Travel agents love new clients, and when someone seemingly finds you out of the blue, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and blindly pursue the sales opportunity.
But scam artists are good at manipulating human emotions and have an assortment of tricks up their sleeves to entrap travel agents in one kind of fraud or another. That’s why experts say a strong line of defense starts with questioning overtures from anyone you don’t know.
“Agents are susceptible to fraud because they are trained in customer service and want to help. Scam artists know this, and use it against them,” said Doug Nass, manager of fraud investigations at the Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC).
“There are so many tactics these guys can use,” said Joseph Eck, marketing program manager at Kount, a company that provides fraud prevention software. For smaller agents, he said, “it really comes down to applying your common sense. Verify the source.”
That’s what Rolanda Chambers, owner at Golden Voyage Travel in Baltimore, Maryland, did when she recently received an email from someone claiming to be a basketball coach in France. The “coach” asked for flight information for players going to Casablanca for tryouts. The routes were Dakar-Casablanca-Dakar and Paris-Casablanca-Paris, and the “coach” said he would be paying with a Visa or Mastercard.
The prospect of a large group booking was enticing, but Chambers also saw red flags in the request and emailed the “coach” to call her. She never heard from him again.
“Scam artists need to dupe just one agent a day to make money,” Nass said. “Posing as a basketball coach and offering a plausible scenario pulls the agent into their story, to why he needs tickets.” Once that door is open, the scam artist can start to work their manipulative magic.
Unfortunately, small agents are a big target
Because large travel companies can afford sophisticated software designed to flag potential fraud, scam artists often target smaller companies where suspicion and defenses can be lower.
“The bigger guys have built their castle walls high,” Nass said. “They are still targeted, and they take their share of fraud. But at some point the fraudster is going to tire from getting their bookings rejected at large suppliers, especially when their customer has paid them and they need to get a ticket quickly.”
“I’m a small business. It’s just me and one other agent. Sometimes when you see scam artists targeting big companies, it can give you a false sense of security,” Chambers said. “You need to make certain you are taking the necessary precautions to ensure the person you are working with on the phone or through email is the owner of the card.”
Scam artists prey strategically on agents and often will do extensive research so that they can gain sympathy and trust early on. One popular scam Nass has seen is when a call comes in and the “client” immediately asks “Did you get my fax?” often without introducing themselves.
“Immediately the agent is on the defensive, asking themselves, ‘Did I mess up? Is this an important client?’ It’s designed to throw you off your game.”
Fraudsters also will do enough research to gain unwitting accomplices to help them look legitimate.
“Companies make so much information about their executives available on line, that some scam artists will contact an administrative assistant in Europe say, act like an executive at the company, and tell them ‘Email corporate travel in the U.S. and let them know I will be calling them today.’ That referral could be just enough to gain the corporate travel agent’s trust so they make a booking without asking a lot of questions,” Nass said.
Red flags are plenty
Schemes like these should be on agent radar screens. Travel agents can find more examples and tips to prevent fraud at ARC’s fraud prevention website, a comprehensive resource for smaller agents who typically do not have budgets for training.
“It’s not clear how scam artists find smaller agents,” Nass said. “But they should be on the alert for several signs that they are being targeted.”
A bold red flag, Nass said, is a tight booking deadline. The “calamity scam” is when a tragedy has occurred and travel must happen within a day or so to visit a dying relative.
“Last minute travel is a big one. Once an agent books a ticket, and the itinerary is emailed, the e-ticket is live. The scam artist’s client might even be at the airport waiting to exchange the ticket for the next flight out. Too often travel is completed before the charge is detected, or the real cardholder is notified and declines the charge,” Nass said.
People posing as ministers to move missionaries around is another common scam, Nass said. And while scam artists frequently purchase roundtrip tickets to disguise their fraudulent intentions, many still purchase one-way tickets. “One-way ticketing has increased a lot in the last year or so,” Nass said.
Your own behaviors and networks might also help a scam artist find you. Chambers wonders if her recent jump in Europe bookings has somehow caught the attention of fraud rings that she deals with overseas customers regularly.
She also finds it interesting that a friend recently moved to Dakar for a job opportunity and that perhaps that tidbit bubbled up somewhere. “It makes me wonder,” she said.
At the same time she received the basketball coach email, Chambers also noticed several new followers on her agent Facebook page. She recommends agents click on new follower profiles for red flags, like residence in a foreign country.
A new overseas client not providing a landline or cell phone number could also be a red flag. In another email Chambers recently received, the scam artist wrote: “Hello, Please check this and let me know the availability and cost in economy class. kindly [sic] send me quote in order to send you details of my credit card to make payment.”
The roundtrip routing was Paris-Casablanca-Paris, and the scam artist specifically asked for economy class on Royal Air Maroc/Air France. The email was signed by “Mr Dominique Bourgin, Skype: bourgin.d.martin, Whatsapp: 0033671767617.” There was no other contact information to cross reference.
“It’s critical for you to do a reverse lookup on any information they provide you, from phone numbers to email addresses, and see if there are inconsistencies,” Nass said. Also, he recommends agents go to Whitepages.com to track down phone numbers. “White Pages will tell you if a phone number is voice over internet protocol (VOIP). If they have VOIP, it doesn’t’ mean it is bad, but it tells you that you don’t know where they are based,” Nass said.
Educate, educate, educate
With so many agents they can target, and tactics shifting from month to month, and year to year, Nass and ARC regularly conduct fraud prevention training webinars to help agents stay on top of the latest trends.
Stacey Robertson Ray, CEO at Groupit Travel Host Agency for Travel Agents in Cary, North Carolina, is administrator of a Facebook page where Chambers posted the basketball coach fraud email looking for other agents’ experiences. A travel agent for four years, Robertson Ray receives numerous suspicious emails each week, and as the owner of a host agency, she is especially concerned with training her agents because charge backs booked through her host hit her bank account, not her contractors.
She has made ARC webinars required viewing for her agents, and is incorporating fraud prevention more into her training programs for new agents. “When you take our onboarding training, there is an exam about fraud you have to take,” she said.