymity,” he explains. “The good news is our VPN technology, and most of the other high quality VPNs out there, work across all major devices. So they’ll work on phones and on tablets and on laptops and PCs.”
Open an incognito browsing window. Even better than using a VPN alone, advises Grobman, is pairing a VPN with your internet browser’s privacy features. Whether it’s called incognito mode on Google Chrome or InPrivate on Microsoft Edge or private browsing on Safari, a private browser will add another good layer of protection.
“Then the browser doesn’t remember your passwords and adds a little bit of extra friction,” says Grobman. “Especially during the exploratory trip-planning phases and when you’re in a vacation mode, I would highly recommend doing both of those things as just a bit of housekeeping.”
Think hard about how you pay. “Never pay for something with a form of payment that would be irreversible. So never pay with prepaid cards or gift cards, and never pay with a wire transfer,” Grobman says.
Con artists talk a good game, often providing narratives on why a stellar deal is only possible if you pay the way they want. “The reason we can give you a good deal is we don’t have the overhead of standard credit cards, which is why we only take cryptocurrency and gift cards,” Grobman says by way of example. “To an objective observer, that would set off a red flag. But if somebody is trying to rationalize how in the world can this site can offer me such a good deal, it could start to sound plausible.”
Understand the sliding scale of risk. Not everything you do on an open Wi-Fi network is equally risky. If you’re sitting in an airport departure lounge, it’s perfectly safe to check the weather, sports scores and mainstream news feeds, says Grobman. “We want people to enjoy their digital lives, not be scared all the time,” he says. “But know that the risk level increases when you do something identifiable to you.”
McAfee’s survey found that social media is by far the most common online activity for people to use their phones for while on vacation (60%), but also common are chatting with friends and family (55%), online banking (35%) and sending money via apps such as PayPal or Venmo (22%).
A good rule of thumb: “If you’re strictly consuming information, that inherently is going to be lower risk than if you’re providing information,” says Grobman. That means you should stop and think before providing a password or personal information. First, take a moment to turn on a VPN and open a private browser.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Once your data is on the dark web, it’s in the hands of cyber criminals,” Grobman says. “After the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can’t get it back in. It is out there.”
For those lucky enough to travel this Summer, no doubt the best way to make the most of your trip is to ensure it is as incident-free as possible. Sadly, we have to now live in a world where scammers lurk around every corner, especially when we travel to unfamiliar locations. However, with a bit of vigilance and some smart tactics you can avoid becoming a victim of a travel scam and truly enjoy your journey.
The first tip for avoiding a travel scam is to be aware of all unusual requests. If plans and arrangements for travel sound too good to be true, they probably are. Clues to look for include being asked to pay for something upfront with no real explanation or requests for large payments in cash. Additionally, if you’re being asked to enter into an agreement without being able to read the details, such as making bookings from questionable online sites, it’s best to avoid them.
Always check out the local government tourism website for local travel information and tips, and remember to do your homework when arriving in a new city or country. Always remember to trust your gut feeling and if something feels ‘off’, walk away.
Another great way to outsmart scammers is to have a few backup plans in place. For example, make copies of travel documents and store them in separate locations from the originals, especially if travelling overseas. Additionally, be aware of the exchange rate and know your limit when it comes to card payments. Keep your credit card details safe and be alert to any unusual activity showing on your statements.
It’s also important to familiarise yourself with the local customs and regulations. If you’re travelling to a country where bribes are common, be aware that requests for payment can often be received from police officers or other locals. Prices which seem far too low to be true can often be scams, so be sure to always question and research.
Finally, remember to stay savvy when using public transport and don’t give out too much personal information. It pays to always be prepared for any incident that may arise.
By sticking to these tips, you can outsmart travel scammers and enjoy a hassle-free Summer vacation.