The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles

The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles
The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles

Summary

Fliers are encountering phony accounts on X pretending to offer customer service from the carriers.

It took Southwest Airlines just two minutes to reply to my request for help on social media on Monday.

Fake Southwest wasn’t far behind.

I posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, to informally test what Southwest and other airlines say is a growing problem: impostor accounts trying to obtain travelers’ personal information or money. Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Air New Zealand have recently pinned warnings at the tops of their feeds about look-alike accounts.

“We are aware of accounts on X impersonating our @FlyFrontier and @FrontierCare accounts. When contacting Frontier on X, please ensure you only communicate with our official accounts," Frontier’s post says.

I wasn’t duped because I was on the hunt for scammers. I know every major airline’s official handle and, well, travel is my job.

But it wouldn’t be hard to mistake the accounts for the real thing, especially if you’re in a hurry this holiday travel season and the wait to reach a phone rep is long. Or you might be unfamiliar with Twitter’s rebranding to X and switch from free blue check marks to a new, paid verification system.

Fake accounts are an issue across social media, but X is the go-to site for airline complaints and questions. It’s easy for travelers to post and companies constantly monitor it.

“If scammers are spending enough time and energy doing this, somebody’s falling for it," says Jason Rabinowitz, an airline marketing consultant.

Rabinowitz, who lives in New York, spends his entire day with X open on his computer screen. For the past couple of months, he has noticed that anytime he has posted about an airline, he has been deluged with replies from random fakers—even when he wasn’t looking for customer-service help. So he did an experiment in early October, calling out several airline accounts and sprinkling in keywords such as help, flight, canceled and delayed.

“I got a response from every fake airline," he says.

X didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A flock of fakes

Fake Southwest’s reply to my tweet was typical of other impostor accounts, the airline says.

The account looked similar to Southwest’s, with the airline’s signature heart logo. The display name on the account was SouthwestAir, which is the actual Southwest’s handle. The reply was empathetic, too. (“We apologize for the inconvenience.") It was even signed like Southwest does in its posts.

But I noticed red flags. The account’s actual handle was @_SouthwestAir9, not @SouthwestAir. Unlike the real feed, the impostor had no gold check mark, the new replacement for the blue check mark for many brands.

Both the real airline and Fake Southwest asked me to send information via direct message for assistance. The impostor account wanted my phone number, not my flight confirmation number. As soon as I provided it, someone called me via WhatsApp and said they were with Southwest Air. I said it didn’t sound like Southwest and they quickly hung up.

It wasn’t a one-off. Around the same time on Monday, a traveler reached out to Air Canada on X with a complaint about a canceled flight. The airline and an impostor, @aircanada153551, both responded.

Air Canada says it offers a warning on its site about impostor accounts.

John Young, a manager at Southwest’s social-media monitoring center, says impostor accounts pose the most risk when the airline can’t reply to a traveler quickly. Send your confirmation number to the wrong account and they can mess with your reservation, including canceling or changing a flight.

“Most of the time we have already responded to the customer, so the customer sees our handle in the conversation as well," he says. “You can distinguish [between] these two different people that are responding."

Southwest has software to detect impostor accounts, and its social-media staff is always on the hunt. When they find one, they flag it immediately to their X rep.

“In the last three weeks, we probably squashed 20 to 30 accounts," says Carlye Thornton, a social business specialist with the airline.

I flagged the impostor Southwest account to Southwest via direct message and it was suspended within 30 minutes.

Despite the quick enforcement, Rabinowitz says he’s changed his stance on X being the go-to place for quick airline help.

“I can’t recommend it for a novice social-media users," he says. “It’s very difficult to determine what’s real, what’s fake."

Adam Seper fell for a fake Air France account at 4 a.m. in Paris in August while frantically trying to figure out whether his family’s flight to Chicago was canceled or just delayed. (Overnight emails from the airline offered conflicting information.) He didn’t look closely enough at the account name.

“I was frazzled. It was early. I was stressed," says Seper, a stay-at-home dad in St. Louis. When the impostor said Seper would receive a link to rebook the flight, Seper grew suspicious and hung up. His family ended up making the flight.

Get reliable help

So what can travelers do when they need quick airline help?

For starters, skip public social-media posts. On X, I always start with a direct message to the airline when the option is available. (Delta is among the airlines that doesn’t offer this feature, but sends travelers who reach out to its chat function, which is reachable via X, or Delta’s website and app.)

“If your goal is to get an issue resolved, there’s no reason to publicly tweet, because most of the time we’re going to switch to a private channel anyway," Southwest’s Young says. The airline will only ask for personal information in direct messages, he says.

Of course, you have to start by making sure you are indeed messaging with the airline.

Most airline websites list and link to their official social-media accounts. Delta maintains a list of legitimate accounts here, but you have to scroll way down.

On X, you can start by looking for a check mark. Several U.S. airlines, including American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska and Frontier, have a gold check mark, Twitter’s designation for an official organization account. JetBlue and Allegiant don’t have check marks. Spirit has a blue check mark.

Another distinguishing feature: Companies with gold check marks have a square profile picture, not round. Fake Southwest was round in my test.

See if the airline has a chat function on their website or app. I’ve used the chat feature on United and other airline apps. American recommends this path.

Then there’s the good old-fashioned phone. Just make sure you’re calling the right number by going to the airline’s website. Don’t simply Google “What is [insert airline name’s] number?" There are scams for that, too.

—Sign up for the WSJ Travel newsletter for more tips and insights from Dawn Gilbertson and the rest of the Journal’s travel team.

Write to Dawn Gilbertson at dawn.gilbertson@wsj.com

The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles
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The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles
The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles
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The Scammers Waiting for Your Travel Troubles
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