Illustration by Tanya Antusenok/Shutterstock.com
Illustration by Tanya Antusenok/Shutterstock.com
New York resident Paula Abreu was looking for a refundable ticket to Montreal last December when, she says, she Googled the simple phrase, “Delta phone number.”
A moment later, when she dialed the first number that appeared on the search result, her guard was down, she says, as the agent answered the phone with the greeting, “Air tickets.”
Over the conversation that ensued, according to Abreu, the agent offered inaccurate advice, telling her that she couldn’t book a refundable ticket through the Delta.com website and also saying that she would have to buy a first-class ticket if she wanted refundability. Throughout the call, the agent led her to believe she was speaking with Delta.
As the call was winding down, the agent emailed Abreu a contract for a $1,489 ticket, which she says she signed without reading. Though the contract did not specify it, subsequent documents showed the price included a $520 agency fee, in addition to the Delta ticket price of $969. The contract also stated that the ticket wasn’t refundable.
Abreu, 40, said she only began to realize that she hadn’t dealt directly with Delta when she attempted to cancel the flight a week later and was told that she couldn’t.
“I travel at least four times per year internationally,” she said. “It’s not like I was fooled because I’m a fool. The guy misled me in a way that someone like me, who is experienced in traveling, fell for.”
The company Abreu had actually done business with was Naples, Fla.-based Travel Service Pad, which also operates as Airtickets and which is a subsidiary of U.K.-based A1 Travel Deals.
In February, in response to Abreu protesting the charge, Citibank refunded Travel Service Pad’s $520 agency fee, though she can’t get a refund on that Delta ticket.
But it wasn’t the money that was most upsetting to Abreu.
“What made me most angry is that he lied,” she said of the Travel Service Pad agent.
Interviews with other alleged victims — as well as complaints received by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), posted to Facebook and made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — show that Abreu is far from the only apparent victim of Travel Service Pad.
In fact, my father, Ken Silk, was ensnared by the company last October when an unwitting call to the agency as he tried to reach Southwest resulted in him paying $1,585 in fees and flight credits and losing out on $1,030 in Southwest vouchers, only to end up with the exact same Southwest itinerary as he had before making the call.
A Travel Service Pad employee who identified himself as James Malloy and said he was the company’s customer services team leader acknowledged to me in a phone call in late March that there had been incidents involving some of their sales representatives but that the company is now working diligently to make sure none of its customers are misled.
“We are making new policies,” he said. “We are firing people even if a small mistake is made.”
Those words were similar to what Malloy had told me in the fall when I spoke with him about my father’s October experience with Travel Service Pad. After that call, Malloy refunded the $511 fee the agency had charged my dad for the “service” of canceling his return Southwest flight from Orlando to Louisville, Ky., and then rebooking that exact same flight for approximately double the price.
“It is very painful. It is not good for our business. And we are doing everything to make it right,” Malloy had said at that time in reference to the slew of similar BBB complaints the company had received.
But it would seem that Travel Service Pad’s practices are deeply ingrained. One apparent victim was San Diego resident Jeri Kwieraga, who says she thought she was dealing directly with Delta by phone on March 22 when she signed a contract to spend $1,579 on two refundable roundtrip tickets to the East Coast.
The contract, which I later viewed, said that the cost would be billed in two separate transactions, but it didn’t specify that one of those transactions would be a sizable agency fee. Kwieraga said that she only figured out that she hadn’t been dealing with Delta and that she’d been charged a $466 fee by Travel Service Pad, after following up on the matter with Delta because something about the transaction didn’t feel right.
Travel Service Pad, along with its sister entity Airtickets and another called Globehunters, are accredited by ARC under the A1 Travel Deals umbrella. ARC’s Cornelius Hattingh, who investigates fraud in his role as director of revenue integrity for ARC, declined to say whether the airline-owned corporation is investigating any of those entities, but he did say that ARC has taken away a “handful” of accreditations over the past 24 months for misrepresentation.
“We take these things extremely seriously,” he said.
Still, Travel Service Pad isn’t the only agency whose practices have generated complaints of deception. Not by a long shot.
Dubious search engine results
FTC records and publicly accessible complaints show case after case in which flyers claim to have been duped after making a phone call to what they erroneously believed was the customer service number of a U.S. airline. In most cases, those complainants found the number through an internet search and likely responded to misleading or fraudulent advertisements.
It’s a practice that has become increasingly common in recent years, say various airline and travel industry officials.
“We are definitely getting a lot more reports from a global audience about this becoming more of an issue,” ARC’s Hattingh said.
He added that the environment for perpetrating this scheme is increasing as more people return to the skies now that the pandemic appears to be easing.
Meanwhile, a well-placed U.S. airline industry official, who requested that his name be withheld, said that carriers formed a working group to combat the problem in late 2018. The official said that people misrepresenting themselves as airline agents is one of the most common frauds that the carriers deal with, along with ticket agents hiking airline fees in violation of their contracts or simply making up service fees that are far above what a typical agency would charge for ticketing.
