Published July 23, 2014
When you check into a hotel, don't set let scam artists or misbehaving companies check into your wallet. It's summer travel season, and that means vacations, road trips and hotel stays. It also means you'll be facing a minefield of gotchas. So don't let your healthy skepticism go on vacation when you do. There's ripoffs, and there's sneaky fees, but to your wallet, they are the same thing. Together, I call them all "gotchas." So before you pack your bags, here's a quick reminder of what to watch out for the next time you check into a hotel. The Federal Trade Commission just published a list of "hazards" consumers can face at hotels. These identity theft-related scams are a good place to start.
1. The Late-Night Call From the Front Desk
After you check in, the room phone rings, allegedly from the front desk. There's a problem with your credit card, the operator says, please give me the account numbers again. This popular scam tactic works because many elements combine to make it seem feasible.
To pull it off, all a criminal has to do is trick their way through a hotel switchboard and catch a patron in the room. If you get a call like this, hang up, call the operator, and ask if there's a problem.
That's a good habit at home, too. Hang up and call back. If there's really a problem, don't reveal your number over the phone. Just walk back to the front desk.
2. The Pizza Delivery Deal
"You find a pizza delivery flyer slipped under your hotel door," the FTC says. "You call to order, and they take your credit card number over the phone. But the flyer is a fake, and a scammer now has your info."
I've not seen widespread incidence of this; it would be pretty brazen for ID thieves to physically walk around hotel hallways, where cameras might be used to identify them. Still, the same principal applies.
Use a smartphone to double-check the phone number you see on any flyer placed in your room before you order pizza. With scams like the pizza and late-night call schemes, the goal is to get a hold of your credit card number for fraud. You should monitor your bank accounts regularly so you can react early if you become a victim.
3. The Fake Wi-Fi Network
The single easiest way for a hacker to hijack your computer is to set up a rogue hot spot named "linksys" and trick you into connecting to it. "Oh, free WiFi," you think. While that's a very real problem, it's also not terribly likely in a hotel room. After all, to be close enough to pull it off, the criminal's technology would in most cases have to be inside the hotel. That's a risky proposition.
On the other hand, you might be visiting a lot of strange coffee shops on the road, where rogue Wi-Fi is a more likely possibility. It's always smart to double-check the safety of the networks you connect to, however. It might be wise to stick with your smartphone's connectivity, if that's possible.
Your wallet doesn't care if a criminal is stealing your money or a corporation is tricking you out of it, so here's the other half of the gotcha story. The NYU Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management says hotels collected a record $2.1 billion in fees last year, up from $1.2 billion a decade ago. No reason to believe this year won't be a record, too.
4. Internet Fees
The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you will be charged a hefty Wi-Fi fee of $10-$15 per day. The new trick I've seen lately is for hotels to offer "free" Wi-Fi in the lobby, but charge for access in the room. (That means be skeptical of free Wi-Fi offers now!) Best way to avoid that fee? Before you leave, make sure you know how to use your smartphone for broadband access.
5. Resort Fees
Hotels have a love-hate relationship with websites like Priceline or Expedia, which help them fill rooms, but systematically put downward price pressure on their inventory. Extra fees, added at check-in, are the hotels' way around this problem.
Many folks pay online, only to find there's additional charges when they arrive at the hotel. Resort fees are often the biggest culprit. As the name suggests, this fee is most prevalent in restort-y places like Las Vegas. But resort fees can pop up anywhere. Or they can come with other names, such as...
6. Housekeeping Fees
Hotels like charging to clean your room now, as if that's not included in the price. The worst part of the housekeeping fee: Often, housekeepers don't get any of the money.
7. Pet Fees
Traveling with Fido (or Rusty)? The good news: More hotels are embracing travelers with pets. The bad news? They are doing it because it's good business.
Hotels charge anywhere from $10 to $100 for allowing a pet in your room. If you use a site like Expedia to sort through pet-friendly hotels, make sure you manually check the fee. Not all pet-friendly hotels are created equal.
8. Safe Fees
This one bugs me. Some hotels put a safe fee on your bill, even if you never use the safe. You can ask that it be removed. Same for the newspaper fee.
9. Cancellation Fees
Finally, gone are the days when hotels could be canceled by 6 p.m. on the night of a reservation for a full refund. Cancellation policies are all over the map now, and can even vary based on how the reservation was initially made.
Never book a hotel without knowing what the cost of a breakup would be. Travel always involves adventure, which involves unpredictability, which means plans change. Make sure you plan for that.
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