As Christmas fades to a distant memory and millions of Britons turn their attention to planning their next getaway break, the City of London police force has issued a stark warning to those who use the internet to search for holiday deals.
More criminals are posting bogus accommodation deals online and scamming unwitting consumers into parting with cash by demanding they pay upfront deposits on non-existent villas.
A fraudster who used luxury villas in the Mediterranean to steal holiday savings was jailed for two years at the Old Bailey last week.
Andrew Ryder, 47, admitted stealing more than £120,000 from 13 victims over 12 months by advertising online luxury villa rentals in St Tropez, Cannes and Verbier. Prices started from £5,400 a week.
Once holidaymakers expressed an interest in the properties, the fraudster used high-pressure sales tactics to get them to book one of the villas. Those who succumbed were emailed a booking form containing instructions to wire money to a pre-paid credit card account and an overseas account.
Det Supt Bob Wishart from the City of London economic crime directorate said the exotic accommodation fraud was not an isolated occurrence. Consumers should be extra vigilant when booking holiday accommodation online during January, traditionally a peak month for holiday bookings, he warned.
"Villa fraud is a new phenomenon that we are seeing starting to emerge," he said. "Via the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau we are receiving more reports of villa fraud and are working in close partnership with the travel industry to combat this crime.
"People booking holiday villas in 2011 should use reputable travel companies and double-check all the available details on the property adverts, even when they are on legitimate websites," he said.
ABTA, an association which represents more than 5,000 travel agencies, estimates that 45 million foreign holiday bookings will be made from the UK in a normal year, with January and February typically seeing the highest numbers.
"This is the time of the year when travel operators will put out the best deals. They experience 25 per cent of the bookings for the following summer," said Sean Tipton, an ABTA spokesman. The top destinations for holiday getways are Spain, followed by France, the US, Italy and Greece.
Research by Getsafeonline.org, a joint initiative between government, law enforcement, businesses and the public sector, showed last summer that over two-thirds of web users were unaware of the most common cons.
They were found to be ignoring basic online fraud prevention measures in their quest for the ultimate holiday bargain. Just under one-third of web users booking holidays online admitted failing to confirm the authenticity of travel providers before handing over their payment details.
More than one-fifth said they had not checked whether the web page was secure when entering payment details to help ensure credit card information could not be intercepted by fraudsters.
More than 20 per cent said that they had been approached with villa rentals and holiday deals via unsolicited emails, phone calls or SMS text messages from individuals or organisations they had not heard of.
Other findings from the research showed that more than one in six people had sent an advance payment via a cheque in the post for a holiday and 36 per cent said they didn't track and check payments in their bank and credit card statements following a holiday booking.
The organisation's research also showed woefully low numbers of consumers were aware of the threats. More than two-thirds of people surveyed said they had never heard of holiday rental scams. Sixty-eight per cent responded in the same way to the idea of bogus holiday sites.
Tony Neate, the managing director of Getsafeonline.org, warned consumers to exercise caution when making bookings. "When things don't start to add up, that's when you really need to do your research. For example, if you decide to rent a villa or holiday home from an individual and they don't provide a contact telephone number or don't respond to calls, and they ask for full payment upfront to be made by a cheque in the post or wire transfer, then you need to be careful.
"For private rentals, this may be the only way they can take payment, but it does make them almost impossible to track."Reuse content