The official noted that the perpetrators of the imposter schemes vary from outright fraudsters that aren’t accredited travel agencies to those that are. Some are also ticket consolidators working under a contract with an accredited ARC or IATA agency, though the accredited company doesn’t always know what its contractor is up to.
“This is something we’ve seen. It’s increased during Covid. It’s not an overwhelming amount of fraud, but it’s definitely something that’s there, and we’re discussing how to combat it,” said the airline official, who added that the vast majority of OTAs and brick-and-mortar travel agencies are honest and reputable.
American, Delta, United, Alaska and JetBlue all either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But the proliferation of this imposter scam raised enough hackles at Alaska in late 2020 that the airline posted a warning on a blog to customers.
“Scamming websites will often use Alaska’s logo without permission and offer extraordinarily low (and often fake) Alaska fares,” read the post. “If a deal seems too good to be true and can’t be replicated by booking directly on our website or with a reputable travel agency, it’s probably a scam. Some sites also mislead callers by posing as actual Alaska Airlines reservation agents.”
Southwest, whose customers, FTC records suggest, seem to be especially alluring targets for this scam, also declined an interview request. But in a statement, the carrier said that it has been “actively working to detect and stop online scams on search engine platforms that confuse and defraud consumers.”
“Because this is an industrywide problem, the airline trade group (Airlines for America, which represents passenger airlines) is also actively engaged in identifying ways to stop this travel fraud scheme,” the carrier said.
For now, though, queries on search engines such as Google and Bing readily turn up advertisements that appear designed to deceive consumers. For instance, the top two ad results that were returned for a “Delta tickets” search that I conducted on Bing one late March afternoon were separately titled “Delta Air Lines Reservation — Official” and “Delta Reservation.” Clicking either leads to toll-free phone numbers, neither of which brings the caller to Delta.
When I called one of those numbers, 866-833-9466, and asked the agent if I was speaking with Delta, she evasively responded that they are a reservation desk for Delta.
Other queries bring similar results. For example, a Bing search on March 23 for “Alaska Air Tickets” yielded, as its top ad hit, a link described as “Alaska Customer Service — Airline Tickets Alaska Airlines.”
When I clicked, I was prompted to call 888-520-0406, where the agent repeatedly insisted that I was speaking with Alaska Airlines.
But I was not. By doing a subsequent cross-reference search of the phone number on Google, I learned that number belonged to an entity called Bestaerfares.com, which indicates it is Nashville-based. I called the number back twice, explained I was a reporter and asked to speak with a supervisor. The first time, the person who answered the phone claimed he was giving me a supervisor’s number, which, when I called it, turned out to be the real customer service line for Alaska. The second time, the agent answering the phone hung up on me.
Hattingh, the ARC fraud investigator, said that ARC has attempted to build a relationship with Google geared toward tackling misleading advertising related to air ticket sales, but while the search engine recognizes the issue, little progress has been made.
Whose problem is it anyway?
Google didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Neal Dennis, a threat intelligence specialist at the cybersecurity firm Cyware, said that Google, other search engines and social media outlets have much more to deal with than just the air travel sector when it comes to predatory advertising.
“Probably half of the ads on Facebook or Google are fraudulent to some degree,” Dennis said.
Hattingh said that when agencies, or purported agencies, deceive consumers into thinking they are dealing with an airline directly, it impacts the reputation of the entire travel agency industry.
“It’s important for the industry to work together against this,” he said.
ASTA general counsel Peter Lobasso agreed, though he noted that the Society itself has not received complaints related to the scam.
The existence of cyber predators is among the reasons for consumers to work with a trusted travel advisor, Lobasso said.
“We would definitely want to make the point that there are lots of benefits of working with advisors,” he continued. “Getting individual attention. Getting assistance with unexpected changes. We wouldn’t want people to be turned off from working with an advisor just because there are a few bad apples out there.”
But Lobasso also wondered if the airlines are doing as much as they should to go after the bad actors.
“What are they doing to root this out?” he asked rhetorically. “If they know this is happening and there are certain search engine results that are misleading people, there are steps they can take to filter that out.”
While no airlines agreed to be interviewed for this story, Southwest said in its statement that it has “approached industry groups and search platforms to propose and identify ways to stop this travel fraud scheme.”
The U.S. airline industry official I spoke with who did not want to be identified said that carriers have filed complaints with the FTC and will happily participate in investigations when contacted by the FTC. (To date, neither the FTC nor the DOT has brought charges related to a ticket seller deceiving buyers into thinking it is an airline.) They’ll also bring concerns to ARC and IATA. And if they see that an agency with which they have a sales contract is violating the terms of the contract, they’ll work to enforce those terms.
But the official also said that it is challenging for carriers to go after many of the perpetrators, especially the rankest of the fraudsters, which are often located outside the U.S. or otherwise can easily close up shop and reinvent themselves.
“I think a lot of this stuff is whack-a-mole,” the official said. “When the carriers have pursued fraudsters, I think typically what will happen is somebody will have, let’s say, a travel agency in New Jersey, and they’ll just shut it down and they’ll open up in Oregon.”