— -- When a couple walked into the Flamingo Inn in Daytona Beach, Florida, during the city’s 74th annual Bike Week and said they had a reservation for two nights at a rate of $79, hotel owner Merle Kappelmann was caught off guard.
“The rates are around $200 a night at that time,” Kappelmann said. “We were really shocked and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. We don’t have a room for them and look at the rate that they have.’”
Kappelmann said when she checked the couple’s reservation, it showed that the room had not been booked with the hotel. It was reserved through ReservationCounter.com, an online agency Kappelmann said she had never heard of until then.
“After that, there were more people,” she said, seven couples in all who showed up saying they had a reservation that didn't show up with the Flamingo Inn.
One couple was Kevin Childress and his wife, who had driven down from Baltimore, Maryland. Childress told ABC News that he thought he booked his room directly with the Flamingo Inn when he called a reservation number from what he said appeared to be the official hotel website. He failed to notice that his email confirmation wasn’t sent by the hotel and he learned too late that it was from a third-party site.
“They were enraged,” Kappelmann said.
Katherine Lugar, the president and CEO of American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), said there have been an alarming uptick in complaints from consumers who say they believed they were booking with a hotel, only to find out later that they had given their information to a third-party agency called ReservationCounter.com.
“We really started to hear about the problem a few years ago, but in recent times, it has absolutely skyrocketed,” Lugar said.
Kappelmann said ReservationCounter.com told her that it experienced a system error that misdirected the Flamingo Inn bookings to a different hotel.
“It was a mistake,” Kappelmann said. “A glitch in the system, you know? They promised that they have our problem solved and I believe them.”
Kappelmann pointed out that all the trouble could have been avoided if the couple had not booked with a third party and dealt with the hotel directly.
Today, 14 percent of all hotel rooms sold are booked online, according to TravelClick.com, a hospitality industry research company, which amounts to about $22.8 billion a year. The majority of these rooms are reserved through online travel agencies like Expedia.com, Priceline.com and Booking.com, which get their inventory from hotels and other resources.
But there is also a second tier of booking sites affiliated with the big agencies also offering hotel rooms for sale, and this is where Lugar said consumers can run into trouble.
“Many of them actually look a lot like the hotel sites. But, in fact, they’re not,” she said.
These third-party websites show up in search results and as paid ads, and when consumers book a room through them, often unwittingly, common complaints with the reservations include confusing cancellation and refund policies, ignoring requests for disabled or family accommodations and lost or mis-booked reservations, according to the AHLA.
Almost 2.5 million potentially confusing bookings are made on third-party sites each year, according to the AHLA.
ABC News decided to see if these third-party sites really do resemble official hotel sites. Why are so many consumers confusing the two? We searched for “Providence Hilton Reservations” and came up with three websites: Reservation-Desk.com/Hilton, Hilton.ReservationCounter.com and Hilton.com/Providence.
Only the Hilton.com/Providence website actually belongs to the hotel. The others are third-party sites. Sometimes similar sites, called “mirrored sites” by critics, use the same logo and pictures as the hotel brand, while keeping their own brand discreet.
We tracked down the people behind ReservationCounter.com and Reservation-Desk.com to ask them if their site design was deliberate.
Daniel Nelson, the CEO of Travel Pass, the company that owns and operates ReservationCounter.com and Reservation-Desk.com, told ABC News that it is not the company’s intent to mislead customers. The goal of the sites is to make the customer’s hotel choice prominent, he said.
Debbie Greenspan, a frequent traveler and mother of two, said she booked with a third-party site that not only charged her upfront for the wrong hotel, it refused her refund request.
She called what she thought was the hotel’s direct reservation line, and said she "specifically said, ‘Is this Marriott reservation center?’"
"And she said, ‘This is reservations. I can help you,’" Greenspan said. "And I thought, ‘that’s so odd that she didn’t just ... answer with the name of the hotel brand.’”
Greenspan said she booked the room, but when a schedule change forced her to call the hotel and cancel, she said the hotel couldn’t find her reservation.
“She said I never booked it with them and I didn’t book it with Marriott reservations either,” Greenspan said.
Marriott told Greenspan, under the circumstances, they would have refunded her money immediately, but because she didn’t book with their directly, there was nothing they could do.
None of this is illegal. Daniel Nelson of Travel Pass told ABC News in a statement that his company books millions of rooms per year, with “customer complaints measuring 0.003 percent of all processed transactions.”
“Our goal is to respond to and close all complaints within 24,” his statement continued.
If no issues come up, the customer who unwittingly booked a room through a third-party site is none the wiser, but it’s a risk the American Hotel and Lodging Association doesn’t think consumers should have to take, which is why the group is asking the Federal Trade Commission to open an investigation into these third-party sites and set stricter guidelines.
“Consumers should know who they’re booking with ... and the FTC has that regulatory responsibility and oversight function to ensure that consumers are not being misled,” Lugar said.
Since contacting ReservationCounter.com and Reservation-Desk.com, the pages for Hilton in Providence that so closely resembled the official hotel site have apparently been taken down.
Expedia.com told ABC News that it is taking customer feedback seriously, and will “regularly review our affiliates to ensure they are acting in the best interest of the travelers they serve.”
But for folks like Debbie Greenspan, she says she can only watch out for herself.
“It’s not going to happen again," she said. "Not to me.”