Inspired by How to get my passport back to me in Michigan from a travel agent in California, when he wants me to buy his services? I feel we should have a canonical place to deal with these. While not strictly travel related, the world of travel where ordinary people need to interact with the profoundly hostile and alien world of immigration authorities creates a fantastic opportunity for certain entities promising to make this interaction more smooth. The bewildering variety of accommodations and the seemingly random nature of airfares also creates such opportunities.
These are the most basic checks only and the simplest ones are just a few clicks for you to run them but you'll be surprised how many of these scammers fail them:
The contact page should contain a phone number and a physical address, not just a form. If there's a dispute where are you going to send a certified / registered mail outlining your grievances if you don't have an address?
By now you should have the company name, either from the legal documents or the contact page. Be wary if not. If you still want to go ahead, you could check whois should to find the company owning the domain. There is nothing wrong with someone running a small niche travel service from their living room but incorporating is not particularly expensive and saves serious headaches on both ends. For extra precaution you could Google corporate registry california replacing california with whatever is appropriate for the situation which will give you a place to check the business indeed exists.
Edit: apply common sense! If a deal is too good to be true, there's probably some catch in it. Maybe the astoundingly cheap hotel is indeed 500 metres from the sea shore and it is not a dump -- but there's a highway between the shore and you so you can't get to the beach and you can't sleep because of the noise. Anyone offering to handle a tourist visa into Saudi Arabia which doesn't issue tourist visas to the general public. Handling visa appeal when there's no appeal. Significantly cheaper air fare tickets than Google Flights or Kayak are possible but rare and requires extreme caution.
Unfortunately, it is hard to figure out a scam site just by looking at their web site. Many are really bad and easily recognized, but some are really professional and look legit.
- Do they make extraordinary claims, or threats? Do they say things like "make 3000$ in a week", "your computer has a virus" or offer huge discounts on products or services? Then it could be a scam.
- If the page does not even look legit (e.g. no contact information, typos all over the place, etc.), it probably isn't.
- If you know the brand is legit, check if you are on the right page, or just some that pretends to be. (e.g. paypal is "paypal.com", but anyone can buy the domain "i-pretend-to-be-paypal.com" and use it) - If you are not sure, type in the site address yourself, or find the site through Google.
- Otherwise, search for external verification. Google for them. Look them up and see if:
- They have reviews on the big review sites (e.g. tripadvisor)
- They are listed in an official business registry
- They are mentioned in news reports from reputable sources
- They have an app (App stores require at least some verification to release an app)
- They have a twitter account and/or facebook that goes back for many years. Most scams will be exposed after a while, so if the site was there for years it is probably legit. A "fresh" account or page is more or less meaningless - everyone can open one.
- Their address exists (while you can often not verify the address, it should raise a flag if Google cannot find it or if it is in the middle of a residential area)
- If a site is not legit, you may find some information about that on Google as well (search for "[name of the site] scam")
- If you find nothing, treat it as a scam
- And even if the site is legit, you'll still have to decide if you want to do business with the company behind it, or not.