You may have seen in some of the National Press recently, stories of unfortunate people who have booked an expensive holiday only to find out after that they have in fact been scammed. It works like this. A fraudster hacks into the email account of a genuine holiday home owner and then intercepts all their enquiry emails. The hacker replies to the holiday maker offering what seems like a "too good to be missed" deal that is only available for a very limited period and that the customer must pay for in full and up front. The genuine owner and customer may know nothing of this fraud until the holiday maker arrives at their destination and the owner knows nothing about them. It is a practice known as phishing.
Booking direct with an owner is often cheaper than going via an agency or site such as booking.com/Airbnb which charge commission, so how do you protect yourself against this type of scam when booking direct? In fact it is simple if you take a few common-sense steps.
8 Steps to Avoid Holiday Phishing Scams
1. If using a booking site, ring the owner from the number listed on the advert. Hackers cannot change phone numbers on the booking site which should anyway correspond to the number on the owner's own website. Please however, take note of any time differences between countries and try to ring at a reasonable hour.
2. Reputable owners should have their own website so contact them this way.
NOTE - if the booking site does not show the owner's phone number or link to their website you may have to do a bit of detective work. On some sites owners are "allowed" to advertise with the name of their property so search this to find their website. Others do not allow this in which case try searching for properties in the same region. Some owners also add names to photos or in the text so you might have to be a bit of searching but you should be able to find a website for the property you like without too much effort!
3. Build up a rapport with the owner before deciding to book. Ask questions. A genuine owner will be happy to answer all your queries.
4. Search out the property/owner on social media (Facebook, Twitter etc) and see what other people are saying about them. Talk to them on these platforms. Mention something from their social media pages in your phone conversation as a hacker will not know about this.
5. If you are still unsure ask the owner for references from previous guests or to see a utility bill for the property in question. This may sound like a lot of work but if you are willing to part with a possibly quite large sum of money it makes sense to be sure you will get the holiday you are buying.
6. Learn how to recognise potentially fraudulent listings or contact emails. They may be poorly written with bad grammar and spelling mistakes and are likely to be offering deals that seem too good to miss. A fraudulent email will invariably ask for the full amount of the cost of the holiday to be paid at once to secure the good deal. The email you receive will often be similar to the email on the owner's website but often from a hotmail account. Please note that just because an email is via hotmail does not immediately means it is fraudulent but when added together with other discrepancies it is may point towards a problem.
7. When you are happy that the holiday you are booking is genuine, payment should ideally be made by credit card or bank transfer. Most holiday owners will ask for a deposit at the time of booking and the balance 6-8 weeks before your arrival date. Some may ask for the full payment for short stays and of course if your arrival is less than 6-8 weeks from your booking date. This is normal practice that gives the owner some security from late cancellations.
8. Finally, take out holiday insurance and ensure it covers you for phishing. Holiday insurance will also protect you for any number of unexpected eventualities that could ruin your holiday such as cancellation due to illness, the property being significantly below the quality advertised, travel problems and wrongful retention of your security deposit by owners.
It is important to note that phishing not only ruins holidays for holiday makers but takes away income from genuine property owners. No-one wants to be scammed but with frauds like this, both the owner and the holiday maker lose out. Remember that phishing is in fact a very rare occurrence compared to the huge numbers of genuine holidays that are bought and sold every year and it generally only occurs on holidays valued in excess of £1500 after the so called discount.
Please do not allow hackers to put genuine private holiday home owners out of business because you are afraid to make that booking. If you follow the steps outlined above it is virtually impossible that this will happen to you.
This blog also details other ways scammers try to hit owners and separate us from our hard-earned cash.
If you do like to book direct, this Facebook group might interest you - Book Your Holiday Direct with the Owner allows owners of quality cottages and gites in the UK and France to promote their properties free of charge and holidaymakers can search the site and put put requests for specific holidays. Come and join the growing band of holidaymakers who are booking direct.
Do you have any other steps that can help protect you from this type of holiday fraud? Please do drop us a comment if you do.