The expert view: could you be at risk of travel fraud?

Travel expert Jill Starley-Grainger explores the risks and explains how to avoid them when you’re booking your holiday – including the most important step you can take to safeguard your money.

Imagine turning up at the airport – bags packed, passports ready, full of anticipation – only to be told the airline tickets you’d paid for do not exist. Or being refused entry at your destination because the tourist visa you applied for online was fake. Or perhaps you make it all the way to your villa, trouble free – only to discover it’s a building site.

These three scenarios are among the most common types of holiday fraud. But the fraudsters don’t stop there. They tout everything: caravan stays, trips to sporting and religious events, holiday-home rentals, timeshares, coach trips, ‘holiday club’ membership schemes, hotel package deals, and everything in between. No target is too big or small for scammers.

A problem that could affect you

Holiday fraud is at its highest level ever, costing last year’s nearly 6,000 reported victims an average of £1,200 each, according to a report by Action Fraud, which is the UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre, and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. In fact, the number of reported victims has risen by 19% in the last year alone.

The financial impact can be significant, not least because many victims struggle to recover any of the money lost. This is because most fraud happens when people pay by bank transfer or with a money-wire or currency-transfer service, where the money is rarely recoverable.

“Action Fraud has seen a consistent rise in the number of holiday fraud reports made over the past five years,” said Steve Proffitt, Deputy Head of Action Fraud. “From fraudulent flights to non-existent accommodation, the impact of falling victim to holiday fraud can be far greater than the financial loss.”

The distressing emotional impact

Unlike some forms of online fraud, where you lose the money for the item you paid for, with holiday fraud, you also lose time as well – the days or weeks you’d set aside for the trip.

And the effect is so upsetting that around 1,500 victims (26%) from the report said that it had made a significant impact on their health and financial well-being, while 259 people said the impact was so severe they had needed to receive medical treatment or were at risk of bankruptcy.

Given the high value we place on holidays – planning, saving and looking forward to them all year – it’s no surprise people feel bereft when they’re stolen from us. What’s more, victims often feel they’re somehow to blame, yet the fraudsters are always learning and adapting their tactics, so spotting fake sites or holiday scams is not easy.

In fact, the age groups most affected are those that have grown up with the internet, who are theoretically more likely to be internet savvy – people in their 20s and 30s. However, people in older age groups tend to suffer the greatest loss when they fall victim to scammers because they tend to choose more expensive holidays.

The sophisticated sites hiding criminal intentions

There was a time when spotting a scam website or email was relatively easy. If the email came from an unlikely-sounding character, or the website was littered with poor-quality images and sloppy grammar, alarm bells would go off. But as we’ve become wise to those red flags, so have the scammers, so it’s even more important to be vigilant about who we’re booking with.

“We’re seeing much more sophisticated websites being set up,” says Sean Tipton, spokesperson for the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) – which, along with Action Fraud and Get Safe Online, is campaigning to raise awareness of the increase in holiday fraud. Get Safe Online is the UK’s leading source of unbiased information for online safety, and has a wealth of information about how to reduce the risks of all forms of online fraud.

Whether websites, social media ads or “phishing” attempts (emails and websites made to look like they’re coming from a well-known company), those created by scammers now look as professional as those designed by famous global brands. And, in fact, the fraudsters often create near-identical copycat sites, with only a few key details changed.

“They are extremely professional and they look genuine. There’s no longer an easy way to spot a fake.”
Tony Neate, CEO of Get Safe Online

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the fraudsters faking up tickets or copying a legitimate site, including its full terms and conditions, so people only realise there’s a problem when they turn up at the airport,” says Tipton. “And they’re quite clever. They wouldn’t offer a chalet for £100 in the exclusive ski resort of Val d’Isère because nobody would fall for that. But they’ll offer a chalet at, say, 10% less, so it’s not obvious and that means it’s even more important to stay vigilant.”

Don’t let the scammers win

The holiday-home rentals website Airbnb is one of many global operators whose branding and websites have been used by scammers to create fake sites.

“We’ve even seen scams where people will take pictures of listings on Airbnb, put them on other sites, abuse the trust we have with our community, and people will think they are booking on Airbnb,” says Nick Shapiro, Global Head of Trust and Risk Management at Airbnb.

To combat this, the company now has one of the most sophisticated fraud-detection systems of any holiday company, but Shapiro – former Deputy Chief of Staff of the CIA – says that “the internet and scams will always be in bed together”.

“But at Airbnb, as long as you keep all of your communication and transactions on the Airbnb site, you should be fine because the company withholds payment to the host until 24 hours after the guest safely checks in.”

This system has stopped a great deal of fraud. But that doesn’t stop them trying other methods. “Fraudsters go to great lengths to try to trick people to go off the Airbnb platform and to ask them to pay directly by wire transfers,” says Shapiro.

When you do that, you’re no longer protected by the company’s advanced security systems, so not only could you miss out on your holiday, but the scammers will also often have enough information to sell your details on the black market, too, which they can then use to apply for loans, credit cards and bank accounts in your name.

“Don’t feel embarrassed [if you’re caught out] because they are quite clever about the way they do it. Lots of the fraud doesn’t get reported because people think they’ve been stupid, but they haven’t,” says Tipton.

And it’s not just holidaymakers being targeted. All forms of internet shopping fraud are at their highest levels ever – at £308.8million in 2016, up 18% from 2015.

“As long as you keep all of your communication and transactions on the Airbnb site, you should be fine”
Nick Shapiro, AirBnB

The most important steps you can take

How can you be sure you’ll never be a victim of holiday fraud? You can’t.

However, most fraud is by bank transfer, so you can reduce the risk by paying with your credit card.

That’s because you may be legally protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 if something goes wrong.

It’s important to be aware that Section 75 protection only applies in certain circumstances, and claims can take time for your card issuer to work through, so get in touch with them as soon as you think there’s a problem.

If you don’t have a credit card, many debit cards may offer some protection. If you’re unsure, check with your card provider. And from 13th January 2018, merchants in the European Economic Area (EEA) will no longer be allowed to charge UK customers more to pay by credit card than other payment methods such as debit card.

For a safe-booking checklist, read Six tips to beat fraudsters. And explore the holiday-fraud pages on Action Fraud, Get Safe Online and ABTA to ensure you’re up-to-date on the latest advice.

Jill Starley-Grainger is a consumer travel expert and former editor of Which? Travel magazine.

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