Nine holiday scams to watch out for

Chris Torney / 10 July 2018

From too-good-to-be-true offers to dodgy car hire, there are traps galore waiting to catch unwary travellers. Read our round-up and outsmart the criminals



Given how much money the average person spends on foreign travel these days – £1,253 per trip according to one survey – it’s no surprise that holidaymakers are firmly in the fraudsters’ sights.

According to Action Fraud, the agency run by City of London police, holiday-related cons cost UK travellers £6.7 million in 2017, with around 5,000 people falling victim. Fake package holidays, flights or accommodation bookings were the most common types of scam, but criminals also targeted everything from car hire to hotel room inspections. Here are some of the newest or most pernicious scams, and what you can do to avoid falling victim to them.

Scam 1 – fake accommodation listings

The rise in popularity of online short-term rental platforms has increased the amount of choice holidaymakers have when booking accommodation. But the potential downside is that the accommodation is typically being offered by private individuals – rather than companies – whose credentials can be hard to verify.

While most of the major platforms do their best to crack down on fake listings, the risk of fraud is nonetheless very real. Criminals can set up dummy accounts and list accommodation that they have no connection with – using photos and other details from other websites, for example, to make their listings appear genuine.

This type of con usually operates as follows: someone will try to book apparently genuine accommodation through a web platform and the fraudster will ask that person to pay them directly via a bank transfer online rather than through the platform’s own payment system. This makes it much harder for the platform to block suspicious transactions or for the victim to claim a refund.

In many cases, the victim won’t realise they’ve been duped until they arrive at the apartment or villa they thought they had booked. A British family lost £4,100 when the Sicilian villa they found last summer through Airbnb, but paid for directly to the ‘owner’, turned out to have been listed fraudulently.

How to protect yourself

Being asked for a direct payment, especially via online bank transfer, is a common theme in fraud attempts. Never do it. The main platforms urge customers to pay only through their system, and this is the easiest way to avoid being scammed. Another warning sign: the property may not have many reviews. But in some cases, criminals can take over legitimate listings – which may have many glowing reviews – by stealing owners’ log-in details.

Scam 2 – hotel-based cons

UK authorities have warned recently of a number of scams that target holidaymakers staying in foreign hotels. Most commonly, these involve criminals impersonating hotel staff.

In one type of con, uniformed hotel staff knock on a holidaymaker’s door and ask to carry out an urgent inspection of the room’s electrics or plumbing. But in fact, these people are imposters and while one of them appears to check the issue in question, the other will attempt to steal valuables or important travel documents.

In other cases, individuals receive a call claiming to be from reception asking them to confirm or re-submit their credit card details. But in fact the call is made from outside the hotel and is an attempt to steal personal and banking details.

How to protect yourself

If you are suspicious of hotel room staff behaviour, ask them to wait outside the room while you call reception to check that the inspection is genuine.

In the event of you being asked for credit or debit card details by phone, say that you’ll call reception back with the details in a few minutes, or you’ll go to reception with the required information when it’s next convenient.

Scam 3 – the tourist trap

There’s nothing new about a small minority of dishonest locals attempting to trick holidaymakers in the street into giving them money – from selling dodgy trinkets to signing people up for non-existent tours, but fraudsters try fresh ideas all the time.One example from Rome involves a man stopping his car and asking for directions. He will then say he is running out of petrol and will offer to sell you something, such as an unused item of clothing, at a ‘bargain’ price, in order to pay for fuel. Needless to say, the item is practically worthless.

How to protect yourself

Treat any unsolicited approach with a degree of caution. Learn the phrase ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help’ in the local language to politely but firmly decline their request or offer. Research online before you travel to a destination to see whether there are any specific local scams you need to be aware of.

Scam 4 – fake travel companies

Most of us like to bag a bargain when it comes to travel. But if a deal seems too good to be true, the chances are it’s a con.

Action Fraud warns that fraudsters are contacting people, often out of the blue, and offering them a dream holiday or desirable accommodation at an extremely competitive price. The travel company behind the offer may seem legitimate and even have a convincing website – but it’s bogus. They will only steal your money.

How to protect yourself

There are several questions you should ask yourself before you book. First, why has the firm contacted you? Is this a company you’ve had previous dealings with? Cold-calling in particular is quite an expensive way to reach customers: if the holiday and price are genuine, why isn’t the company selling via its website, social media or traditional advertising?

Second, how are you being asked to pay? If it’s by direct bank transfer, that’s a clear warning sign: unlike a credit card payment, direct transfers are almost impossible to claim back in the event of fraud.

Scam 5 – car-hire pitfalls

When a car-rental firm bills you for damage that’s either non-existent or didn’t happen while you were in possession of its car, it can be hugely frustrating. In some cases – especially when flying home outside business hours – customers have no choice but to drop the car off without having it inspected. There are many reports of holidaymakers returning to the UK only to find they’ve been charged hundreds or even thousands of pounds by rental firms falsely claiming the vehicle has been damaged – or inflating the cost of repairs for any damage that the customer admits they have been responsible for.

