With spring break on the way, students of all ages will soon be on the move. While many parents and grandparents worry about children who are traveling far and wide, scammers may use this time as an opportunity to target winter-weary student travelers and their loved ones, Better Business Bureau warns.
The so-called grandparent scam. Scammers call family members and pretend to be a child, grandchild or a friend of the child who has run into a difficult situation while traveling.
The scammer may claim to have been arrested, mugged or hospitalized and make urgent pleas for money. This scam tends to pop up in the spring, when students travel away from home, and family members tend to worry about their general safety.
Receiving a frantic phone call may scare people into letting their guard down, but BBB encourages everyone to make sure they know signs of this scam. If you get such a call, resist any request to send money immediately. Ask for a phone number to contact the person back, then check with other relatives to determine the whereabouts of the person who is allegedly stranded. A request for you to send money by Western Union, MoneyGram or a prepaid card like Green Dot MoneyPak is often a scam.
Travel deal scams. Students eager to take time off from classes and to escape winter weather look forward to spring break. Their budgets are often limited, so they seek out deals on flights and accommodations.
Nationally, Better Business Bureau received more than 7,000 complaints in 2017 concerning travel agencies and bureaus. In most of these cases consumers were misled by travel offers which failed to deliver as promised. In other cases, consumers paid for travel arrangements that were never made.
BBB advises students to be wary of travel deals seeming too good to be true. Many online sites offer deals on travel. Some are legitimate, while others may be scams. BBB advises students to deal with reputable sites when booking travel, checking a site's reservation policies and other fine print before booking deals. Package deals may be touted as all-inclusive, but be sure you understand exactly what is included.
Here are some BBB tips to avoid the grandparent and travel deal scams:
Know the red flags. Typically, the grandparent receives a frantic phone call from a scammer posing as a grandchild, or a friend of the grandchild. The "grandchild" explains he or she is in some kind of trouble and needs help. The "grandchild" pleads to the grandparents not to tell his or her parents and asks that they wire thousands of dollars for reasons such as posting bail, repairing a car, covering lawyer's fees or even paying hospital bills.
Stay calm. Emergency scams count on an emotional reaction. It's important to resist the pressure to act quickly or react to the caller's distress. Tell them you'll call back and ask for a number; then contact your grandchild or another family member to determine whether or not the call is legitimate, and confirm the whereabouts of the grandchild.
Ask a personal question, but don't disclose too much information. If a caller says, "It's me, Grandma!" don't respond with a name, but instead let the caller explain who he or she is. One easy way to confirm their identity is to ask a simple question the grandchild would know such as what school he or she goes to or their middle name. Your family might consider developing a secret code or password used to verify a true emergency.
Do not wire money. Wiring money is like giving cash — once you send it, you can't get it back. If you are asked to wire money based on a request made over the phone, especially to locations overseas, consider it a serious red flag. Always make certain of the recipient's identity before using a wire service or prepaid debit cards.
File a claim. If you believe you are the victim of a scam between Jan. 1, 2004, and Jan. 19, 2017, and used Western Union's money transfer system, you can now file a claim to get your money back. You have until May 31, 2018, to file the free claim.
Communicate. Students should share travel plans with family members before leaving the state or country. Parents are encouraged to let extended family members know when their child is traveling.
Share contact and travel information cautiously. Students should provide cell phone numbers and email addresses of friends they are traveling with in the case of an emergency. Family members should remind students to be cautious when sharing details about travel plans on social media.
Make a report. To report a scam or learn more about the latest scams trending in your area, go to bbb.org/scamtracker.
Do your research. Consumers may obtain a BBB Business Profile on an individual business at bbb.org or by calling 888-996-3887.
Book through a reliable travel agent or travel site. Check BBB Business Profiles at bbb.org. or find a BBB Accredited Business. Accredited Businesses must adhere to the BBB's 8 standards of trust, requiring they advertise honestly, be transparent, and honor promises.
Get details about your trip in writing. Be sure to confirm the details, such as total cost, any restrictions, flights, hotel reservations and car rental.
Pay with a credit card. Paying by credit card offers the most protection should something go wrong because you can challenge the charges.
Consider purchasing travel insurance. Travel insurance provides coverage for particular perils which are specific conditions under which it will pay claims. Be sure to shop around and read the terms and conditions before purchasing.
Michelle Gleba is the Mid-Missouri regional director for Better Business Bureau.