In April 2018, UK travel and trade association, Abta, reported that £6.7 million had been lost to holiday booking fraud in 2017 alone. Of the 4,700 travellers affected, a staggering 575 were reported to have experienced severe emotional impact as a result of being scammed, with some individuals, families and businesses even seeking medical treatment or falling into serious financial difficulty.
With fraudsters becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods, travellers have to be a lot more wary when it comes to booking rental accommodation online. A booking platform, advert or property owner may look safe or legitimate on the surface – but dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that fraudsters’ tactics are a lot more sinister than anyone has let on.
What techniques are fraudsters using to scam travellers?
Fraudsters are attuned to the latest in the psychology of trust and professionalism, and are experts at building personal relationships with holidaymakers and travellers. They understand what types of images people are attracted to, and what kind of content and communication people engage with best. In more extreme cases, fraudsters even include members of their own families or businesses to deceive holidaymakers into buying into their ‘wholesome’ offering – to create a ‘bond’ and extract personal information with little to no physical interaction.
A popular view – heightened through various media publications – is that fraudsters are one-man operations, scamming people out of thousands simply from their bedroom or the comfort of their sofa. But more often than not, teams of fraudsters are creating an entire alternative world in which they look like legitimate property owners. Investing thousands into their operation – sometimes even hiring a team or renting office space to encourage structure – fraudsters go as far as:
- Creating fake identities through passports
- Displaying local network telephone numbers
- Developing fake property contracts
- Obtaining fake Companies House listings to prove business or property ownership
- Sending convincing payment and reservation confirmations – encouraging peace of mind
With fraudsters able to scam numerous individuals and families out of thousands, across a number of property listings, and within a matter of days or weeks, theirs is a long-game and not necessarily a quick win. Perhaps most sinister of all, however, is that fraudsters are constantly adapting and changing their methods depending on specific trends in consumer activity; both offline and online.
Observing online behaviour
According to Google’s search insights for the travel industry, ‘Online interactions are increasingly shaping how people dream up their next trip’, and fraudsters know exactly how to speak to the ‘I-want-to-get-away’ quick decision-makers. By displaying competitive prices, suitable payment terms and last-minute deals, they begin to attract those whose research and intent is driven by immediacy and price.
Fraudsters take particular advantage of these online users; studying how new technology and online behaviour influences decision-making. Google also reported that over 80% of travellers admit they haven’t chosen – or begun to think about – the accommodation provider they will book with. Fraudsters therefore tap into this behaviour by sending over well-written contracts – claiming that they need to be signed ‘immediately’ before accepting a booking – and use language such as ‘Available ONLY today!’ or fake competitions and deadlines to build upon that immediacy.
Fake social media accounts & adverts
There is an increasing amount of coverage on the issue of fake social media accounts being used to scam unassuming social media users – with property images and details from legitimate property owners or agents used to convince users into booking accommodation. Social media platforms have also faced criticism for fake profiles and advertisements that claim unlimited availability and cheap prices for holiday rental properties.
Perhaps the most common method of holiday rental fraud in recent years is fraudsters intercepting emails between villa owners and holidaymakers via Online Travel Agencies (OTAs), or marketplaces such as HomeAway and Airbnb. By hacking into legitimate property owners’ emails or redirecting users away from communicating via the site, they are able to convince the user into making payment directly by bank transfer, instead of paying securely via the site. As a result, many holidaymakers and travellers have arrived at their destination to find that the property they thought they had rented either doesn’t exist, is privately owned, or the legitimate owner has no knowledge of their booking.
Many fraudsters also have the skills and ability to create their own, quality websites with related domain names and descriptions. These sites, to the untrained eye, look and feel legitimate – using a high-volume of fake reviews and travel partner logos/stamps of approval in order to increase credibility.
It has also been reported that fraudsters are taking advantage of Google’s paid search functions, enabling their fake websites to rank highly against those that rank organically for high-competition search terms, such as ‘Holiday Villas in Spain’. This method takes advantage of user trust and bypasses the credibility built by businesses that have strong organic rankings and traffic.
So what’s next in the fight against fraud?
It is important for holidaymakers and travellers to remain vigilant in the identification of a scam or fraudulent activity. Prior to booking anything, it’s important to consider the following:
- Does this seem too good to be true?
- Are these payment requests unusual?
- Do the property images, reviews or details appear elsewhere online?
- Are they I-PRAC approved?
Here at I-PRAC, we are committed to ensuring holidaymakers and travellers are able to book with confidence. As fraudsters adopt increasingly sophisticated methods, we offer a secure platform where property owners and holidaymakers can build trust. Contact our team today to discover more about our verification and approvals process.