Holidaymakers were urged today to be wary of “fake” booking websites that are fleecing customers of significant sums of money.
Several new alleged scams have been detected this month after hundreds of travellers were taken in by similar sites last year, the boss of a leading holiday booking website today warned.
Nick Cooper, founder and co-owner of Villa Plus, said cyber-criminals were again targeting holidaymakers by fraudulently advertising homes and taking cash for bookings.
Villa Plus said it contacted police after discovering its properties were being advertised on websites without the owners’ knowledge or consent. Last year, fake sites conned hundreds of people and a police report said holidaymakers lost £11.5 million in 2015 in booking scams.
Mr Cooper said there had been a marked increase in the number of fake sites since August, claiming that it could take months for web hosting companies to shut them down. He said: “Scam websites are promoting villa rentals, where there is seemingly no intention of providing any service other than to steal customers’ money, and more must be done by those responsible for hosting the sites to shut them down.
They are operating illegally, and it seems, with impunity. Our solicitors have attempted to get the host of the sites in question to take action but they have unfortunately refused to do so in the absence of a court order.”
Mr Cooper said the scams could be very sophisticated, typically involving websites with search results showing plenty of peak season availability and professional photographs of villas copied from genuine websites.
Villa Plus contacted Action Fraud on February 7 to report the apparent deception.
In a letter, Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, the national centre for reporting fraud and internet crime, said the case would be sent to City of London Police’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau which would assess whether there was “enough evidence for the police or Trading Standards to investigate your fraud”.
A police source said two websites, luxuryrentalsvilla.com and cycladesrentals.com, were being shut down in response to an alleged fraud.
The source said: “We are using the tools available to protect other holidaymakers from falling prey to the same scam websites. Any prosecution of the website owners will be a longer job to prepare.”
A City of London police spokesman confirmed it had “requested that two websites be suspended”, meaning they will not be able to trade under those domain names.
He said: “Following an allegation made to Action Fraud the City of London Police has requested the suspension of website domains suspected of being involved in fraud.
“The Internet service provider has since taken down the websites.”
City of London police commander Chris Greany, national co-ordinator for economic crime, said: “When booking a holiday, it is vitally important you take your time and follow a number of basic checks designed to protect you from falling victim to a fraud.
“These include researching the name of the company online you are considering using and ensuring it is a member of a recognised trade body. It is also key that you make sure the website is legitimate by carefully checking the domain name and pay with a credit card, rather than using a debit card or cash.”
Last year City of London Police requested the suspension of 160,000 websites, bank accounts and phone lines used by fraudsters to commit crime, the spokesman added.
Policing fraudulent websites is notoriously difficult because site owners can make subtle changes to the domain names in order to keep operating and websites based outside the UK are much harder to control.
Last year, a report by the NFIB revealed fraudsters stole £11.5 million from holidaymakers and other travellers in 2015, a 425 per cent increase on the previous year.
The most common types of fraud related to accommodation, with scammers conning travellers by setting up fake websites, hacking legitimate accounts and posting fake adverts on websites and social media.
Luxuryrentalsvilla and cycladesrentals did not respond to requests for comment.