United Airlines Shuts Down Accounts of FlyerTalk Members Who Manipulated Internet Web Site

Some FlyerTalk members may not be welcomed aboard aircraft operated by United Airlines anytime soon — if at all. Photograph by FlyerTalk member puls. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by puls.

If you were one of the FlyerTalk members who intentionally manipulated the official Internet web site of United Airlines in order to take advantage of traveling round-trip between San Francisco and Honolulu for $80.00, not only was your reservation not honored, but your MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program account has most likely been closed and your MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles have been forfeited.
FlyerTalk member michael0023 first posted last month about a trick he accidentally stumbled upon while booking a reservation for an award flight where he “stopped at the page where insufficient mileage was shown.  Opened another browser and started to book a paid flight – reached the page where credit card information was required – refreshed the previous award flight page and then refreshed the paid flight page – paid flight page only had the tax displayed $80 – booked the flight.”
However, FlyerTalk member luv2ctheworld warned those FlyerTalk members who were attempting to take advantage of advantage of traveling round-trip between San Francisco and Honolulu for $80.00 that “Unlike UA’s previous pricing mistake where the responsibility was on UA, this is clearly trying to manipulate the system to try and fool it to price out. Which means UA will have little sympathy when one tries to have them honor it, and potentially label yourself and your account as one of those who like to abuse the system.”
It is rare that airlines take the step of shutting down the frequent flier loyalty program accounts of its members — especially on a mass level and publicly announced. However, that is exactly what happened, according to FlyerTalk member UA Insider — also known as Aaron Goldberg, who is the senior manager of Customer Experience Planning at United Airlines when he first posted the following announcement:

“We’ve identified an issue where customers are intentionally manipulating our website to set up award reservations and attempt to ticket with an account that does not have enough miles to complete the ticket. We will not honor these reservations.”

Yesterday, UA Insider posted the following grim message for those FlyerTalk members who were involved in this scheme:

“We have a quick update related to the manipulation of united.com to book award tickets with insufficient miles that occurred last month. Specifically, we are closing new MileagePlus accounts that were assumed to be set up with the express purpose of attempting to redeem award tickets without the required number of award miles.”

Sure enough, FlyerTalk members are reporting that their MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program accounts are now closed — and their MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles have been “wiped out.”
FlyerTalk member snowdoggieii posted that the actions of United Airlines are “insane” and “totally ridiculous”; and added that “myself included many people gotten emails saying my united mileage plus account is now closed. Because they considered people who tried to book free flights with phantom miles as hackers? Refreshing webpages and have 2 tabs open are now considered hackers and they can wipe out all your miles and close your account??????”
Many FlyerTalk members have no sympathy for snowdoggieii — and neither do I. There is already a controversy pertaining to taking advantage of “mistake fares” where the airline posts an airfare which is accidentally offered for free or for a ridiculously low cost — but some FlyerTalk members argue about how a customer is supposed to know the difference between an airfare carelessly posted on the official Internet web site of an airline and an actual promotional airfare, as it is not always obvious.
I would say that this lodging “deal” for $0.00 — which was posted yesterday and “included” all taxes and fees — was obviously a mistake.
Accordingly, many airfares published by mistake are usually honored by the airlines to give the customer the benefit of the doubt and — probably more importantly — to conform to and abide by the law, as not honoring a “mistake fare” could be considered as a version of the deceitful practice of “bait and switch.”
However, in this case, United Airlines technically did nothing wrong. The “airfare” in question was not easy to find; and instructions on how to take advantage of that airfare — apparently, as the result of a technical anomaly at the official Internet web site of United Airlines — were posted on FlyerTalk for all to see. United Airlines is not required by law to honor this “airfare”; and the unusual action of penalizing those members of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program for the intentional manipulation of the official Internet web site of United Airlines was implemented by the airline.
Keep in mind that many — if not all — of the MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program accounts which were closed were apparently new accounts which were opened specifically for this incident.
Look — I like a great deal just as much as anyone. However, there comes a time when one can go too far in attempting to procure what seems to be an increasingly elusive bargain. This is one of those times; and while the FlyerTalk members who participated in this scheme did not get the bargain for which they were searching, they certainly received more than for what they bargained — so to speak.
Was United Airlines too harsh of the FlyerTalk members who participated in this scheme — or did they intentionally commit fraud and get what they deserved? Was the punitive action not strong enough?
What do you think?

  1. I fully support this. Opening multiple browsers, refreshing between the two multiple (sometimes dozens) of times – that’s clearly not what a customer is supposed to do, and all those who participated were clearly trying to scam the airline. To me, it’s no different than providing a fake credit card number when you know their verification isn’t working.

  2. They’re whining that they had their accounts cancelled? United could probably prosecute them under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for unauthorized access if they were especially mean spirited. They should consider themselves lucky – most large companies take a dim view of people who hack their websites for profit.

    1. Non-governmental actors can’t prosecute squat in the US. United can engage in civil litigation and/or attempt to get prosecutors to prosecute but those efforts don’t necessarily fly.

