Beware The Google Airline Scam, Phone Number Search Results Are Corrupted

In the spring I wrote about scammers taking over an old Singapore Airlines phone number and pretending to be Singapore Airlines when customers call. The scammers charge high fees for basic services the airline would normally provide for free, like helping with seat assignments.

I’ve shared that last summer a former boss of mine got scammed by a phone number for Delta provided to her by her travel agency. The agents pretending to be Delta charged her $1,000 to move her and her granddaughter to flights the next day when their original itinerary was cancelled. (Delta Air Lines shockingly covered the cost after 9 months.)

And I’ve covered scam travel agencies buying Google ads to appear that you’ve found the airline’s phone number. They’re doing this with United Airlines, JetBlue, Hawaiian and others. You get connected to an agency with a one star and an F rating from the Better Business Bureau.

It turns out there’s another variation on this scam: the agency gets Google’s search results for the airline at a specific airport changed to display their phone number. A now-viral tweet shares that a passenger dealing with a Delta Air Lines cancellation in New York tried to Google a phone number for Delta at JFK (there can be long hold times for the national number, so this seemed clever?).

Only this put him in touch with someone that wasn’t really Delta, who was ‘helping’ but at a huge cost.

When the travel agent didn’t know the geography of where he claimed to be best, he gave away the plot.

The huge charges at first seemed legitimate because the phone number was Delta’s New York number, according to Google.

Local numbers have similarly been updated for other airlines, too.

Google’s ads at the top of search results increasingly look like real results! And Google results ‘for a business’ showing a phone number can be manipulated as well. Those probably only happen for bigger business results where customers will call and pay immediately for something over the phone. Don’t just Google airline’s phone number and assume that is.. the airline’s phone number. Pull up their number on the airline’s website or through the airline’s mobile app (except for Frontier Airlines, where no phone number is offered).

When your travel agency provides the wrong number it’s hard to fault the customer, but that’s really on the agency. Google’s processes for verifying the legitimacy of updates seem questionable as well? Let’s be careful out there.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. All airlines are no doubt paying customers of Google’s advertising sales. As such they have a direct connection to a Google employee whose function is ostensibly to sell more ads – but who can also raise issues with cross-functional teams outside of ads and marketing. All airlines should coordinate and withhold Google ad spend until this issue is fixed.

    Btw the same goes on with hotels.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I find it fun to ask such people if they enjoy being thieves (or “dacoits” if I’m sure they are Indian). Most insist they are not and get upset when I go over why they are; I guess denial is a helpful tool for self-esteem. But one guy said, “Yes, I like it. I make a lot of money each money from people who I can scam. It’s a good living.” Once in a while you find an “honest” man!

  3. During the craziness of last summer’s travel season, I needed to changes seats on an upcoming KLM flight. Their web site wouldn’t work so I called their customer service number from the web site. An agent then gave me a random California number to call and I did, assuming it was a legitimate number, and gave the person on the line my booking code and travel dates. He then attempted to charge me $100/seat to change the seats. I was business class so I got free seat selection and knew that wasn’t right. He then came back and offered it for $80/seat. I knew it was a scam at this point, but still shocked the KLM agent gave me a scam phone number. I’m assuming she just googled it and gave me the result.

  4. @ Gary — I love when my friends from India call every day. I always have kind things to say to them.

  5. For major companies, all Google search data should need to be verified by owner before changes to details on the landing site are made. Why is this not a standard practice.?

  6. Sounds like I should plan ahead and put all legitimate airline phone numbers in my contact list.

  7. You see this a lot with hotels, and I guess now it’s infected airline search results, too. Pretty shameful of Google to allow these ads. I can’t believe management thinks it’s a good thing. It degrades the value of google search and encourages users to switch search engines. Even if you don’t get scammed, it’s obviously a time-waster and inconvenience.

  8. I think stories like this and people loudly complaining on social media will help shame Google into freeing up some cash to invest in checking these ads. I’ve happily owned Google stock for over 10 years and it’s performance has been phenomenal (2nd only to my apple stock). They can afford a little quality assurance. The last thing consumers, businesses or Google need is for Google results to become unreliable.

  9. Wow, good to know. Calling customer service or reservations for airlines is painful and if the wait is short it might be a scam.

  10. @ Gary — This gives me something fun to do in my spare time — scam the scammers.

  11. Since this is mentioning google I will chime in with my recent experience with google flight for international flights I found a GREAT fare on AA to Croatia RT in J. Went to purchase using the button on google flights as recommended by the website. It transferred me to AA website (as it said it would) but the routing had changed, the day of departure had changed and the J fare increased from $3600 to over $21,000 (yes $21,000 USD!)
    I tried several times and then on later days. Same results. Changed the dates of travel and the price did drop to $12,000. Never saw the $3600 fare again on google flight.
    Although I have found AA Business to be a very good product, I’m giving up on AA “loyalty” and going with cash on airline with best routing, best times and with most competitive price.
    Two takeaways: Cash is king, there is no such thing as a free lunch . . .

  12. This happened to my wife and I with a cancelled SW flight DEN-LGA. Flight was cancelled after bags were checked and just prior to our arrival at the gate. I went on the SW website to look for an alternate flight( SW had rebooked us two days later) while my wife googled a SW phone number. 45 minutes of frustration with an “agent” very hard to understand. “Agent” wanted to convert my RR miles to cash, refund the cash to my CC and then I would buy a ticket for the same price. I had never had a RR award ticket cancelled, voiced a concern that this sounded confusing but he assured all was good and had reserved me an aisle and window seat. That confirmed this was a rogue phone number.

  13. My sister was just scammed today. She thought she called United Airlines to check on her seat assignment for a flight tomorrow & was told she had no seats. She told the lady her nephew did the seats when he made the reservation and the woman insisted she had no seats so she upgraded her seats. My sister wanted to be close to me so I had to give them my conf # (big mistake) My seats were upgraded by my son. My sister was charged $300 for changing seats that she did have AND they moved me from one of my paid upgraded seat to a non upgraded seat!!

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