Accommodation Booking Site Scams

A law firm has renewed a warning to holidaymakers booking accommodation online after users of holiday lettings website Owners Direct handed over money for accommodation that didn't exist or wasn't available.


Lauren Haas, a solicitor in the travel team at BL Claims Solicitors warned online scammers were likely to prey on people searching for bargains after traditional holiday periods. He said that holidaymakers were often unaware that they have very little legal protection if a listing on a holiday home website turns out to be inaccurate or fraudulent.


"It's a case of buyer beware," he said. "Legitimate holiday rental websites are not generally liable for any financial losses incurred by people who fall victim to a scam - even if a criminal has used the site fraudulently - and they are under no obligation to carry out checks to verify whether what is being offered is available. "Some sites have reacted by offering insurance against bogus advertisers and this is well worth considering. If you're spending thousands on a holiday villa by bank transfer, a policy with fraud protection could give you peace of mind - just be sure to check the terms and conditions carefully. "Be very suspicious if you are asked for the price of the rental upfront and are asked to send it to a foreign bank account or through a method such as Western Union or a telegraph transfer, as these payment methods are notorious for being used by criminal gangs.

"Don't rely on PayPal protection - holidays are not covered by this. If you can, pay by credit card because as long as the you may have protection under the Consumer Credit Act. And lastly, listen to common sense - generally speaking, if something seems too good to be true then it probably is."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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AFTA’s statement that “without an AFTA travel agent, you’re on your own” has never seemed as relevant as last weekend, when a story surfaced about a massive scam perpetrated by criminals against hapless consumers making their own travel bookings.

Fairfax media broke a story about scammed Australian holidaymakers pursuing a class action lawsuit against one of Britain’s (and the world’s) largest banks – Barclays.

Rather than book through a travel agent, the story related, many prospective tourists over the past 18 months have booked holiday stays directly online. They have then gone on to wire millions of dollars into accounts with London-based Barclays Bank. The consumers thought the money was going to pay for holiday stays booked through popular holiday rental websites like HomeAway and FlipKey.

However, it seems that criminals have used “phishing” scams to hack into websites, assume the identity of holiday property owners and then steer customers to placing money directly into a Barclays Bank account run by the same criminals.

That’s a new twist on the more usual phishing scams, which seek to trick internet users into revealing their bank account details. This particular variant, it would seem, cons unwary internet bookers into making a payment to an account they believe is run by a travel accommodation provider. The account may be with a reputable bank, but the account is in fact operated by fraudsters.

Luxury Balinese villas are proving attractive bait, the Sun-Herald says. Customers think they have booked and paid, only to arrive and find the property has never heard of them.

Fairfax Media said on Sunday that a group of Australian victims and Bali villa owners have hired a top London law firm to sue Barclays over the matter. They contend that Barclays should vet the identity of its account holders.

The story quoted a Barclays Bank response: “Barclays can confirm that in opening and managing accounts, it complies with all regulatory requirements including in respect of identification and verification. When we are made aware of inappropriate conduct on accounts, we will immediately investigate and take the necessary steps to close them.

“We recognise that some consumers’ interests have been damaged as a result of the conduct of some customers and that money has been lost. Regrettably, we are unable to provide any refund for individuals who lost money before we were made aware of the situation.

The victims could have saved themselves a great deal of money and anguish by using a travel agent. Written by Peter Needham

 

APARTMENT RENTALS IN PARIS

There seems to be an ever increasing number of on-line scams offering furnished apartments for rent in Paris, misappropriating thousands of dollars from unsuspecting Australian travellers.

 

Australians are extremely fond of renting a furnished apartment in Paris for one or two weeks, to be able to live like a Parisian. Particularly families who enjoy the extra space provided as well as a fully equipped kitchen avoiding the need and the cost of eating out every night.

 

Scammers simply steal the text and photographs from a genuine website to create their own and offer illegally apartments at ridiculously low rates.  A potential customer is required to send a deposit between 35% and 50% of the rental fee to secure the apartment. This is usually between $1000 and $3000.  After that they never hear from the scammer again.  A few more innovative ones will at a later stage request payment for the full balance.  Then the unsuspecting customer will arrive eventually at the given address to realise that the apartment does not exist, that he lost all his money and has nowhere to stay.

 

There are hundreds of privately owned apartments on offer, and sometimes it is difficult to know which ones are genuine.  However there are a few giveaway signs to warn the unweary:

  • Most of the fake online advertisements are on free sites, giving few details.

  • The rates offered are extremely low to lure in a customer, often about half of the regular rate. If it is too cheap, it is too good to be true.

  • The correspondence received following an enquiry is in poor English with excessive spelling mistakes.

  • Payment can not be made by credit card or bank transfer, but only by Western Union or similar wire service, which are much harder to trace.  Although some scammers seem to have managed to open bank accounts, but in different countries around the world.

  • Often the online listing disappears after a couple of weeks, but will of course reappear somewhere else.

How to avoid being ripped off and losing thousands of Dollars, and to get them to book with you?

  • Ensure that the booking is made with an established and recognizable rental agency, preferably based in Australia.  A reputable agency will only use real apartments and ensure that it is to the standard advertised.

  • If the agency is in France, ask for it’s address and double-check that it exists in the Yellow Pages or a business directory.

  • Ask for the agency’s business registration and any other registration, accreditation or membership of tourism bodies. (Atout France, or the French government tourist bureau, Paris Tourist Office etc)

  • Avoid dealing with private “owners” found on obscure and unprofessional free listing sites.  They cannot demonstrate that they really own the apartment or that the apartment actually exists.  Sometimes the advertiser just rents an apartment but does not have the permission to sublease it nor the appropriate insurances.

  • Mention that you have a friend in Paris who would like to inspect the apartment for you.

  • Never send money to an untraceable entity.

Some other precautions to take if you still wnat to deal via such accommodation sites. However, you can save a lot of trouble working through a known broker, or agent. Even better if yuo can visit that agent whose office is actual 'bricks and mortar!
  • Call the owner or manager for extra reassurance or to ask any further questions. Most owners list a number on their listing near the enquiry form. If they don't, you can email them to ask for one.
  • Check the details of the listing and look out for any inconsistencies. Check the home's full address on Google maps and check that the holiday dates that you've booked are marked as such on their calendar. Read the reviews
  • Check how long the home has been listed on the site – the longer it's been listed, the more people have probably holidayed there without any problems.
  • Sign a booking contract containing details of the terms of the let as well as the payment and cancellation policies. If you're not asked to do this, ask for a contract
  • Collect the owner's contact details (full name, landline and mobile numbers, and their own address, plus a trading address if they're a property manager). Check that they'll be contactable on these numbers while you're on holiday in case you need to get in touch.
  • Pay within reasonable timeframes to protect your money. Expect to pay the booking deposit (usually up to 25% of the total) when you confirm your booking and sign the contract, then pay the balance around eight weeks before your holiday (or later).
  • Make payments safely according to the options available on the listing and the above steps. If you've sent a booking request to the owner or the owner has sent you a quote in response to your enquiry, you'll be able to pay either by card or by PayPal. If you're asked to pay by bank transfer, cheque or cash on arrival, please take extra care and follow the steps outlined above. Never pay by a wire transfer as this type of payment is untraceable. You should also be suspicious if you're asked to pay a person other than the one you've been dealing with or a bank account in an obscure country.