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Six sneaky new holiday scams

Travel fraud on the rise as cons become more sophisticated

Travel fraud increased by 25% last year, with ever more convincing and sophisticated scams fooling even the most savvy consumers.

Fraudsters stole at least £6.7m, with the average victim of a travel scam losing £1,500. From fake flight tickets to bogus breaks, criminals are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to operate, and when one scam stops working, fraudsters simply move on to the next.

Which? Travel has rounded up the latest travel scams to help you take steps to protect yourself.

Have you been scammed? Find out how to report a travel scam and get your money back

1. Accommodation booking scams

Fraudsters use pretty pictures of beautiful (but fake) villas and apartments at bargain prices to lure in their victims, encouraging them to get in touch via email rather than through the booking site’s own system.

Scammers then send them a link to a convincing payment page, where they’re encouraged to transfer money. One trick is to pretend that a credit card payment hasn’t gone through, and then ask for a bank transfer instead.

These scams operate on sites such as Airbnb and Homeaway. The sites themselves are safe, as long as you use their communication and payment systems. Don’t be tempted by owners who suggest paying by bank transfer or cash to avoid commission fees.

Scammers also operate on Facebook, advertising bookings for non-existent breaks, and on fake websites that take photos from legitimate sites and claim them as their own.

How to protect yourself

  • Never pay by bank transfer. Most agents will be able to take credit card payments (so you’ll be refunded if the booking’s a con).
  • Never click on a website payment link sent to you by email – it may not be genuine.
  • Right-click on property images and choose ‘search Google for image’. If the same image is being used to advertise other properties, it’s almost certainly a scam.
  • Use Google Maps Street View to see whether the property is really there.
  • If you’re booking with a travel agent, make sure it’s a member of Abta, and, if you’re booking flights too, Atol.

Find out how to spot scams on Airbnb and other letttings sites

2. Airline ticket scams

There’s been a recent wave of scams with fake or unconfirmed airline tickets, particularly targeting travellers heading to Asia, Africa and the Middle East for sporting or religious events.

Fraudsters choose trips where prices are typically high, and victims’ natural defences are down because it’s an emotional, ‘once in a lifetime’ experience. They then undercut the market price of these flights, offering them on very convincing fake websites.

In some cases they buy genuine flights with stolen credit cards. As soon as the card is reported stolen, the flight is cancelled by the airline, but the thieves still have a phoney confirmation reference number, which they then try to sell on.

Some scammers also steal your personal information (name, address, credit card details), using these to convince you that the credit card payment hasn’t gone through, and that you need to pay by bank transfer.

How to protect yourself

  • If you’re booking through an agent, make sure it’s an Abta member. Abta agents have to sign up to a code of conduct, and Abta provides cover in the event of financial failure.
  • If the agent sells flights and other holiday elements (such as accommodation), then you should also check that it has an Atol licence.

Discover the best and worst flight booking websites

3. Airport wi-fi scams

By setting up free wi-fi networks in airports, fraudsters are able to gain access to personal information about anyone who joins the network.

To test this scam, Antivirus software company Avast set up a bogus airport network called ‘AENA free wi-fi’ at Barcelona airport, and found that users willingly signed up, despite the fact that the network was not run by AENA, the company that runs Spain’s airports. Avast said it could see the identity and browsing history of 60% of people who logged on.

By convincing holidaymakers to provide credit card details, scammers could steal more than just browsing habits.

How to protect yourself

  • Check for the real name of the airport wi-fi connection on the airport website, or with staff.
  • If the connection gets you straight online, without asking for a password, treat it as suspicious and disconnect straight away.
  • Give fake details if you’re asked for any personal IDs or passwords.
  • Never use public wi-fi to log  on to anything that could reveal sensitive personal information.

4. Fake official documents

In recent years, websites have popped up selling fake travel visas and other government documents.

In some cases, the deception is not even illegal. Websites cynically charge for services that are available free, such as the European Health Insurance Card and US visa-waiver document. We found 10 out of the first 20 search results for ‘Esta visa’ were unofficial.

How to protect yourself

  • Check up-to-date advice from the Foreign Office on visa requirements.
  • Never pay for an EHIC. Get it free from the NHS.
  • Only buy the Esta ($14) direct from the US government.

5. Free holiday scam

Since the 1980s, thousands of people have been pressure-sold timeshares after accepting a ‘free holiday’. The trick is still out there, but it’s evolved. Sometimes scammers offer victims scratchcards. When they ‘win’ the free holiday (all cards are winners), they’re more likely to accept.

Timeshares aren’t illegal, but people end up paying high fees every month for property they can’t use, and can’t sell.

And the latest con involves paying a fee up front to fraudsters who promise to sell your timeshare. Last year more than 500, mostly British, timeshare owners on the Costa del Sol fell for this scam to the tune of £15m.

How to protect yourself

  • Don’t accept a free holiday, assuming you can turn down hard-sell techniques. The pressure sellers are experts, and even if you resist, it won’t be a pleasant holiday.
  • If you already own a timeshare, beware of companies that say they can sell it for you but demand money upfront.

6. Fake event/attraction tickets

At this summer’s World Cup, tickets were reportedly sold for as much as £23,000 a pair, with no guarantee that the buyers would be allowed into the stadium. Only those bought directly from Fifa were valid.

Criminals also sell fake tickets to popular or sold-out music shows, with fans willing to pay over the odds to see their favourite pop stars. Fraudsters tend to exploit situations where prices are high and availability is low, to convince fans to throw caution to the wind.

How to protect yourself

  • Only buy from legitimate sites and accredited sellers. Official websites will have the padlock symbol in the corner by the URL and start with ‘https’.
  • Make sure that resale is allowed before buying second-hand.
  • Remember that resellers are legally required to tell you the original face value of the ticket and where you’ll be sitting.
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