The holiday season is upon us and many are busy making travel plans to visit loved ones. In the process, some might be taking advantage of deals with illicit underpinnings.

As Joseph Cox from Motherboard reports, “An established and booming underground trade allows people to stay in four and five star hotels at a steep discount, with sellers obtaining the rooms through stolen loyalty point accounts, abused employee discounts, or corrupted hospitality industry insiders.”

In his quest to investigate this underground travel industry, Cox booked a hotel room in Times Square in Manhattan–in a setup that he notes was bought with loyalty points, versus a stolen credit card. In the process, he discovered the inner workings of fraudulent tourism.

According to a listing on Dream Market, which Cox describes as “the biggest dark web marketplace at the time of writing,” the underground travel agents book the deals using points to make them appear as legit as regular bookings.

Typically, the services require Bitcoin as payment. And since many of the customers of these services are fraudsters, themselves, the whole process becomes that much more convenient. When Motherboard sent the travel agent the Bitcoin payment (worth $100), it noticed that the funding was then transferred to another Bitcoin address that contained about $60,000 dollars.

By relying on loyalty points and frequent flyer miles as preferred currency for bookings, it becomes easier to skirt the law. That’s because it can be challenging for airlines and hotels to ascertain if the points or miles were obtained fraudulently. Not only that, reservations made with points raise less suspicion and “cut out fraud-spotting banks altogether.”

The industry has gained pickup as more of it has gone electronic, including the use of e-tickets. But it’s not a complete success story. According to Motherboard,  in one sting operation, 193 people were arrested last year for participating in an airline fraud scam. Several months ago, a cybercriminal who used victims’ air miles to travel to Las Vegas for gambling excursions was also arrested.

To prevent fraud alerts and ensure that the trip goes as planned, scammers try different tactics like limiting the advance window of time before travel to just one to five days.

While airlines and other travel-related organizations might put the onus on customers to make sure they’re being careful with their passwords, businesses have a responsibility, too. Data is data.

Notes Motherboard, “All of the hotels and airlines that responded to requests for comment said they take fraud seriously and have measures in place to stop it; Motherboard’s test indicates that there still are gaps in these protections.”

What is the dark web?

The dark web represents an untraceable, hidden group of websites. Most of these sites require a specific type of web browser for use. Dark web platforms allow individuals to remain anonymous on the dark web. In turn, this can be useful in conducting certain kinds of business and in staying away from authorities.

For example, this Deep Dot Web boss used the dark web for that exact purpose. However, advances in policing and technology facilitated his identification.

The dark web explained

Millions of web pages exist on the internet. Pages available through standard search engines, such as Google or Firefox, only show a small selection of the vast quantity of web pages online. Web pages available through these browsers are known as the “surface web.” According to experts, these pages comprise only 5% of the total number of pages on the internet.

Deep web definition

Below the surface web exists the “deep web.” This includes academic search engines, private databases, which you likely use on a regular basis. Often, deep web platforms live behind security walls. In some cases, browsers like Google and Firefox cannot crawl them, depending on the administrative settings in-place. These types of sites are not dangerous to users, by and large.

In contrast, the dark web can lead to more dangerous rabbit holes. The content that lives on the dark web is only available via an anonymous browser, like Tor. Venturing off to explore the dark web can lead to accidental visitation to dangerous, disturbing or illegal sites.

Other aspects of the dark web that make it unique include the fact that Google doesn’t index these pages, as indicated previously. In addition, virtual traffic tunnels function to rearrange network infrastructure in such a way as to obfuscate certain kinds of activities.

While browsing through the dark web is not illegal, unless you have advanced skills related to computing and security, exploration of the dark web can present unnecessary security risk. Malware pervades the dark web. Illegal marketplaces exist on the dark web, and can subject users to police surveillance. And lastly, fraudulent activities leading to identity theft can also occur on the dark web. 

Get the full story at Motherboard.