If your summer holiday plan involves booking travel reservations over the phone and paying with a gift card, you might want to put down the receiver.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is warning B.C. residents about a network of internet scammers posing as staff from Expedia, a popular travel booking website, to trick people into shelling out hundreds of dollars in phony flight and room bookings.
"They've set up an elaborate scheme," said Karla Davis, manager of community relations at BBB.
It begins with a user looking for Expedia's contact information on a search engine, usually Google, and dialling the number that appears in sponsored advertisements on the search engine's page.
A pretend Expedia staff member fields inquiries, books hotel rooms and flights, and asks the caller to pay using prepaid gift cards — stating that the website is down and unable to process online payments.
The unsuspecting customer is instructed to visit their nearest retail outlet to buy the gift cards, and then call back to provide the card's unique code over the phone to the impostor agent who completes the transaction.
The scammers in this case requested a Google Play gift card, but any gift card could potentially be used.
Davis warned anyone could fall easily into the trap.
"They're talking about prices, about flights and about destinations. So you believe the information is authentic."
'The money is pretty much gone'
Davis said the first complaints came on July 10. In just a week, there have been five cases in B.C. alone, with a total of $5,000 lost in fake reservations.
The scam has also been reported in 17 U.S. states, with another $8,000 lost.
Davis said the first sign of trouble is dialling a number that's not posted on the company's official website.
But the biggest red flag is when an agent insists consumers pay for a service with a gift card.
"It should be known that gift cards are only to be used for gifts and nothing else," said Davis.
According to Davis, gift cards have become a popular currency for scams because the transactions are irreversible and virtually untraceable without an intervening bank.
"Once the code at the back of the card is given to the scammer, the money is pretty much gone," said Davis.
Gift cards are a red flag
Davis said she is somewhat surprised people don't realize it's a trap while they're disconnected from the call and out buying a gift card for hundreds of dollars.
"You're going the extra mile to give someone your money," said Davis.
The BBB has alerted Google that its search engine and gift cards are becoming tools of scams. Google Play cautions users about gift card scams on its website.
Davis said retailers in Canada can play a part in curtailing scams — setting gift card purchase limits, flagging scams and conducting better employee training.
Numbers and emails to watch out for
The BBB provided the CBC with a list of contact numbers and email addresses used to scam consumers.
Some numbers are still in use — the CBC contacted one of them under the pretense of booking a round-trip flight to Dubai in February 2020.
A woman who claimed to be an Expedia customer agent — going by the name Mona Smith — promised a discounted fare that's only available through phone bookings.
A "billing manager" on the same call claimed the official website was experiencing high transaction failure rate and insisted on completing the payment using any kind of gift card.
The call ended when the CBC reporter was asked to call back after buying a gift card from the nearest IGA store.
Suspect numbers to call:
- 319 320-4522
- 877 392-8999