A beautiful villa by the sea – it has a private pool, air-con and only ten minutes walk to the nearest town. It’s perfect, but is it too good to be true?
Having always had success by booking accommodation through holiday lettings sites on several breaks, I’d always assumed they were a safe bet: a means to get in a well-earned break in a home-from-home and for a fraction of the cost of a package deal.
That is until I witnessed a holiday lettings scam play out before my very eyes.
When we booked a spring break to Ibiza a few years ago, we didn’t hesitate to go through a holiday listings site. After entering our requirements and trawling through the resulting listings, we found a villa that ticked all the boxes.
And from the pictures, description and reviews, it seemed like we’d be living the dream during our stay.
Being a villa for 14 that could be split in two, we were naturally thrilled when we arrived and our host told us that the other half would remain empty for the duration of our stay.
For four days, we had the villa, the pool and the grounds in this remote island spot all to ourselves.
However, on our second-to-last night, our bubble was abruptly burst when a taxi pulled up with an understandably irate (in retrospect) couple and their baby.
Demanding to talk to the owner, they wanted to know what we were doing in the villa they’d rented for the week.
Shaken, we telephoned our host, who arrived with the police.
Long story short, the couple and their soon-to-be-arriving friends had unwittingly booked through a fake listings site that had cloned the details of our villa.
They’d paid the fraudsters by bank transfer and arranged to meet their ‘host’ at the airport. When the host didn’t arrive and the couple couldn’t reach him on the phone number he’d given, they decided to head to the accommodation on their own steam, where they found us and realised they’d been conned.
Fortunately, half the accommodation was empty, so their group at least had somewhere to stay, although they obviously paid twice for it. Had they rocked up in the height of season, I wouldn’t have fancied their chances in securing accommodation.
Talking to the owner later, she explained that the police had told them that they’d handled a number of similar cases the previous year. And apparently, there was nothing they could do but file a report and see if they could get the website where the villa was posted shut down.
Sadly, this isn’t a unique problem. According to Action Fraud, holiday accommodation fraud involving fake accommodation listings is one of the most common scams and in 2015, holidaymakers were collectively conned out of £11.5m.
As part of a Which? Travel investigation, we managed to place fake listings on Airbnb.co.uk and Holidaylettings.co.uk. In both cases we posted a message advising users to email the owner directly for a discount – a common trick that could lead to a bank-transfer scam, and wholly against the sites’ rules.
Update: 22 June 2017
If you haven’t booked your summer holiday accommodation yet, you might want to be careful with where you book it.
According to a new investigation by ITV Tonight, thousands of British holidaymakers have been duped by a recent rise in fake accommodation listing sites.
These fake sites steal images from genuine letting sites and sell on phantom breaks to unsuspecting holidaymakers.
The show, airing tonight on ITV at 7.30pm, uncovered more than 10 fake sites that had stolen over 10,000 images of villas from legitimate sites.
These were easily searchable on the internet., but have since been taken down. Police, however, have said there is no legislation that allows them to close such sites down quickly.
Have you or someone you know ever been the victim of a fake holiday listing? What happened?