Imagine you’ve been planning all year for your family vacation at the beach. You find the perfect hotel—a spacious room with a view of the ocean and a big pool for the kids—and book the room using an online travel site. The whole family is excited for a week of surf, sand, and relaxation.
Everything is going great until you arrive at the hotel. After a few minutes of clicking around on the computer, the front desk woman asks you to spell your name again. Her brow furrows, and you start to worry. You are exhausted and just want to crawl into a clean bed and get some sleep. What is going on with this hotel room?
Now the manager arrives to help. “When did you make this reservation?” she asks. You tell her and you hear her typing some more. “Could it be under another name?” You feel a sense of panic as you shake your head no. What could be happening?
Finally, the bad news: There is no reservation. The website where you made your booking was a fraud, and now your dream vacation has become a nightmare. Many vacationers, and hoteliers, find themselves in this exact situation. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, millions of fraudulent bookings are made every year as these deceptive websites and call centers mislead vacationers by giving the appearance of being connected to a hotel, but actually have no legal relation to the brand or lodging property.
For consumers, the fraud takes several different forms. Unassuming guests could be charged additional hidden fees when they arrive, fail to get the accommodations they requested, lose expected loyalty points, or worse, they could learn that their reservation was never actually made. In the last year alone, close to 15 million reservations were made on such deceptive sites, resulting in hotel guests finding themselves out hundreds of dollars for either a worthless reservation or one that delivered much less than promised. It is estimated that these scams have cost upward of $1.3 billion per year in lost reservations, extra fees or charges, lost rooms, and costly inconveniences.
As you know, hotels are often mistakenly blamed for these fake reservations. Though they do all they can to assist swindled travelers, their reputation suffers as these stories are shared online or by word of mouth.
For these reasons, I have introduced bipartisan legislation with U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) to help crack down on call center and online hotel scams. First, our legislation would require all third-party hotel booking websites to disclose, clearly and conspicuously, that they are not affiliated with the hotel for which the traveler is ultimately making the reservation. This new requirement would help consumers tell the difference between name-brand hotel websites and fraudulent ones masquerading as name-brand sites.
Second, our legislation would give state Attorneys General the ability to go after perpetrators in federal court with the same remedies available to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Today, only federal authorities can fully penalize individuals who commit online hotel booking fraud. If the offense is small, federal authorities may forgo prosecution to go after more expansive crimes. Giving state Attorneys General the ability to pursue damages and restitution for victims will leverage the power of all 50 states to hold fraudsters of all levels accountable and deter criminals.
Our bill would also require two provisions to help illuminate the true extent of these crimes. It requires the FTC to produce a report on the impact of these fraudulent sites on consumers and it encourages the FTC to simplify its online complaint procedure for reporting hotel booking scams, a request we have recently made in a letter to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
My colleagues and I understand that online fraud is a serious problem for not only consumers, but also the entire lodging industry. It is also an especially significant issue for Florida, which is the top travel destination in the United States. With that said, I look forward to continuing to work with the AH&LA to move this important legislation forward and tackle these scams. This way, travelers can get back to their vacations and hotels can focus on providing the world-class services that the American hotel industry is known for.
About the Author
Lois Frankel has been the United States Representative for Florida’s 22nd congressional district since 2013.