As a business, your reputation is everything. Whether it takes the form of online reviews on Google or TripAdvisor, or a customer telling friends about their experience, the strength of your reputation can make or break your success. Protecting your reputation and ensuring customers have accurate information about your business is essential.
A Recipe for an Unhappy Customer
Picture this scenario: a potential guest searches for your property online. Scrolling through the results, past ads from Expedia and TripAdvisor, they see what looks like your official website. Clicking on the link, they are taken to a site that has your property’s name on it. Your branding, your page copy, your room listings. But it is NOT your site. Instead, it is a scam website from an unethical company that has registered a domain almost, but not quite, the same as yours. Not only that, they have copied the text from your website and pulled your photos and listings from Expedia or Booking.com! Everything on the website is for your property, except the booking links and phone numbers, which direct to the company that runs the site. If a customer books through this website, you may never even know, let alone see a dime from it. Even if they do actually send you the booking info and revenue, you have no control over how they represent your property or what kind of customer service they provide.
Sound like a recipe for an unhappy would-be customer and lost revenue? We certainly think so here at Q4Launch. In fact, one of our customers, POSH Palm Springs Inn in California, encountered this scenario. Here’s what we did to help them, and what other property owners can do in a similar situation.
That’s Not my Website!
Tony Gangloff, co-owner of POSH Palm Springs Inn, hosts his inn’s website on www.poshpalmsprings.com. He had never heard of poshhotelpalmsprings.com before, but the site was designed to look like the official page for his inn. In fact, in the Bing search engine, it comes up as a paid ad above the listing for his bed and breakfast. The address was correct, the photos and text were from his site, and the listings were for his rooms. However, on the “Contact Us” page, it has a long list of US and international phone numbers, none of which were his. The site owner, “Secure Hotels Reservations,” was a company with a bare-bones homepage and no business information.
Unfortunately, there is little direct recourse possible against SHR, the owner of this fake website and others like it. There is no corporate information listed online, other than the booking numbers. As another article recently pointed out, this is likely done to make legal action more difficult.
What Can You Do to Protect your Property?
First, you can buy domains similar to your own to prevent fraudulent sites from purchasing them. In Tony’s case, we suggested he buy the domain www.poshpalmspringsinn.com and have it redirect to his true homepage. For only $10-$12 a year, this is an affordable insurance policy for your site. While buying every alternate domain isn’t practical, you should at least own the ones that are the closest to your true URL. This helps ensure that the false domains don’t look too much like the real one.
Second, you can report a site of this nature to phishing directories. Phishing is when a scammer imitates a legitimate business to make money or steal information. They are a big problem online and many directories exist to help stop them. You can also report the fraudulent website to the domain host or to the company powering the booking engine (such as Booking.com). This information is not always readily available but, if you can find it, it may be your best recourse.
We recommend submitting any site that imitates your business to the following directories:
- Google: https://www.google.com/safebrowsing/report_phish/
- Microsoft/Bing: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/930167
- Federal Trade Commission: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0003-phishing
- US-CERT: https://www.us-cert.gov/report-phishing
- Symantec: https://submit.symantec.com/antifraud/phish.cgi
- Yandex: https://webmaster.yandex.com/delspam.xml
- Netcraft: http://toolbar.netcraft.com/report_url
- Norton: https://submit.symantec.com/antifraud/phish.cgi
- Trustwave: https://www3.trustwave.com/support/submit-a-site.asp
- Phishtank: http://www.phishtank.com/
- AVG Antivirus: http://www.avgthreatlabs.com/ww-en/website-safety-reports/
We asked Tony if he had any advice for fellow innkeepers and property owners. He suggested that the most important thing was to “be aware of where your reservations are coming from. If you have a relationship with an OTA, make sure to understand how they might also be reselling your availability/rate information. Also, be particularly aware of reservations during a high-demand period for you particular area. This is the most likely the time a booking might be made on one of these phishing sites.”
Finally, building a strong web presence will make it harder for phishing sites to steal your traffic. On-site SEO, social media, blogging, and maintaining an up-to-date website all help achieve this. Additionally, make sure to periodically remind customers and social media followers of your correct business URL. Once people are familiar with your website and branding, they will be less likely to accidentally visit a phishing site.