How to Avoid Holiday Scams When Booking a Villa or Apartment
The number of reported cases of holiday booking fraud has spiked in recent years. Sophisticated criminals have come up with plenty of scams to trick those booking holiday rentals online.
How can you be sure the accommodation really exists? How do you spot fake listings? Before you book a villa or apartment on Airbnb, Holiday Lettings or HomeAway, follow these tips to avoid being caught out by fraudsters.
How big is the problem?
- According to police statistics, holidaymakers were conned out of £6.7m last year, booking holiday let apartments or villas that didn’t exist.
- Holiday booking fraud not only causes victims significant financial losses, it also has a substantial emotional impact.
How do holiday booking scams work?
Unsuspecting victims are tricked into transferring payments for seemingly genuine holiday properties to conmen disguising themselves as the real property owners.
The 3 most common tricks fraudsters use are:
- Hacking into legitimate accommodation owners accounts on listing sites.
Example: Bridesmaids conned out of £2.3k after fraudster intercepted messages with the villa’s real owner on HomeAway.
- Posting fake adverts on listing sites such as Airbnb and HomeAway.
Example: Fake listing on HomeAway dupes holidaymaker out of £3000.
- Set-up bogus accommodation websites using photos and details lifted from genuine websites.
Example: Dream holiday turns into nightmare as fake rental website costs family £2,600.
(For further information read our post on how holiday booking scams work).
In many cases, the fraudsters suggest you contact them directly rather via the listing site’s official messaging service. They lure you in with the offer of a discount if you send money quickly by bank transfer to secure the booking. As soon as payment is made, the scammer stops all contact and vanishes with the money. At this point, the victims discover they have been duped. In the worst cases, holidaymakers arrive at the villa to discover they don’t have a legitimate booking or the property does not exist.
How to stay safe and avoid being caught by holiday booking fraud
Although thousands of holiday villas and apartments are booked each year without a problem, you don’t want to be a victim. If there is something about the website, the property description or the owner communication that you aren’t happy about, or if the deal seems too good to be true – use your judgment. Don’t be duped. There are plenty of other genuine holiday homes out there.
To avoid being caught out by a bogus holiday rental scammer, follow these basic steps to check if an apartment or villa is genuine before booking.
- Avoid paying by bank transfer or cheque. Use your credit or debit card.
- When you are caught up in the excitement of booking a holiday during the summer and in December, it’s easy to get lured in by a bargain and last-minute deal on accommodation. Check the rates of other similar rentals in the area as well. If it’s way lower than other properties or if there is an urgency to booking immediately, question why. Trust your gut. Properties that look too good to be true usually are.
- Many holidaymakers book holidays online without any prior communication with the property owner/manager. However, messaging the host who has insider knowledge of the area can help reassure you that the holiday home is genuine and as advertised. Ask them questions that aren’t directly related to the property. Can they recommend any good restaurants or local beaches? What do they suggest for a day out? Where’s the closest supermarket? Genuine rental owners will be happy to oblige and share their knowledge. If they don’t, proceed with extreme caution.
- Most holiday rental listing sites feature reviews from past guests. Read through them and don’t be put off if a few are slightly negative, it’s how the owner responds that matters. There are opinions that testimonials and reviews can be ‘faked’, but verified reviews are a good sign of trust. Especially when they span a few years. If there are no independent reviews of the rental you need to do further checks.
- Can you obtain the contact details for the owner, including the property address and phone number? Although some owners will be unwilling to disclose these openly on their website and most listing sites now hide the hosts’ contact details (they only allow contact through their official messaging platform), there should be no problems getting these at the booking stage when the owner knows you are serious.
- If booking through a rental listing site such as homeaway.co.uk, holidaylettings.co.uk or Airbnb.co.uk, the advert should show (near the contact details) how long the property has been advertised on the site. The length the advertiser has been on the site is usually a good indicator of the owners’ experience. The longer the better.
- Once you have details of the owner and property, turn to Google to do some research. By entering the address into Google maps you should be able to verify the address and use Google street view to see the actual holiday let. Do the photos on the advertisements match the images on street view?
- Is there a booking contract? The holiday property manager should send you a booking contract to sign when you book. This outlines the terms and conditions of the holiday and should include details of the property address etc.
- Is the availability calendar updated? A calendar showing all available in peak season when everywhere else is full could be ‘flag’. A trick scammers use is to advertise the most expensive peak weeks at a discount to catch bargain hunters out.
