Airline Tickets Voucher Scam Ticket Credit Scam using Stolen Credit Cards
Ticketless Travel Fund Scam
12/06 - ST. PETERSBURG - Like hundreds of people around the country, Danielle Doll has bought and sold Southwest Airlines ticket credits and vouchers on online classified sites like Craigslist.
But last week, the St. Petersburg woman got no further than the ticket counter at Tampa International Airport. There, she was told she had bought tickets from an online thief who used stolen credit cards to target victims in half a dozen cities around the country.
Southwest Airlines - which expressly prohibits the sale or trade of its tickets, vouchers and rapid reward awards by outside parties - pulled all $600 of the ticket funds Doll had purchased on Craigslist.
She's now worried others might fall into the same trap.
"I think there are people being scammed out there, and this is Christmastime, and there doesn't need to be a bunch of people out there stranded at the airport because they didn't know about it," Doll said.
Southwest Airlines confirms that the Secret Service, which investigates credit card fraud, is looking into the issue. Brandy King, a Southwest Airlines spokeswoman, declined to reveal details of the investigation, but said people are being sold some form of tickets using stolen credit cards.
And on Dec. 4, one of the airline's security specialists posted this warning on a Southwest Airlines blog: "Several recent cases I have investigated involved people who wired money to unknown third parties in Indonesia and Russia," wrote Joe McDaniel. "While there is nothing wrong with saving money, especially around the holidays, people who respond to ads like these often end up paying for the trip twice, or jeopardizing their travel plans altogether."
Unaware of scam until it's too late
At any given moment, there are hundreds of people buying and selling tickets for Southwest and other airlines on Craigslist, eBay and newspaper classifieds, including the St. Petersburg Times. They buy and sell vouchers, gift cards, rapid rewards awards, drink coupons, green passes (used for radio promotions, customer appreciation and employee incentives) and "ticketless travel funds" (typically these are refunds from unused travel).
Southwest does not allow people to sell its tickets, but its rapid reward awards are easier to earn than incentives on other airlines and can be given to someone making them among the most traded online.
Doll, 52, has purchased the tickets before without incident. This time, the ad on Craigslist promised $674 in ticketless travel funds on Southwest Airlines for $300.
She responded to it on Nov. 6.
Hi, I am really interested because I go back and forth to Houston all the time for my medical care.
She asked the e-mailer how he wanted to be paid. The reply: $300 in gift certificates at Amazon.com.
It seemed easy enough to Doll, but she was a little cautious when she replied. "Let's do it if you're not scamming me."
He sent her a Southwest confirmation number and the name on a credit card that later turned out to be stolen. Doll checked it out on Southwest Airlines' Web site and saw that there was $674 in available travel funds.
She paid the Amazon gift certificates on Nov. 8.
Doll, who is disabled and recently moved from Portland to Tampa, has a series of neurological disorders that require her to fly to Baylor College of Medicine in Houston for treatment.
About a week ago, at TIA, she checked in for a trip to Houston and was told there was a problem with her ticket.
At the ticket counter she was put in touch with an airline representative in Dallas, who told her she'd been scammed. The thief or thieves had other victims in Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., among other places.
If Doll wanted to continue her journey, she was told, she'd have to pay for another ticket.
"Evidently because of Christmas, this has escalated," Doll said. "A lot of people want to buy this stuff up because of the holidays. She said it was nationwide and involved a lot of people and there was a federal investigation going on."
Multiple airline ticket, green pass scams
A spokeswoman for the Secret Service said the agency does not discuss ongoing investigations. However, this is not the first time someone has lost out on an airline ticket this way.
In 1995, 300 Mary Kay Cosmetics sales representatives trying to attend a company seminar in Dallas lost $150 apiece to someone who claimed to be a travel agent and sold them tickets that had been purchased on stolen credit cards.
In June, a federal grand jury in San Antonio, Texas, issued an indictment charging a Southwest Airlines employee and her husband, a deputy sheriff, with obtaining more than 5,600 tickets and reselling them privately at reduced prices.
And in August, a California woman was charged with buying Southwest Airlines tickets with stolen credit cards and reselling them on Craigslist. In that case, as in this one, many passengers showed up at the airport and found their tickets were worthless.
In recent weeks, two people, one in Miami and the other in Washington, D.C., posted Craigslist ads warning that they had been scammed by people selling Southwest Airlines green passes.
A spokeswoman for Craigslist said the online community has a policy that bars the sale of tickets that are not transferable. In addition, all users of Craigslist are told to beware of fraud by dealing mostly with local people and to avoid wiring funds by Western Union or Moneygram.
While it appears to be easier to get around Southwest's rules, ads can be found selling tickets for many airlines.
"I've seen various American Airlines (tickets) on these Web sites, but it's a bad decision to buy these because ... under our rules it is illegal to sell miles or tickets or vouchers to anyone else, and if we catch you doing it, we will confiscate these things and you will lose all value," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines.
All airlines have tried to stem the flow of the sales because they hurt their bottom line, experts say.
"Airlines are very careful about tracking vouchers and gift cards and things like that because obviously it's a huge amount of revenue for them," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst in San Francisco.
"Any time you look at buying these vouchers, as a consumer you better be damn careful, because if an airline feels that the ticket is being used in an improper way that is against the rules, you could be pulled aside and told 'you're defrauding us,' and the only way to get on the airplane is to pay in full."
How the airline ticket voucher scam works
- Thief gets stolen credit card and uses it to buy airline tickets. The tickets don't get used or are canceled and become "ticketless travel funds." He or she then posts the tickets for sale online.
- When someone inquires, the thief sends the interested party a confirmation number and the credit card name so the buyer can check on Southwest Airlines' Web site to make sure the funds exist.
- The buyer sees the ticket money is there and pays for it using an untraceable third-party system like gift certificates on Amazon.com. The buyer typically doesn't find out he's been defrauded until he shows up at the airport.
This is just one scam. In another, a victim paid for a ticket using a Green Dot Moneypak at RadioShack and then never received the promised Southwest Airlines green pass in the mail.
St. Petersburg Times