Nine tips to avoid online holiday scams and arriving to a nasty shock
Booking a place to stay on holiday direct with a property owner has never been more popular.
Besides the big players like AirBnB, OwnersDirect and Home Away, other smaller outfits are springing up to cater to demand.
They all have variations on the same business model – ultimately you deal direct with the owners of properties.
Sadly, all of them are also popular with scammers who are keen to rip you off.
The City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) says there were 1,569 holiday booking frauds reported last year.
And the reality is that the risk IS higher than when you book a package holiday.
At the same time, there are great bargains (and great properties in terrific locations) to be had by using the direct approach.
So, how do you avoid being a victim and/or disappointed?
The commonest frauds are where someone either sets up a fake entry for a property that doesn't exist or pretends to be the owner of someone else’s property.
The other risk, which isn’t outright fraud (but can verge on it), is that you get to the property only to find it falls well short of the one you were promised.
Here are some of the measures I’d recommend after several years’ experience of using direct holiday booking services myself. These are not only aimed at avoiding scams, but also avoiding renting a place that disappoints.
1. Don’t rush
If you’re dealing direct, you definitely need to allow extra time to research, ask questions, compare prices and get into a dialogue with an owner.
All these things will help avoid a fraudster, who will want to close a deal fast and move on. AND they’ll help you avoid disappointment by renting a place that doesn't measure up to expectations.
2. How old is the ad?
New ads with no reviews, or only a few reviews, should ring alarm bells.
They may be completely genuine, but then again with new properties it’s wise to tread very carefully indeed and get into a long and detailed dialogue with the owner.
3. Check reviews
They are hugely important. Are they balanced? Are they too perfect to be believable? Very importantly, are they spread out over a longish period?
This is harder to fake than just sticking up a few super-positive assessments from the last few weeks.
Do the reviewers show up reviewing elsewhere, which may tend to show they are genuine?
It’s actually quite hard to fake reviews and make them sound like they’re from completely different people. Trust your instincts here. If they don’t feel right, maybe they aren’t!
4. Ask for extra photos of the property
All genuine owners will have pictures they haven’t posted. This will help make a better assessment of the property and reassure yourself the owner is genuine.
5. Use Skype or FaceTime
If you are able to see the property in this way, so much the better.
I used Skype to talk to a Bedouin tribesman/businessman who showed me his tented encampment in the Jordanian desert, complete with a camel wandering in front of the camera. It helped enormously. I booked it and my family had the trip of a lifetime.
6. How responsive is the owner?
This is a vital indicator. Ask lots of questions and for lots of detail. Responsible owners will go out of their way to be helpful and will readily supply answers.
Ask them to supply phones and emails of other people who have stayed at the property. This is not a foolproof tool, but it’s another piece of evidence that helps you decide whether an entry is genuine.
Speak to the owner on the phone and make a judgement about them. Ask for their address.
7. Check out the property online
Use Google Maps to check out the address, just to work out whether the location matches the description. If street view is available, so much the better.
8. Only pay an owner direct as a last resort
If at all possible, avoid paying an owner direct. This is why I favour the Airbnb model in which money is only released to the owner on the day the booking begins IF the company does not hear from the renter that something is wrong.
This is great model that offers excellent protection. If you have to pay direct, do not use cash transfers or cash, but a credit card, which is at least traceable and offers some protection in the event of fraud.
Some sites offer insurance to protect against fraud – but check the small print carefully.
9. Play your part
It's all too easy if you’re in a group to assume someone else is taking care of the details in the contract and asking all the right questions. Don’t assume.
Get involved and carry out your own checks, especially of the contract. Make sure you know precisely what is included in the price and, if there is a deposit, on what terms can it be held back.