- Try Rapportive (for Gmail). Use the owners’ email to pull other data on their social profiles. Do they match up?
- If you have concerns, ask for a utility bill for proof of ownership. However, some owners won’t be comfortable disclosing them until they can verify who you are due to their own identity theft concerns.
- If the owner has their own website, do a whois lookup by entering the website address in the search box. This shows details of who owns the website. Does it match the owners’ details provided to you and those on listing sites? How long has the domain been registered for? If it’s only a few weeks be cautious.
- Does the owner/property have any active social media pages with comments from guests?
- Is the property managed by an established villa management company who does the cleaning or meet and greet? Ask for their details so you can verify the rental.
- Try a reverse image search on photos of the property (using a Chrome browser, right click on the image and choose ‘search Google for image’). If you find the same photo being used for several different properties, it’s probably a scam.
- If you’re not sure, contact the holiday rental listing site where you found the rental as they are likely to have carried out their own verification checks on the advertiser.
What is the safest way to pay when booking with the owner direct?
The level of protection you have depends on how you pay for your holiday.
Cheque or bank transfer
When booking direct with the owner, personal cheques or electronic bank transfers have traditionally been the preferred method of payment for many holiday let owners. However, bank transfers are like paying by cash. Once the cheque or money transfer has cleared, there is very little consumer protection and it will be difficult to recover funds in cases of fraud. That’s why scammers request a bank transfer. If a bank transfer is the only option, then do extra research as above.
Some hosts may take payments via PayPal, which allows you to pay online via credit card. PayPal has its own buyer protection scheme – yet according to moneysavingexpert.com it is inferior to Section 75.
If you pay using a debit card, you may be able to ask your bank to get your money back through the chargeback scheme.
Credit cards have the greatest protection if you are scammed, as you can make a claim against your card provider under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. For Section 75 to apply the holiday you paid for must have cost over £100 and not more than £30,000.
Paying by credit card offers the most comprehensive protection from fraud when booking a holiday. If you are booking direct and the holiday home owner doesn’t accept credit cards (they should as it’s easy to set up), make sure you are certain they are genuine.
Avoid paying for accommodation by untraceable methods such as wired money transfers by companies like Western Union.
Common holiday rental payment procedure is 25% deposit and then the balance 6-8 weeks before departure. If full payment is requested upfront for a reduced rate – be cautious. Obviously, late bookings will require payment in full, but use a payment method that offers protection such as credit card.
Some owners who live on site may allow cash on collection of the keys, although most won’t due to the risk of no-shows
What consumer protection is there when booking via HomeAway and Airbnb?
HomeAway offers a ‘Book with Confidence Guarantee’ if you complete your booking online and pay through HomeAway checkout. If you make a payment outside their website your payment isn’t protected against things like listing fraud and phishing.
From Airbnb: Keep yourself, your payment, and your personal information protected by staying on Airbnb’s secure platform throughout the entire process—from communication, to booking and payment. You should never be asked to wire money, provide credit card information or otherwise pay a host directly. If you are, report it to us immediately.
What can you do if you’re the victim of holiday booking fraud?
How to get your money back after a scam…
- If you booked via a listing website such as HomeAway or Airbnb then contact them to see if your payment is protected.
- If you paid by credit card, you have protection if things go wrong under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. If you paid by debit card you may be able to reclaim your cash via your card provider’s Chargeback scheme.
- If you’ve transferred money into another bank account, you should contact your bank immediately to see if they can recover the funds.
- If you’re the victim of a travel-related fraud, report it to Action Fraud (or by calling 0300 123 2040), Trading Standards and to Citizens Advice Consumer Service. However, in many instances, no action will be taken.
It’s unlikely that standard travel insurance will cover booking fraud, but you should check the terms and conditions of your individual policy just to be certain.
Holiday letting portals are constantly taking steps to reduce villa rental scams by verifying owners, securing communications and pushing for properties to be booked online. However, holidaymakers still get caught out.
The safest way for travellers to avoid holiday booking scams is…
Millions of travellers book holiday villas and apartments every year without any problems.
To stay safe….
- Always use your credit card to pay for the booking for maximum protection if the booking proves fake.
- When using listing sites such as Airbnb or HomeAway, only communicate with owners through the website’s messaging system and pay via the sites own secure booking portal.
- Follow our tips above and trust your gut. Properties that look too good to be true usually are.
As always, we welcome your comments below which will help other travellers.