Beware new online scam targeting ski tourists

People hoping to escape to a skiing holiday for Christmas have been warned of fraudulent listings advertising holiday accommodation. Travel agencies are asking operators to be particularly vigilant, regarding an online scam that targets holidaymakers, who are booking vacations via the internet. Some people have already transferred thousands of pounds to fraudulent companies who have been posing as luxury chalet owners.

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One holidaymaker that got caught out by the internet fraudsters was Manuela Zwingmann-Wood, from Hampstead in North London. Her friends booked their skiing holiday online and paid £13,000 upfront to a man who had posted a chalet on a reputable holiday rentals website. She said: “My friend Julia found a spectacular chalet in Val d’Isere for a very good price. She emailed the owner who said he would give us a 5% discount. But the thing was he asked for her to pay by bank transfer. We all thought it was too good to be true, but it was a reputable website which Julia has used for more than 10 years.” She added: “We just couldn’t believe how gullible we had been. We all use the internet every day and consider ourselves to be savvy – I can’t believe we would fall victim to something like this. It is shocking the lengths that these people are prepared to go to.”

Consensio Holidays, one of the companies that has been affected, has asked for dozens of fraudulent chalet listings to be removed. Their managing director, Ceri Tinley, said: “Fraudsters extrapolate pictures and words from internet listings for our chalets and try to pass them off as their own. Often they will embed their email addresses inside the photos, encouraging people to contact them directly in order to make a booking, before transferring money into their bank accounts. The clearest sign of a fraudulent listing is the cost – some scammers charge only 10% of the chalet’s actual market price.”

Travel association Abta has admitted that this is a “growing problem” and is planning a campaign in the New Year to raise awareness of the problem.

Some fraudsters are taking the scam even further but not only listing on reputable sites, but by cloning other companies’ sites too. One such site, Oxford Ski, had to take down an almost carbon copy replica of their site after they became aware of its existence. Director, Mark Gibbins, said: “It was exactly the same except they had changed some of the property names and set up outward links to unauthorised listings in Airbnb. They hadn’t even bothered to change our business address. The current case in point is a chalet in Kloisters. A client saw a listing on Airbnb and has paid 7,000 euros to a Lloyds bank account as requested by the person that listed with Airbnb. Since setting up the payment they have been unable to contact this person.”

The fraudsters are expected to target the next few weeks especially, as thousands of British holidaymakers are likely to book their skiing holidays for Christmas and the holiday periods. And Ms Tinley is worried: “What we’re now coming to see, and really worrying about is that come Christmas Day we may have two clients turning up, the client who has booked with us and perhaps others who have booked with these fraudulent listings.”

But Abta spokesman Sean Tipton has some advice for people booking online: “Ensure the company’s a member of a trade association such as Abta or Atol and when you pay them, don’t pay by bank transfer, go to a company that accepts a credit card or a Visa debit card, because if something does go wrong – if it turns out there’s a problem with accommodation – you’ll be able to get your money back through the credit card company or bank if it’s a Visa debit card.”

A spokesperson for the holiday accommodation website, Airbnb, said: “These kinds of listings are incredibly rare, but when they happen, our team works quickly to ensure they are removed from our community and we’re always developing new tools to fight fraud. We also protect host and guests by handling transactions. When you use Airbnb, your money is protected and can be refunded if anything goes wrong.”

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