  3. The people who manipulated the system are lucky that UA only closed their NEW accounts that were set up for the purpose of hacking the system. It seems to me that UA could go after their regular MileagePlus accounts — the ones with all the miles in them. That would have really hurt! Sounds to me like a “warning shot” from UA.

  4. There used to be a trick with BA that would let you fly in a premium cabin even though you had booked a simple economy fare. I won’t go into detail here, even though I don’t think it works any more. It’s a bit of a grey area and whether or not it amounts to fraud can be debated both ways.
    In the end, UA have commercial interests to protect and it would seem to me that they are in their right to take the action that they are taking.

  5. I think it is sad that anyone intentionally takes advantage of another, be it personal, professional or whatever level. It shows a distinct lack of character and class. I have no sympathy for those that United shut out of it’s system.

  6. I would see this as analogous to your local supermarket. Lets say for example that you found a mistake price… say, the sirloin steak was marked 15 cents a pound instead of $15 a pound. If you decided to take advantage of that, it would be morally questionable, but would hold very few if any consequences.
    Manipulating the website would be similar to abusing a return policy at that supermarket. It is pretty much fraud.
    So, no sympathy from me. It’s people like these that drive up prices for others.

  7. Didn’t the person who originally posted the “trick” realize that United monitors this board and would of course take action???

  8. Like many of the other commenters here, I have no sympathy for those trying to take advantage of this. Should UAs system be better protected? Probably. Does that excuse those who followed the very specific instructions needed to make this work? Absolutely not.
    As has been mentioned in the (now closed) thread on the UA board, say someone leaves their house door unlocked. Does that mean its ok for the neighbor to walk in and steal their possessions. Of course not.
    I wish more people would follow the basic rules we learned in kindergarten.The ones about sharing and respecting others. I understand people want a deal, and are upset that some previous benefits have been culled back. But that also is no excuse for this kind of behavior. I do think UA also has very good cause not to just shut down the new accounts used, but also any existing accounts that can be tied to the same member.

  9. While I,too, have no sympathy here for people doing this, United will drive up the price of their services while devaluing their product independent of consumers manipulating their website. But they’ll be happy to use this as the excuse to do so.
    At the end of the day United is looking to take advantage of the consumer just as much as the consumer is of UA. The difference being that UA doesn’t have to do it in manipulative ways because they “have you by the balls” so to speak. With all the airline mergers happening there’s very little competition left in the marketplace and they know consumer options are becoming limited. Less options = higher prices.
    I don’t feel bad for those that got penalized, but I certainly don’t feel bad for UA either. A company their size should have much better IT systems in place that wouldn’t allow for this. I’m sorry, but simply refreshing a website is hardly “manipulating” it.

  10. I would think a simple solution to problems like this would be for UA and other airlines to have some type of reward program for users that report glitches in the system. So for example, offer 100,000 miles to the first person to report a glitch. The result would be that people would start reporting the glitch to UA instead of posting it on the forums. Saving the airlines $$$ and rewarding people for doing the right thing.

  11. BIG BIG difference between mistake fares ( which in my option) are at the airlines fault and should in “most” cases be honored sand this $80 fare which is CLEARLY being used by people trying to game the system. They certainly deserve to lose their accounts, lose the ticket ,etc……….I can’t wait for the letters to start coming in from some of these “cheapest” screaming about how they are one of UA’s “best customers” blah blah blah. with “best customers” like this, its time for UA to give up the air travel business and go into banking

    1. It is funny that you should say “with ‘best customers’ like this, its time for UA to give up the air travel business and go into banking”, chinatraderjmr — Delta Air Lines once hired a banker and finance person as its chief executive officer. FlyerTalk members still discuss that aftermath of his tenure, which was — how shall I say it — less than successful…

  12. Not only should people have their accounts revoked, I think criminal prosecution is in order.
    This is downright theft.

  13. @Orion: There probably is a programming solution, but that doesn’t let the scammers off the hook. I can keep people out of my house by installing good locks, but if I don’t, that doesn’t mean anyone is allowed to walk in when I’m not there and take my stuff. People who did this knew they were trying to pull a fast one, since (as posted several times) this is not the sort of thing one usually does when booking a ticket. They should be glad nothing worse happened to them, shut up, and sit down.

  14. I don’t know what to think…United shouldn’t have a system that can be unintentionally manipulated, and customers should know that there is something inherently wrong with manipulating a system, including opening up a new account to do so. For those that did so, after a warning was released, I think they deserve the worst. Prior to that, I think United should have monitored their system better. Everyone likes a deal, and some have to be told what right and wrong is.

  15. This all reminds me of a slogan I saw in Philadelphia years ago that said, “Lock your car, don’t help a good boy go bad!” I agree with the generally stated common sense position – you should know better than to manipulate the system. But, in a “me” world, it seems anything goes and traditional social values are obsolete.

  16. Ethics, values and morals. Do the right thing, don’t steal from anyone in any way. You’ll live longer and happier.

  17. United’s website is glitchy. It’s their responsibility to avoid issues like this. United should hire better programmers rather than get pissy at people who are smarter than they are.

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