I was a recent victim of an internet fraud. I want to document it here so that I can share this with other consumers as well as the companies that are unknowingly involved. I think this also raises an interesting ethical debate for advertising platforms.
I recently needed to change an existing United Airlines reservation last minute for a business trip. I performed a Google search for “United Airlines Customer Service” and was served an ad by a company called Farekingdom. In my haste, I just saw “United Airlines 24*7 support” and a phone number, which I clicked on. Note that I do not get this ad when searching on the desktop platform, only on my mobile browser. I assume Farekingdom has found that the desktop search ads are ineffective, the users are paying more attention and it is easier to disambiguate the ad from an actual United Airlines result. Moreover, you would be able to see the organic result on the same screen as the ad. See sample ad below:
I proceeded to have a conversation with a Farekingdom agent who pretended to be a United agent. He gave me expensive rebooking options and a call back number. Since my flight was booked by a 3rd party via a travel agent (Cornell University via Frosch Travel) I decided to contact Frosch travel directly to make the change. During the phone call with Frosch, the agent needed to check with United Airlines about fees before rebooking the flight. Since the Frosch agent could not get through, I provided him with the call back number.
I stayed on the line for almost a 2 hour phone call, most of which involved the Frosch agent being on hold with the fake United agent (I presume the hold was so that the Farekingdom agent could get through to United and change the flight for free). During this entire call, the Frosch agent also believed he was speaking with a United representative as the person identified himself as such. Eventually, the Frosch agent received a credit card authorization email and asked me to reply to both parties to confirm charges. I do.
I then hung up waiting for a call back from Frosch once everything is confirmed. About 45 minutes later, I get a call (7144539656) from someone who identified himself as the agent who was speaking with Frosch. I assumed him to be a United representative. He informed me that the flight that I wanted to book had no confirmed seats, but it would be $1109.60 (the previous cc auth was for 1259.60). I agreed, the money wasn’t important since this was business travel to be reimbursed.
After my trip, I went to retrieve a receipt to get a reimbursement. I couldn’t find one in my email inbox. When I looked up my credit card bill, I found a charge from CheapFares.com for the amount stated on the previous phone call. This is the first time I have ever heard of this company. This got me concerned. I reached out to Frosch travel who contacted United. It turns out, United had changed my flight for free and Frosch never charged me. I then reported the charge as fraudulent with American Express and also filed a complaint with Cheapfares.com (I’ve yet to hear back from them, since they are likely owned by the same people who own Farekingdom).
After filing the dispute with Amex, I started digging. This is when I went back to look at my Google ad and search history to find that I was served an ad by Farekingdom just before calling (18004209694) what I thought to be United customer service. I looked up this company and quickly came across negative reviews on BBB and Trustpilot claiming the same fraud being perpetrated. The manager response to these reviews are always along the lines of “we clearly state that we are Farekingdom.” I decided to call Farekingdom back and recorded the conversation.
Clearly, they are misrepresenting themselves over the phone. I ask them if I’m speaking with United Airlines customer service, to which they responded “we are a consolidator for United Airlines.” I then ask them, how come I got their phone number when I search for United Airlines customer service and what it mean to be a “consolidator for United Airlines.” To this, the person responded “United sends us their overflow customer service calls.” I’ve contacted United, they have no such agreements.
A few days later, I get another call from the first person I spoke to at Farekingdom (“Philip” @ 7144539656). This time, he asks why did I dispute the charge with bank. This was particularly interesting since the charge was by Cheapfares.com and not Farekingdom, leading me to believe that the two are one and the same. During the call, Philip said they purchased the rebooked flight from Cheapfares.com – strange considering they are supposedly a travel agency. But of course, this all makes sense, since they need to make money off the fraud while distancing themselves from the charge. During the call, Philip also said, “if you don’t want the charge, we won’t charge you.” Um… okay… this totally reinforces your legitimacy /sarcasm/.
So I dug a little further, determined to figure out who is behind this fraud. Cheapfares.com hides behind a proxy domain registrant, domainsbyproxy.com. If you look up this business, they are linked to many other frauds. When registering Farekingdom.com, however, these fraudsters were not as clever. The registrant was listed under the email Mohan7476@gmail.com. If you look up this email (the email is also linked to a lot of other travel sites, including this one), you’ll find that it belongs to one Mohan Pal Singh, and that this person registered the business, Farekingdom Travel Services, in India.
I’ve now reported this fraud to Google Ads, American Express, United Airlines, BBB, and the FTC. I hope this type of fraud can be eliminated in the future.
CheapFlightFares has been sued by Delta Airlines for this fraud previously. The case was settled out of court. If you go to their site, there are links to “United” and “American Airlines” pages, but no “Delta” page.
Additional companies (a network of NJ based travel sites) were also sued by Delta for the exact same fraud.
After reading Farekingdom’s disclaimer page, I found an address “800 W. Airport Fwy, Ste. 743, Irving, TX.” A Google search of this address leads to a company Trip Brands, LLC and its subsidiaries founded by a Benson Samuel. A search of Trip Brands yields Trip Brands Technologies, a company that apparently sells ready to go websites for online travel agents promising to get your OTA site up and running in 15 days. A featured customer quote is from Farekingdom. It is of interest to point out that Trip Brand subsidiary, Bookotrip, has a very similar page as Farekingdom. I have reached out to Benson Samuel for comment.
Benson Samuel responded to inquiries I made, saying that his company is not responsible for how its clients use their OTA website product and services. He also claimed that were they to terminate the contract with Farekingdom, Farekingdom would still be able to use its website design to operate.
Clearly, this fraud is unethical. However, this situation raises a more interesting ethical issue for the advertising platform. Does Google have a responsibility to limit the types of ads shown? While Google’s value lies in making information easy to find, I would argue that trust is the reason why they are so successful. We trust Google to provide the most relevant/accurate search results, we trust them with our communications, our photos, our data. Shouldn’t we also trust them when they show us supposedly relevant ads? Why would any ad other than one from the airline be relevant to the keyword search “[ABC] Airlines customer service.” Google AdWords supposedly balances relevance and bid amount (irrelevant ads with high bids paid by click will yield less revenue and potentially destroy trust). But how is relevance measured? If relevance is just an ad getting clicked, then this is the perfect space for the kind of fraud I experienced. How much revenue would be lost if fraudulent companies (however they are identified – possibly by Trustpilot) weren’t allowed to advertise on Google? Should Google ban such advertisers if they are reported as fraudulent by consumers (as I have done)? Farekingdom has been in business since 2015. Since then, numerous complaints about the same fraud have been posted publicly. For me, “if you don’t want the charge, we won’t charge you” is not an acceptable end of this story. This kind of company needs to be put out of business. The easiest way to do this is for legitimate business partners like Google to cut ties and disable the infrastructure that facilitates the fraudulent schemes. What do you think, does Google have this responsibility when consumers inform them of such frauds?