The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Ten ways to see off the holiday rental scammers
With fraudsters increasingly targeting holidaymakers, Nick Trend gives tips on protecting yourself from cons
The story of the Arsenius family in Greenwich, south London – who were forced to host a group of stranded tourists in their living room after their home was listed on Booking.com without their knowledge – was another reminder of our vulnerability to travel scams. Indeed, online fraudsters have proven themselves ever more adaptable.
A report last year by Lloyds Bank flagged up a 33 per cent rise in the number of scams targeting holidaymakers. And while it is actually becoming harder for criminals to infiltrate sites such as Booking.com and Airbnb, adverts for fake holidays, villas and static caravans on websites, on social media or sent directly to people as “phishing” scams are on the up. It is highly profitable for fraudsters to list properties they don’t own, take a booking and disappear with the cash.
There was nothing the Arsenius family could have done to protect themselves, but what about travellers? How do we best avoid accommodation scams? Here are my solutions:
The most secure way to book a villa, cottage or apartment overseas is as part of a package (including flights), through a UK-based tour operator. It has a legal responsibility for the booking, the description and the safety of the property – and your money is, therefore, fully protected. 2
For UK holidays, you are unlikely to be able to book a package, but using a holiday cottage company or online agent will give you more security than responding to a private owner’s advert. 3
If you do book via an agency website, check how long the property has been on the site – the joining date of the advertiser/owner is usually flagged automatically. The longer they have been on the site, the more likely a listing is to be genuine. And apply common sense – if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Google the name of the property to see if anything untoward crops up, and check reviews and ratings by other renters. These can be faked, of course, so be sceptical of glowing accounts.
If you have doubts, downloading a photograph of the property and using it to search on Google Images may reveal whether or not it is genuine. Sometimes fraudsters grab photographs from the web to make fake ads. Google Maps will also confirm the location of the house or building and the zoom or Street View function may allow you to see if it corresponds with the pictures online.
If booking privately, ask to speak to the owners on the phone. Requesting more details is reassuring and a gauge of how knowledgeable and trustworthy they are. If they won’t, ask yourself why. 7
Google the owners’ names – it may throw up reasons to feel either reassured or cautious.
Be extremely wary of paying by bank or wire transfer services. This is sometimes the only way to pay if you book privately, but you stand very little chance of getting your money back if it is a scam. The most secure method is to use a credit card, though PayPal has its own fraud protection scheme. If paying via an agency, use the official payment and communication system. Airbnb’s rules, for example, forbid hosts and guests from communicating or paying outside of its platform (though some subsidiary payments may be allowed on arrival). Any attempt by an advertiser to circumvent this is another red flag.
Check security or damage deposit arrangements. The terms for paying and returning deposits should be clear and the amount proportionate – 10 per cent of the rental charge might be reasonable, more than 25 per cent is clearly too much. If any deductions are made when you leave, ask for proof (such as receipts) of the cost deducted. 10
Check the property carefully on arrival, ideally in the presence of the owner or manager. Flag, and take photos of, any pre-existing damage.