It was like FOMO catnip: an island paradise, beloved musical headliners, private jet transportation and luxurious villa accommodations, supermodels frolicking with swimming pigs on social media. But, as we learned in 2017 and have been reminded by two recent documentaries about Fyre Festival (Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened on Netflix and Fyre Fraud on Hulu), sometimes a little scepticism is in order.
"Whether this was a planned scam or just ineptness of beginner event planners, it's not entirely clear," says Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. "But what is clear is that people should not have trusted somebody with that kind of record with that amount of money."
While it is easy to look back at Fyre Festival and see all the red flags, the truth is that questionable travel deals, overhyped events and even travel hoaxes happen all the time - and they do not always make headlines. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, consumers filed 22,264 complaints about travel and timeshare fraud with the Federal Trade Commission.
To avoid getting burned by events like Fyre Fest, Hutt and other experts shared some steps consumers can take.
Do your research
If a company - whether it is a hotel, airline, vacation website, festival or other entity - has been around for a while, do a quick search on it on sites like the Better Business Bureau (BBB.org) and its state's attorney general office to check for any complaints. Hutt says that when she researches a business, she will also look up their information in ICANN's WHOIS database, which has information on who registered a domain name or IP address. If she learns the site is brand new or the owner's name is hidden, that could be concerning. "It takes a little sleuthing," says Hutt. "But a brand new domain name is a good indication of when something is potentially a scam." Peter John, author of the book Around the World in 80 Scams: An Essential Travel Guide, suggests adding the word "scam" to your Google search. "If you can find the name of the website linked to the word 'scam' online, it may be a scam itself," says John. "You may be able to find other people's experiences of being scammed, and they can be a warning to you."
If a "deal" is coming to you, put your guard up
If you are being solicited for some kind of special, whether it is a vacation package or a timeshare, be careful, says Mamie Kresses, senior attorney in the FTC's division of advertising practices. "You need to just have a high level of scepticism," she says. Kresses says to find out the name of the company behind the deal and make sure it is a reputable business. And, she says, when you visit a website, make sure it is the brand you think it is. "If you're going to a particular hotel or a particular cruise line, just be careful, look closely, make sure you're actually on the website of the company that you are intending to be on," says Kresses. "A lot of websites look alike, and some unscrupulous businesses may make their websites look like a name brand to garner your attention and your money."
Always pay with a credit card
Never hand over a check, money order or cash when booking travel. If a travel purchase turns out to be fraudulent, your credit card may be able to offer a layer of protection. "It's not a guarantee, but at least you have a recourse to challenge the charge when you use a credit card," says Kresses. She adds that you should not share your credit card information until you are certain of what you are getting and you have decided you want to make the purchase.
A picture is worth 1000 scams
Maybe you are looking at a photo of a stunning condo on a sugar-sand beach, or an image of a booze cruise on which young and beautiful people are having the time of their lives, or a picture of a fun run in the dark in which runners are alight in neon. Whatever it is, do not automatically trust that the photo is legitimate. Hutt - who has seen all of the above episodes in scam form - suggests doing a reverse-image search before buying anything online. To research an image that is on a vacation rental site, click on the image, save it to the desktop and then drop it into images.google.com. If you then see that the same condo has been listed in several different geographical locations, your scam-alarm should be sounding. "Reverse image is so easy - I would recommend it for everything," says Hutt. "Anytime you're buying something from somebody you don't know, that's a good step to take."
Make sure there is a phone number to call
If something goes awry in your plans, you will want to have a human you can talk to. "If the only way to contact them is an online form, or if it's just a generic email address, that's a red flag," says Hutt. Additionally, if you are unsure about something, find a way to verify the deal before booking. That might mean calling the actual venue where a festival is scheduled, or checking with an airline or hotel that is mentioned in a travel deal. Verify, by phone, whatever you can to be sure the offer is legitimate and that you will have a way to contact someone if you need to later on.
Trust your instinct
"If there are any red flags at all, just back off," says Hutt. Be especially aware of any phrases that make you feel like you need to act quickly, like "limited time offer," "the deadline's approaching," "two-for-one deal." "All of those things that we see in legitimate sales we also see scammers using," says Hutt. "The idea of creating scarcity or creating urgency - those are stock-in-trade for scammers."
Be prepared to make a stink if it all goes south
If you cannot get the response you want from a customer service representative at a company, John suggests contacting it through social media or by going to the media. "I have found that customer-facing organisations, such as ticket providers or airlines, are very careful about their public images," he says. "They will often give you your money back if you can get a newspaper to raise your case with them."
Plus, by reaching out, speaking out and making your experience a part of the public record - whether it is about a vacation rental scam or a certain fated music festival - you might also be able to help someone else avoid getting bamboozled in the future.
"Fyre Festival, in particular, was just such a spectacular failure," says Hutt. "It shows that anyone can fall for a fraudulent scheme. We should use that as a warning."