Police warning over 'fake' holiday villas

Posted on October 22, 2014
Archive : October 2014
Category : News
By Oliver Smith
Published: 10:59AM BST Daily Telegraph Travel 17 Sep 2010

The City of London Police has received dozens of reports of advertisements for non-existent villas and apartments since the establishment of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) in June.

Beware the '12 scams of Christmas' They include a number of transactions, each worth up to £12,000, for apartments in St Tropez, and around 70 bookings for villas in Cyprus.

Det Supt Bob Wishart, from the City of London Police's Economic Crime Department, advised travellers to take extra care when booking properties over the internet, and warned agents to be wary of which suppliers they work with.

"As a result of the work of the NFIB we are seeing for the first time substantial numbers of people reporting villa fraud," said Mr Wishart. "We'd advise anyone looking to book a holiday online to use reputable websites, and look for agents who are ABTA and Atol affiliated."

Research carried out by Get Safe Online, a government-backed initiative aimed at increasing awareness of internet scams, revealed that one in three internet users failed to check whether the company they booked with was a member of a recognised travel association.

Advertisements for non-existent apartments – or for genuine properties not owned by the advertiser – can be posted on various lettings and advertising sites, and victims of such scams are often unable to claim compensation.

Earlier this year, Natalie Martell, 29, from Chichester, paid £1,125 for a house in the Cambridgeshire village of Great Shelford, after responding to a listing on the website Gumtree. She and 10 others were planning to stay
at the property for a wedding.

"I was given a contract and everything looked very professional," she said. "We exchanged several emails and he even sent one to thank me when the final payment was processed. But a few days before the wedding we got a call from the police saying that the house didn't exist."

Ms Martell has not been refunded, and police believe the same man may have defrauded hundreds more.

Last year, one Malaga-based lettings company that allegedly took payments totalling as much as £500,000 for non-existent Spanish villas, placed adverts on the popular websites www.holidaylettings.co.uk and www.holiday-rentals.co.uk

Both websites say that checks were carried out before the advertisements were accepted.

Julie Madison, 37, from Balham, London, owns nine properties in the capital, which she and her husband advertise through their own website, holidayrentalslondon.com. However, fraudulent advertisements for their flats – including photographs and descriptions copied straight from their own website – have appeared on a number of other sites, including Craigslist and Gumtree.

Earlier this month, a Portuguese woman and her children arrived at one of Mrs Madison's London apartments having paid £1,500 to a third party – before discovering that there was no record of her booking and that she had been the victim of a scam.

Out of sympathy, Mrs Madison allowed the family to rent one of her properties at a fraction of the price.

"It is a real problem," said Mrs Madison. "Anyone can put an advert on these sites. There is no regulatory body and little security, leaving holidaymakers vulnerable."

Both Gumtree and Craigslist offer extensive advice on their websites on how to avoid scams when purchasing items online. This week, Craigslist was still listing a fake advert for one of Mrs Madison's rental properties, for less than a third of the usual price.

Mrs Madison called for websites to invest in further security measures and praised Pureholidayhomes.com, a Slough-based holiday lettings company that claims to be the first to utilise an independent identity verification system – in partnership with GB Group, a leading identity management company. It checks landlords' records against five national databases when they register to advertise their properties.

"The holiday homes rental market is the fastest growing sector of the travel market, but it is also one of the least regulated," said Matthew Fox of Pureholidayhomes.com. "People are finding new and elaborate ways of scamming people. Our aim is to take the risk away from the customer and tackle the root of the problem."

How to avoid online scams

1. Take your time

Double-check details when entering your holiday requirements on a travel website, just as you would when booking face-to-face, and be wary of rock-bottom prices.

2. Be vigilant

Check the track record of any holiday retailer unfamiliar to you. Don’t reply to unsolicited emails from retailers you don’t recognise. Legitimate companies will never send an information request via a pop-up advert. If you don’t recognise the sender, don’t reply.

3. Check for approval

Try to book with a member of a recognised travel authority such as ABTA, the travel association.

4. Do your research

If a telephone number for the property isn’t provided, request one by email. Get the full address and find it on Google maps, and ask for references from other people who have visited the property — and contact them directly.

5. Pay it safe

Ensure the site is secure — look out for a padlock symbol in the bottom right of the browser, or for the payment pages to begin with “https://”. Keep purchase records and check credit card/bank statements carefully.

More advice at http://www.getsafeonline.org/

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