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Deceptive hotel booking sites raise alarms in Florida

WASHINGTON – The vacation package was too good to be true: A room for six at the majestic Pelican Grand Beach Resort in balmy Fort Lauderdale in mid-February for just $99 a night.

A woman from Atlanta booked a room online, paid in advance for a week’s stay and showed up with five children in tow.

“You could tell she thought, ‘Finally, I can afford a vacation,’ ” recalled Bob Keesler, the Pelican Grand’s general manager.

This unfortunate family found a gracious hotel but some harsh realities. Rooms were more like $350 to $450 a night, all of them long sold out. Their reservation was nowhere to be found. And they, like too many other consumers, had been scammed by a fraudulent hotel booking site.

An estimated 2.5 million hotel reservations were made nationwide through deceptive booking websites or call centers last year, cheating consumers and bedeviling the travel industry, especially in major destinations like Florida. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, deceptive bookings cost consumers about $220 million from lost reservations, cancellation fees and special charges.

Alarmed by this mushrooming form of fraud and its effect on tourism, all 29 members of Congress from Florida recently urged the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into deceptive booking practices and fake online hotel websites.

“This especially affects the state of Florida, which is the top travel destination in the United States,” Reps. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., wrote the FTC in a letter signed by their colleagues.

Industry leaders say deceptive bookings take many forms, from hidden fees to reservations that are never made.

Hotel services, such as accommodation for people with disabilities, are promised but not available. Victims find it impossible to get refunds or to cancel or change reservations. Some websites are faked, using replicas of logos and brands that look like the real thing.

“We had some guests last month who had booked a hotel in the Keys that didn’t exist, so they ended up staying here,” said Heidi Dennis, general manager of The Atlantic Hotel & Spa in Fort Lauderdale. “These poor people paid their money to somebody, and they really didn’t have a true reservation.”

Another guest came to Dennis’ hotel late last year after booking through a fake website that displayed the name and pictures of The Atlantic but used a different address.

“Unfortunately, she had already sent them her money,” Dennis said. “We turned it over to the police. But it’s really tough to catch these people. They have a site up for a short period of time, they get a bunch of money, and the next thing you know the site is gone.”

The FTC, charged with investigating consumer fraud, is still considering the Floridians’ request for an investigation.

“I’m told we don’t have any way of characterizing how much of this there may be,” FTC spokesman Frank Dorman said in an email message. “All information about investigations is non-public. Consumers should make sure they’re looking at the actual hotel website.”

Florida’s attorney general, meanwhile, has received 18 complaints since January 2014 about booking websites that took money from consumers but did not provide reservations, a spokeswoman said.

The American Hotel & Lodging Association, backed by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, is pushing for an enforcement crackdown while urging buyers to beware of deceptive sites and call centers.

“We’ve seen a real uptick in these deceptive marketing practices in the past several years. Last summer we saw a real spike in it, and we see it again now that the summer travel season is upon us,” said Maryam Cope, vice president of government affairs for AHLA. “We’re not talking about legitimate booking sites, just ones that are trying to mislead people.”

Cope said third parties are tapping into the explosion of online hotel bookings, which come at a rate of 480 a minute.

“Don’t book in a rush,” she advises consumers. “Check before you finish clicking through.”

Hotel booking 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: http://www.(brandname).com

• 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 cancellation or change policy.

• Send complaints to the Federal Trade Commission,