My reaction was, I'm told, quite common. Far from feeling any anger towards the criminals, I actually felt a certain respect for their cunning. My strongest emotion was shame, for having been hooked. I was the classic middle-class sucker (most of the victims, said the nice detective sergeant from the Lothian and Borders Fraud Squad, were from 'London and the South East' which, as we all know, is a euphemism for rich bastards). Too snooty to go and book an ordinary package holiday, I had to have something different. A converted cowshed? How charming. Rustic French furniture? Oh goody, goody - no visual pollution. And a private swimming pool. All for pounds 425 a week.
People like me were ripe for the picking. You just have to imagine how the fraud was planned. Someone has the simple idea of advertising non-existent holiday villas in the sort of papers that middle-class suckers read (Independent on Sunday sadly included . . .) The destination is crucial: Spain is no good because the package companies have got that covered; Italy is just a bit too cultured - too small a market. But Provence is perfect.
We had already decided we couldn't afford a holiday. But when we saw the ad, surprisingly late in the year for August vacancies - I could smell the lavender already. There was something rather reassuring about it being an Edinburgh phone number (had it been Glasgow, pointed out one of the Fraud Squad men, people might not have been so quick to part with their money).
Admittedly, the literature, when it arrived, was not glossy - just descriptions, no photographs - but then that was obviously how they kept their costs down. It sounded like a small, intimate company just starting out. 'This would be a brilliant con,' remarked my husband, echoing my own reluctant thoughts - but no, it couldn't be. Why would they have told me that several of the villas we had chosen were not available for our dates? (Classic double bluff, say the Fraud Squad.) And then there was the elegant Edinburgh address. As I wrote out the deposit cheque for pounds 212, I could picture the owners sitting in their Georgian house: a refined middle-aged couple, perhaps retiring from the rat race to make a comfortable living from their love of Provence. The con-men didn't have to do anything - I did it all for them.
In fact, the address belonged to an agency that acts as a mail and phone drop for businesses - a perfectly legal arrangement but one which also provides ideal cover for criminals. Obviously the whole thing would be blown open when the first holiday-makers arrived in Provence, so the first week in July seems to have been the cut-off date. We were some of the lucky ones - having been somewhat tardy with our final payment, our cheque for the final pounds 600 or so had been intercepted by the Fraud Squad. I had already paid over pounds 1,000 for flights and car hire to Air France Holidays, who were legally entitled to keep 30 per cent as cancellation charge - more than the con-men had made out of us. When I wrote explaining the circumstances, suggesting that it didn't seem quite nice to make a profit out of my misfortune and someone else's criminal deception (and, by the way I'm a journalist), they reduced it to pounds 50. But many others were not so fortunate - by the time the Fraud Squad had wind of the scam, some of the victims had already set off en vacances: they contacted one family on their car phone as they were driving down the motorway to Dover.
So what is the lesson to be learnt? There are hundreds of perfectly bona fide small companies and individuals advertising villas in the classifieds - but no way of discriminating between them and the fraudulent ones. It is impractical to check out the advertiser personally. But next time I would insist on seeing photographs of interiors and exteriors, before parting with any money, and be wary of companies that only offered rentals for a few months of the year. And with hindsight, after those initial pricklings of suspicion, I could have got friends from different parts of the country to ring and book the converted cowshed for the dates we had been given.
Meanwhile, being the victim of a fraud has given me a certain social cachet. In the Eighties, 'my designer' was the name to drop - in the recession-gripped Nineties, I feel we could be hearing a lot more of 'my Fraud Squad detective'.Reuse content