How to protect yourself

Thoroughly inspect the vehicle when you pick it up to ensure that any damage is recorded by the car-hire company – and take your own pictures.

When dropping off, take more pictures or even a video of the exterior of the car – especially if you are not able to have the vehicle checked by an employee of the car-hire firm. Finally, consider taking out insurance before you leave home from a third party – not the car-hire company itself – that would cover the cost of any policy excess charges. This is available from Saga, and a number of online providers in the UK.

Scam 6 – dodgy holiday clubs

A more modern form of timeshare, holiday clubs are often touted as a way to gain cheaper access to accommodation in sought-after destinations at certain times of year. But these clubs can, at times, be run in an underhand way.

Often, individuals are approached by representatives and told that they’ll be entitled to a free trip abroad if they simply attend a presentation – either in the UK or when they’re already overseas.

But these presentations are little more than high-pressure sales events where attendees are cajoled into signing up for the club. In the worst cases, victims may end up signing a contract for thousands of pounds of fees a year in return for extremely limited access to the accommodation offered – which is often overbooked.

One notorious holiday club in Bangkok approaches tourists in the street and gives them a scratch card with the chance to win a free holiday. In order to claim their trip, winners must attend a presentation where they’re pressured to sign up for what turn out to be worthless or non-existent benefits. Reports suggest that the club changes its name regularly to avoid action by the Thai authorities.

How to protect yourself

If you attend a presentation, don’t take your bank cards; don’t sign anything there – take any documentation away to check it properly. Be sure you understand your cancellation rights. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Scam 7 – currency conversion cons

The cost of exchanging money either before a trip can be high – especially if you buy your currency at the last minute at the airport. But there is another type of conversion con you need to be aware of after you arrive in your destination.

On the face of it, this doesn’t look like a scam at all: when you are about to pay by credit or debit card for a meal in a restaurant, for example, or a purchase in a shop, the waiter or shop assistant will give you the option of paying in the local currency or in pounds sterling. But while it might seem more sensible to pay in your own currency, this is likely to leave you out of pocket.

This practice, known as dynamic currency conversion, effectively allows the retailer to set their own exchange rate as well as adding fees: this means you’ll almost always end up paying more in pounds than you would have if you’d paid in the local currency and allowed the transaction to be processed by your bank.

How to protect yourself:

Simple: always opt to pay in the local currency.

Scam 8 – cloned websites

It’s not just listings on accommodation platforms that may not be all they seem (see Scam 1, above). According to recent media reports, fraudsters may go as far as to create convincing copies of popular travel websites in order to get holidaymakers to pay for flights, packages or accommodation that simply do not exist.

Criminals set up websites that appear identical to those run by major tour operators or travel sites like TripAdvisor. The only difference is typically a minor change in the web address – for example, instead of .co.uk, the site’s address might end in .org.

Visitors to the sites are encouraged to make bookings online – but instead of paying for a genuine holiday, their money is syphoned off by the fraudsters.

How to protect yourself

If you want to check a travel company’s web address, simply type its name into Google or another major search engine: the top result will invariably be the real thing. Also, genuine sites’ addresses should start with “https://” rather than just “http://” – the extra s stands for secure – and there should be a small picture of a padlock to the left of the address.

Be wary also of sites that do not let you pay by credit or debit card – bear in mind that this type of payment can provide greater levels of protection against fraud.

Scam 9 – the pricey petrol scam

It’s a fact of life that fuel is often more expensive on motorways and near airports, whether you’re in the UK or overseas. But this scam takes overcharging to a new level.

Petrol stations based near major tourist airports fail to display their rates and unsuspecting holidaymakers fill up without realising they're going to be charged way over the odds when they come to pay. According to the Foreign Office, this kind of con is very common in Orlando, Florida.

How to protect yourself

If you’re planning to buy fuel for your rental car from a petrol station, make sure you know exactly how much you are going to be charged in advance. Be suspicious of stations where prices are not on display. If you are about to return your rental car at the end of a trip, try to fill up the tank in advance from a cheaper petrol station – even if this means you have to make a small top-up near the airport.

Forewarned is forearmed

Unfortunately, criminals are always coming up with new ways to part holidaymakers from their money – and are using new technology to assist them.

Stay abreast of the latest cons by visiting the Action Fraud website. You can report a suspected fraud to the organisation either via the website or by calling 0300 123 2040 (+44 330 123 2040, if you’re abroad).

The travel agents’ organisation ABTA has information about avoiding fraud and what to do if you’ve fallen victim to a scam. And the Foreign Office has lots of advice on travelling to destinations worldwide and what to look out for.

Forewarned is forearmed

Unfortunately, criminals are always coming up with new ways to part holidaymakers from their money – and are using new technology to assist them.

Stay abreast of the latest cons by visiting the Action Fraud website. You can report a suspected fraud to the organisation either via the website or by calling 0300 123 2040 (+44 330 123 2040, if you’re abroad).

The travel agents’ organisation ABTA has information about avoiding fraud and what to do if you’ve fallen victim to a scam. And the Foreign Office has lots of advice on travelling to destinations worldwide and what to look out for.

 


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.