If you ever "Google" a company, any company, on your smartphone, beware of tapping the “call” button.
A Mountain View, California woman’s problematic airline tickets opened our eyes to it. For the holidays, Alice Klein had planned an overseas adventure.
“I wanted to take my family to Israel,” she said.
Googled 'United,' Got A $3,000+ Mystery
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So, Klein logged onto the United Airlines website and booked six tickets. She got a receipt in minutes, but found she made a name typo. No problem, though: Airlines mostly allow ticket changes in the first 24 hours with no fees.
“I did a search on my phone for United Airlines,” Klein said. “And I called the number that came up.”
Buckle up. This is where it gets bumpy. The agent cancelled Klein’s reservation and booked a new one. But, they also made changes she didn’t request. Then, they charged extra.
“It was $2,000 or $3,000 more,” she said. “And, I didn’t realize until later that I had not been speaking to United Airlines.”
Nope. Klein unknowingly connected to a travel agency.
How Impostors Can Buy Consumer Confusion
Here’s how: when she Googled “United Airlines” on her phone, she clicked the “call” link. But, that “call” button can be bought. When a company pays Google for an ad at the top of a search page, it can also put its phone number in the “call” button.
Google said that’s what the travel agency, Virago Travels, did. Virago paid so its phone number appeared first when folks searched for “United Airlines.”
“When I say, ‘Call United Airlines, I want them to call United Airlines,” Klein said.
She is not alone in feeling fooled.
“They lied on Google. They lied to us on the phone,” said Ed Slanina, who lives near Chicago.
Slanina said that he had booked United and needed to call. He said he then Googled “United Airlines,” clicked “call,” and got the same travel agency, Virago Travels.
“We asked, ‘Do you work for United?’ He goes, ‘Yes, we work for United,’” Slanina said.
Slanina said a real United representative later told him the impostor made changes that didn’t warrant a service fee. And yet, Virago Travels charged him a $450 service fee.
“The fee was ridiculous,” he said.
Tracking Down The Travel Agency
NBC Bay Area dialed Virago Travels a few times. A computerized voice answered first, with no company name. Then, when a human picked up, they only said “reservations.”
Slanina said, “It’s not like he goes, ‘Virago Travels, can I help you?’”
Many Google reviews of Virago Travels involve Delta Air Lines, too. One said Virago was “someone posing to be Delta reservations.” Another reviewer said Virgo “fraudulently represents itself as Delta.”
Most reviews included the words "scam" or "scammers."
Using California state records, NBC Bay Area traced Virago Travels to Fremont, California and an apartment inside a gated community. Virago Travels is a licensed travel agency. We’ve repeatedly emailed and called, because we have questions. We were promised a call back, but no call.
Google Takes Action, But You're Still On The Hook
We asked Google about Virago Travels’ “call” button advertisement. Google investigated, then said, “Upon review, we found that the ads in question violate our misrepresentation policies."
It also said that "these ads have been removed.”
Our “call” button warning goes beyond airlines.
NBC Bay Area Googled other big-name businesses, such as a national carpet cleaner, a huge insurance company, and so on. Often, what turned up was a “call” button for a small-time competitor instead of the household name we had searched for.
Google puts the onus on you to avoid being fooled. Google said, “Consumers should clearly read all information on the listing before clicking on a call button.”
United Calls Security
NBC Bay Area also alerted both Delta and United about Virago Travels.
Delta did not respond. United did. A rep said, “We escalated this to our corporate security team.” United explained that Virago Travels never should have modified Alice’s or Ed’s bookings. Virago Travels only should have referred them to the real United -- and hung up.
After our calls, Slanina said his credit card refunded the $450 fee Virago Travels charged. While United fixed Klein’s typo and rebooked her for free, that wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
United also found $3,900 dollars in Virago Travels’ charges for her to dispute and get back.