It’s a great scam’: Montana hotel owners push Daines to revive bill to regulate phony booking sites

About every five days, a traveler shows up at the counter of Best Western Clocktower Inn in downtown Billings, insisting reservations have been made and prices agreed upon, but owner Steve Wahrlich will know nothing of it.

The traveler will insist he’s been to the hotel’s website, or seems to have been on it. There will have been photos of the hotel, photos of the rooms, and the illusion of booking with the actual hotel.

The website won’t be Wahrlich’s. There are five different booking sites with domain names that begin with Best Western Clocktower Inn that appear before Wahrlich’s site on Google’s search engine.

“You as a consumer blame me, because we believe what’s on the Internet is right,” Wahrlich said. “So, I get the blame and I have to go through the explanation. Some people get it, but a lot of people are going, excuse my expression, ‘You’re BS-ing me.’”

Wahrlich and other Montana hotel owners who felt burned by booking sites turned to Congress for a fix in 2016. They got Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., to carry a bill making it illegal for the booking sites to book rooms or take money for reservations without disclosing up front they aren’t partnering with a hotel.

That 2016 bill didn’t advance far enough in Congress to take root. Wednesday, Daines partnered with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and other lawmakers to reintroduce the booking site regulation bill.

“Montana’s booming tourism industry is a critical part of our economy and provides high-paying jobs for our communities,” Daines said in an email. “It’s important that visitors and travelers to our state are not scammed and must have the assurances that the hotel room they booked will be there when they arrive.”

It’s tourist season, and Wahrlich’s hotel in Billings is busy. Booking sites — the good ones, that is — play a crucial role in filling Clocktower Inn, Wahrlich said. The bad sites take money for a reservation that’s never placed, or charge a price that’s not the hotel’s. A traveler will often take the hit without pursuing the charges, Wahrlich said. The scam site’s gamble is that getting the $100 back won’t be worth the traveler’s trouble, or that hoteliers will book the room. Wahrlich said he’ll often meet a customer half way on the cost of a room if one’s available, just to keep the peace.

“For $100 what are you going to do? I mean, if it was your last $100 dollars, you’d probably scrape like hell for it, but $100 you shake it off and go ‘OK, something happened’ and if doesn’t happen on the next night of your trip, out of sight out of mind,” Wahrlich said. “That’s why it’s such a great scam, quite honestly. It’s a great scam.”