Gatineau travel agency warns about cheap vacation package scam

Fraud has always been a problem in the travel industry, but a Gatineau agency says one particular scam — fraudulent bookings to sunny destinations like Jamaica or the Dominican Republic — is becoming more prevalent.

Booking an obscenely cheap vacation package? It might be too good to be true

Gatineau's Voyages G Travel, one of the oldest in the National Capital Region, says it has been victimized 10 times by an increasingly common scam in which criminals pose as travel agents.

It was last November when Gatineau's Voyages G Travel realized they'd become victims of fraud.

The travel agency — one of the oldest in the National Capital Region — noticed a booking for a Caribbean vacation that none of the agents in the office remembered handling.

"I'm like, this doesn't make sense," said Melanie Racine, one of the agency's owners. 

"Then we realized something is off. We called the wholesalers ... and that's when we started finding more. And this was, like, a Monday when we came in. We started finding more as the week went [on], and that's when we knew we had a problem."

Racine and co-owner Kerwin Dougan say fraud has always been a problem in the industry, but since late last year, one particular scam — involving travel bookings to sunny destinations like Jamaica or the Dominican Republic — has become much more frequent.

"They really know what they are doing. I have a feeling it may be a travel agent or someone in the business," said Racine.

"It's a really bad situation out there," added Dougan, an agent with more than 30 years in the travel business.

Credit card scam

According to Racine and Dougan, the scam works like this.

First, the scammer gets access to credit cards — or more likely, just credit card numbers. Would-be travellers are then reeled in with the offer of trips or vacations at hard-to-believe prices: for instance, a $2,000 Caribbean vacation for $500.

The person taking the trip thinks he or she is getting a great last-minute deal. Naturally, the scammer insists to be paid cash up front.

Melanie Racine, co-owner of Voyages G Travel in Gatineau, Que., says one particular scam has become increasingly frequent in the past few months: fraudsters using illicitly-obtained credit card numbers to book trips and impersonate travel agents.

The scammer then obtains some basic information about a local travel agency that may include the names of the travel agents. It's information that's usually available on travel agencies' websites.

The scammer then calls up a wholesale vacation company such as Sunwing, Tour Transat, Air Canada Vacations or any number of small or large companies. The scammer makes a last-minute booking using the identity of a real travel agent, paying for the trip with the illicitly acquired credit card number and pocketing the cash.

The fraud may only become known after someone opens a credit card statement and discovers being billed for a trip that he or she didn't take. (Racine told CBC News she recently spoke to a woman who got her statement and was shocked to discover she had been charged for Air Canada vacations totalling about $20,000.)

It's too easy to book .... you could put Mickey Mouse [on the booking] and it would work.- Melanie Racine, travel agent

Not surprisingly, the real credit card holders dispute the charges with the card company, which in turn voids the payment to the vacation carrier. By this time, however, the traveller may already be on a plane to a sunny destination and not know the cheap trip was made possible by fraud.

If the traveller is lucky, the fraud is only discovered once the vacation is over.  If not, that person may be in for a nasty surprise after arriving at the airport.

"They get to the airport and they are told, 'Sorry, your booking was cancelled because it was a fraudulent booking,'" Racine said.

Easy to pull off

The fraud is simple to pull off, Racine said, because all the scammers need is a bit of easily obtained information. Travel carrier employees may not suspect anything is amiss because they believe they're talking to agents at an established agency.

"They are calling the wholesaler — for example, Sunwing — and they are identifying themselves as one of us," said Racine. "They have our phone number. So then it's a green light, they can book what they want."

Racine and Dougan say that at their agency alone, they've dealt with 10 fraudulent bookings since November 2016, costing roughly $20,000 in total. They say it's a huge headache because the carriers who have been ripped off have been demanding the travel agencies pay up.

"It's too easy to book. You can do a booking, you can just put a credit card number, names, three digit code — not even needed some times. You're in, you could put Mickey Mouse [on the booking] and it would work," Racine said.

Dougan said the carriers have been fairly understanding about the scheme and have agreed to absorb most of the losses, but he's frustrated that he's being asked to pay for a crime he neither committed nor knew about.

"You're paying a big price because they have a policy, it's your bookings, you have to pay for it, you are responsible, no matter what the situation," Dougan said.

"What if we don't have it? We'll close down."

Montreal police now involved

Voyages G Travel isn't the only agency being targeted by this type of fraud.

Christophe Serrano, director of Montreal travel agency Voyages en Direct, told CBC News he's dealing with $10,000 worth of fraudulent bookings.

"It's a real problem for us."

Serrano said he has been busy collecting evidence from other travel agencies that have fallen victim to the scam, and recently handed the files over to Montreal police.

'It's a really bad situation out there,' said Kerwin Dougan, who has been in the travel business for more than three decades.

Racine said some of the travel carriers have started putting new fraud control measures in place. Tour Transat, for one, now requires travel agents to identify themselves using a secret code rather than just their name and agency's name, she said.

Tour Transat spokeswoman Odette Trottier said in an email that the agency felt compelled to take that step.

"Unfortunately, fraud exists in the tourism industry, as it does in other sectors," Trottier said.  "It is a rare phenomenon, and we always do our best to prevent it and to strengthen our control measures."

Ultimately, Racine said, she hopes her story will make travellers realize some offers are too good to be true.

"I want people to realize that when you are getting a trip that is much, much cheaper than what most people [can offer] at other agencies, there is something fishy."