Ihsan Abdul Salam describes himself as a “loyal” customer of Flight Centre, booking tickets with the international travel company since 1995.
But when he went to a Vancouver branch of the firm to pick up tickets to Brazil he had booked through a consultant online, he was in for a shock – the $2,280 booking didn’t exist.
He’d been scammed by an impostor website, one of scores that the firm says it has been has been trying to stamp out since last summer.
Flight Centre says it has had more than 200 fraudulent listings taken down so far, the search results having appeared in online searches for “Flight Centre” across Canada.
Salam had Googled Flight Centre to book tickets to Sao Paulo to visit his girlfriend in September. He said he clicked on the first site to pop up, then spoke to one of their “travel consultants” on the phone, who took his booking and payment.
But something seemed odd.
“It was very strange; they told me ‘don’t call anybody, we can send you the original ticket, just give us time,”’ said Salam.
“I felt something was wrong.”
Salam said from previous experience, Flight Centre would send an email with a ticket as soon as he hung up the phone with a consultant, but this time, his ticket never arrived.
So he went to Flight Centre’s Kitsilano branch, where he received the bad news – the site was a scam, and he wasn’t the first victim.
“I felt bad for all the people that have been in this situation,” Salam said.
Chadd Andre, executive vice-president of Flight Centre Canada, said the firm had noticed fraudulent listings popping up online since last summer.
Toronto-based Andre said he happened to be at the Kitsilano branch to discuss educating customers about fraudulent sites when he noticed Salam walk in to seek help last year.
Andre said hearing about customers’ experiences prompted his team to raise awareness of the fraudsters.
Flight Centre shared examples of fake websites. One is labelled “Flight Center,” not “Flight Centre,” and features a blue and white colour scheme, not the red and white used by the authentic site.
It’s not clear where the fake sites are based, and Andre said there are numerous “bad actors” involved, making it hard to eradicate them all.
He said Flight Centre and its legal team had been working with search engines, such as Google, to take down fake listings.
“But it does seem just as quickly as we flag new listings that there are new ones popping up,” said Andre.
The authentic Flight Centre website now carries a prominent warning about fakes.
Salam said he had to “swallow the pain” of paying for fake tickets, and he still went to Brazil in October and managed to have a good time.
He said he planned to visit his family in Dubai this year.
“This time I will go to the office and I will see the people there,” said Salam.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2024.