IF you’re planning to rent a property in Spain, or elsewhere, for your holidays this year, it’s worth asking a few questions and demanding to see documentation before parting with your money.
According to an article on the BBC’s website earlier this year, prospective British holidaymakers were conned out of more than three million euros (£2.2 million) in 2014 by online scams involving holiday bookings. A report by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau of the City of London Police calculated that average losses suffered by those affected were over 1,200€, while, in one case, one unlucky prospective timeshare buyer lost more than 85,000€ (£62,000) through fraud.
The most frequent type of fraud involved scammers posing as potential tenants to phish for information from owners, often via leading holiday accommodation websites. Once they establish contact with unwitting owners, they send a Trojan horse or similar attachment via email, enabling them to hack into the owner’s email or listing accounts. Then, they intercept communications between other would-be tenants and the bona fide owner, diverting emails and payments to their own accounts.
ABTA, which represents British travel agents, says holidaymakers may only realise they have been taken for a ride once they arrive at their destination to find the accommodation they reserved and paid for is not booked in their name or, in the worst-case scenario, may not even exist at all. And, as most people pay those who claim to be property owners via the Internet, using electronic transfers or Paypal, they have no means of redress to seek compensation for their loss and disappointment.
So, what can you do to protect yourself against Internet holiday rental cons and make sure the property you have seen online actually is there in the real world and that the person renting it is really the owner? If you see a listing you like, check how long it has been listed (most websites give this information) and that a street address is provided. Then, Google it to confirm there is a number 47 on that street. Then, if you decide to contact the owner, don’t just do so only using email. Always ask for a ‘phone number, preferably a fixed line instead of a mobile, and speak to them personally.
When you call, ask them to prove who they are. This should be no problem for bona fide owners, even if they have never been asked before. You should request a copy, via email, of his or her passport or ID document, ownership deeds, and even a recent utility bill. Of course, all of this could possibly be fake or forged, but the more you ask for, the better. If you are dealing with someone running a scam, rather than a genuine owner, they will, most likely, get cold feet and move on.
When I booked a holiday property in Portugal last year, via an agent, I asked to pay the owner direct using a credit card, rather than a bank or online transfer, as this does offer some fraud protection. As this was not possible, I requested a copy of their bank statement to prove that I was paying the right person. And always be wary if a discount is offered for prior payment in full. It’s safer to pay, and only risk, a deposit, then hand over the balance in cash in exchange for the keys when you arrive.
Finally, as with any offer online, if it seems too good, or too cheap, to be true, it probably is… Happy holidays!