New bill introduced to combat online hotel booking scams

Issue first reported by Call Christina last summer

MIAMI – Last summer, South Florida hotel managers told Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez that they were having a problem with customers arriving with fraudulent booking confirmations.

"Unfortunately the websites go up and come down so quickly that the consumer has no idea that they have been scammed until they show up at the hotel," Heidi Dennis, general manager of the Atlantic Hotel and Spa on Fort Lauderdale Beach, said.

"This has been an ongoing problem, just talking to other hoteliers," she said.

According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AH&LA) the fraudsters behind the deceptive hotel booking sites trick consumers into thinking they are booking directly with a hotel.

"With about one in every three travelers booking a vacation online, consumers need to be vigilant when booking hotel rooms," AH&LA said on its website. "AH&LA estimates that in the lodging sector alone, there are some 2.5 million bookings a year that are misleading consumers. That's when consumers aren't booking directly with a hotel, and instead are booking on rogue sites that pretend to be the hotel's booking site."

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On Wednesday, Congresswoman Lois Frankel (FL-22), Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), and Congressman Bill Shuster (PA-09) filed bipartisan legislation to combat the scam.

The Stop Online Booking Scams Act would require third-party hotel booking websites to disclose "clearly and conspicuously" that they are not affiliated with the hotel the consumer is looking to stay at. The hope is that a customer would have a better understanding that they are not on the hotel's website but a third-party site. Violators would face fines of up to $11,000 per infraction, be responsible for financially compensating fraud victims and have their illegal website shut down.

The bipartisan bill would also give states more power in going after scammers in federal court and seeking damages for victim. In most states, under current law, only federal authorities can fully penalize criminals who commit online hotel booking fraud.

It would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission to simplify its current online complaint system for reporting online hotel booking scams.

Last summer, Frankel told Call Christina, "Florida's Restaurant and Lodging Association approached our office, told us about these issues and of course alarms go off because for Florida we are the top travel destination in the United States, so it is an issue that we care about. Can you imagine you have these big plans to go to Key West or Fort Lauderdale Beach or Disney World, you pack your family in a car, (and) after a long trip show up to a hotel only to find out no reservations or the cost of the hotel is six, seven, times more than they expected? All those people are losing their money."

WEB EXTRA: U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel speaks to Vazquez about bill to combat online hotel booking scams

At the time she was one of more than two dozen members of Congress taking action by asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the companies tricking consumers with deceptive and fraudulent booking websites.

"Booking a hotel room for a dream vacation should not lead to a nightmare," Frankel said. "This bill will reduce fraud and give law enforcement more tools to protect travelers."

The FTC told Local 10 News that it does not comment on correspondence it receives.

Here are some hotel booking consumer tips:

-Take time to verify the legitimacy of the website.

-Call the hotel directly to confirm a reservation.

-Use the brand name of the hotel when making a search.

-Take special care when paying in advance.

-Make sure a rewards program is directly tied to the hotel.

-Ask about the privacy policy and the cancelation or change policy.

-Send complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.

Follow Christina Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV

Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10