Online holiday booking scams and how to avoid them
With UK holidaymakers looking to book their summer breaks, industry experts are warning them to look out for online scams and fake websites.
Fraudsters stole more than £7m from holidaymakers in 2018, according to a new report from the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), the national cybercrime reporting centre, Action Fraud, and awareness organisation Get Safe Online. More than 5,000 people reported being scammed in the last year, with an average financial loss of £1,380 per person. Figures are up from 2017, which saw 4,382 victims lose a total of £6.7m.
“Fraudsters are using increasingly sophisticated methods to target destinations and times of year when demand is high and availability limited, as they know people will be looking for good deals,” says Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer. “As victims often find out just before they travel or even in-resort that they have been defrauded, it can then be difficult and expensive to obtain a legitimate replacement booking.”
Another survey (of 2,000 UK holidaymakers), from cybersecurity firm McAfee, found one in five Brits had, in their lifetime, either been scammed or “nearly scammed’” when booking a holiday online. Those who had nearly been scammed included, for example, people who had reached a payment page before realising the site was not legitimate and others who had been put off when redirected by fake property owners on trusted sites to pay on another platform.
As with the organisations involved in the Abta report, McAfee believes the actual figures are likely to be much higher. Some people may not be formally reporting scams because they are embarrassed, while others may not know what should be reported or who to report it to.
If you’re planning on booking a holiday online – like four in five people in the UK now do – here are the most common five scams to watch out for – and how to avoid them.
Fake websites that look real
According to Abta’s report,53% of online holiday scams reported related to the sale of airline tickets: for example, booking a flight on a fake site and receiving an imitation ticket, or paying for a ticket that never arrives. The same type of scams can happen with accommodation and package deals, too. McAfee found that 27% of those surveyed did not check the authenticity of a website before booking, with 12% admitting they didn’t know how to check if a site is trusted.
Before paying a deposit, travellers should check that the web address is legitimate. In particular, check the domain name (that’s anything before the .com or .co.uk; so, for example, make sure you’re on thomascook.com and not thomascookdiscountdeals.com) and the top-level domain TLD itself (because .net and .org are rarely used for online shopping sites). Also check for https:// (rather than http://), which should always appear on the payment page. Misspellings, additional words or characters, fuzzy or low-resolution pictures and logos are also be indicators of a fraudulent website.
Being directed away from trusted sites for payment
Some fraudsters lure consumers away from trusted booking platforms and request payment on a separate site – often tempting people with a better rate if they pay on another platform. Even louder alarm bells should ring if a host or travel company rep asks for payment via an online bank transfer instead.
“Be wary of paying a private individual by bank transfer, even if you are offered a discounted rate. Paying by credit card will offer you much more protection from fraud,” says Tony Neate of Get Safe Online. “Trust your instincts, don’t get rushed into making impulsive decisions if something doesn’t feel quite right.”
Raj Samani, chief scientist at McAfee, agrees: “While it might sound enticing to get an extra discount, it would be much worse to find the money had been taken and you turned up to no accommodation,” he says. “Holidaymakers should keep all communications, bookings and payments on trusted platforms to help protect them from fraud and phishing.”
If you have already paid for something that has turned out to be fake or non-existent with a credit or Visa debit card, you do have some rights, and will in some instances be able to get your money back through your bank.
“Amazing deals” received via pop-ups, emails and texts
Unsolicited promotional emails, pop-ups and other online adverts can often appear legit but will sometimes click-through to an unsafe or fake website. Low-resolution logos for well-known travel companies, trade associations or payment and card companies are a big giveaway. Some fake competition scams have also been known to defraud holidaymakers out of a fee to secure a holiday.
“We strongly advise people to validate deals, holiday rentals and flights directly via trusted brands’ websites, instead of clicking on links and pop-ups offering bargains,” says Samani. “Once they’ve validated its authenticity, all communication and payment should be conducted via that trusted platform to help keep personal and financial information out of hackers’ hands.”
When considering a booking through a lesser-known company, travellers should always check reviews and do a thorough search online to check the operator’s credentials. “Customer reviews are invaluable but don’t rely on just one review, research thoroughly,” says Neate. “And look out for companies that are members of professional bodies such as Abta.”
Fake accommodation listings
Scams relating to accommodation bookings were the second most common area according Abta, accounting for a quarter of reported scams. This includes professional and convincing websites offering luxury villas for rent, often at a discounted rate. Some of these villas won’t even exist, but some will be real properties being offered by scammers without the owner’s knowledge, with Spain and France most commonly targeted. They often require you to pay a deposit, which travellers will never see again.
If renting private accommodation, such as a villa, apartment or cottage, call the owner or agent directly to ensure that it is a real listing. Email and request the number if it is not provided, and get the full address of the property and find it on Google maps to check location and legitimacy.
“As well as double-checking simple things such as descriptions matching pictures, minimise the risks of falling for a scam by booking through a trusted platform,” Samani says. “They will have thorough processes in place to ensure that all listings are verified and authenticated so it’s important to avoid just going for the first thing that your search engine presents.”
Using unsecured networks
Booking a tour, accommodation or travel online while you’re away on holiday adds another layer of security concern. Beyond the risk of payment details being divulged, your personal and private data can be exposed via clouds and wifi.
Most holidaymakers are likely to connect to public wifi at some point during a trip. The majority of those surveyed by McAfee said they have connected to public wifi in an airport (62%) and in a hotel (49%). And almost half said they do not check the security of their internet connection or willingly connect to an unsecured network, despite pop-up warnings.
Public wifi includes secured and unsecured networks. To clarify, unsecured networks can be connected without using security features such as a password or login; whereas secured networks will ask the user to agree to terms, register an account or type in a password before connecting.
Always connect with caution, and avoid sharing sensitive data or bank account details over an unsecured network. Even secured public networks can be risky, however, so consider using a virtual private network app (VPN) to help keep your connection secure. A VPN will encrypt all of your data that passes through the network making it harder for scammers to steal.
How to report an online scam
If you have been the victim of an online scam, or you suspect a company of being fraudulent, you can report it by contacting Action Fraud. You will receive a crime reference number, which can be helpful for reporting that you have been scammed to your bank.
If you also report the fraud or suspected fraud to Citizens Advice, who pass on information to Trading Standards, it increases the chance of scammers being caught and stopped. Collect all the relevant information, including who you’ve been in contact with (names, numbers and addresses if you have them), why you’re suspicious, what information you’ve shared (such as passwords, pin number, or bank details), whether you’ve paid any money, and when and how you’ve paid.
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