Thousands of British travellers are being swindled out of millions of pounds each year through scams involving flights, accommodation and religious pilgrimages.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) has identified 1,000 separate holiday scams in the UK last year that cost consumers more than £1.5m.
The Deputy Director of the NFIB, Pete O’Doherty, said the situation was “particularly distressing” for people when they might have saved up for months or even years for a holiday, or to visit family overseas, only to discover the flight or hotel doesn’t exist, or the booking has never been made. “Many are left devastated as they cannot afford another holiday,” he said.
The bureau believes the true costs are many times higher, because many victims fail to report the swindle to police – either through embarrassment, or because they see no prospect of recovering the cash.
Mr O’Doherty said: “Only by knowing the true nature and scale of the problem can we identify and effectively target those most responsible for this damaging and distressing crime.”
At the root of every travel scam is the practice of paying for flights and accommodation well in advance, often many months before the holiday. Travel fraud is an age-old problem, but it has grown exponentially in scale since airline tickets, rooms and holidays started to be sold online.
Fraudsters using the internet can conceal their real identity and location, and impersonate genuine accommodation owners. A flourishing illegal business has emerged in which criminals intercept emails between genuine villa owners and prospective holidaymakers. One reader of The Independent lost £2,500 on a villa booking in northern Italy made through a reputable agency website. An online fraudster impersonated the villa owner and insisted that payment should be made by bank transfer – which offers no financial protection.
When the fraud was discovered, she complained to the agency: “They say the owner signs a contract with them agreeing that if their security is breached they have to honour the holiday and we should contact the owner, which we have done. The owner isn’t agreeing to anything. The only saving grace is we hadn’t bought flights to Verona.”
One-in-three of the travel fraud victims identified by the NFIB was cheated when paying for accommodation. Scams flourished last year during the London Olympics: beds were scarce, prices high and many legitimate hoteliers were demanding payment in advance. The standard fraud was to advertise rooms at well below market rates. Enquirers were told that they must pay immediately, direct into a bank account rather than by credit or debit card.
The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is a particular target for fraudsters because of the costs and complexity involved, and the likelihood that a single transaction may cover a large number of people – generating high returns. Cases reported to the NFIB saw would-be pilgrims loose up to £14,000.