Gone ‘Phishing’ - The dark side of booking villa holidays online and how to stay safe
It is every holiday maker’s worst nightmare. Imagine arriving at your dream property with your family, only for the owner to stare at you blankly and awkwardly explain that the accommodation is already booked and he has absolutely no idea who you are, despite your extensive correspondence and the vast sum of money you paid in advance…This is almost what happened to Cathy Winston, author of Mummy Travels, when she booked directly with an 'owner' of a property. Despite being a frequent and practised traveller, she found herself fooled by a fraudster. She recently spoke about her experience on Radio 4's Money Box (listen from 15 mins 27 secs).“This scam is the bane of our lives”, says one British property owner in Bali, ‘‘At least once a month someone turns up at the airport expecting to rent a villa and we’ve never heard of them.”With nowhere to stay, holidaymakers are forced into shelling out on top of the money they have already lost for anywhere that will accommodate them at short notice, regardless of price or suitability.Unfortunately this is the reality for thousands of holidaymakers every year due to the ludicrously profitable ‘phishing’ scam.Phishing scams for property rental are estimated to have raked in a whopping £25 million in the past five years and are growing in popularity as it is easy for the scammer to remain completely anonymous making it nearly impossible for the Police to track those responsible.
How does it work?The customer finds the perfect property and clicks ‘inquire’ at which point the chosen villa rentals website reveals the property owner’s details and, crucially, the owner’s email address.As per usual the customer will email the owner to inquire about availability and organize their stay. After continued correspondence, the owner gets the customer to transfer the money directly to book their stay.Only, the customer has not actually been talking with the real owner and the bank account to which they have transferred the money belongs to a cybercriminal. In this case, the real owner's account has been hacked, and there is nothing that can be done about the money. Phishing is not the only potential pitfall when booking your holiday online.A report by the City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau claims there were 1,569 cases of holiday booking fraud reported to the police's Action Fraud team in 2014.This statistic includes another common scam where the property doesn’t even exist. It is relatively easy on some websites to list a ‘phantom’ property with the victims only working this out when they arrive at the location and the property is not there, or it exists in the form of a building site.
It can feel like booking a holiday online is a massive leap of faith, but it needn’t be! Booking online can be convenient and stress free if you abide by the following rules…
How Can I Stay Safe When Booking a Property?
- Speak directly on the phone with the owner as well as emailing.
- Make sure you email through the villa rental website rather than via personal email - that way your correspondence can be tracked and vetted by the rental company too.
- Avoid contacting owners directly initially – BBC Watch Dog recommends websites Clickstay and Airbnb as they do not reveal the owners contact details until after the transaction has been made.
- Ask for the owner’s full property address and use Google Maps to establish the exact location.
- Never pay directly into anyone’s bank account - it is anonymous and non-refundable.
- Pay using services that offer insurance against fraud – such as Visa Debit and Credit Card.
- Get your money back guaranteed if the property is not as advertised by using websites with protection schemes that hold the money from the owner until after you arrive and you are satisfied with your accommodation, such as Clickstay.
- Get a holiday insurance package that covers you for loss of payments.
- If booking directly choose properties with previous reviews that have been listed for a long time. If you've seen a property with no reviews which seems ideal, don't be put off as it may be new on the market. Websites such as Clickstay and Airbnb offer a secure payment system whereby your money is held from the owner until you have arrived in the property, so in this case, there's no reason why you shouldn't give these properties a go.
- If you are required to pay a security deposit make sure the terms for getting it back are clear and take pictures of damaged items on arrival. If you owner makes a claim on your deposit, ask for receipt of repair costs.