Guest blog – how to avoid the summer holiday scammers

Dorset Police Cyber Protect Officer Chris Conroy returns to offer some much needed advice about staying safe when booking a last minute summer holiday.

If you're anything like me, being organised enough to plan your summer holiday months in advance is nothing more than a pipe dream.

More accurately, having the cash to spend on a summer holiday in the first place is simply the stuff of fantasy. But that's another thing altogether.

Since the start of the school holidays, thousands of Brits have set off for summer sun, with an estimated two million flying out on the first weekend alone. As families face six weeks without school, holidays are in high demand. And the prices soar accordingly.

Perhaps this is why more than one in five of us leave our holiday plans to the last minute, in the hope of snapping up a bargain. Long gone are the days of flicking through Teletext for a cut-price deal. The last minute holiday market is big business, with sites dedicated to helping hotels fill their empty rooms without emptying the customer’s bank account.

However... not everyone in the last minute holiday market shares that ethos. In fact, there are people out there who seek to do quite the opposite. Last year, more than 5,000 people were defrauded trying to book a holiday. The losses totalled roughly £7,000,000.

Last minute holidays are the perfect vector for this sort of fraud. After all, we expect last minute deals to be a bargain, so would we really bat an eyelid at a cheap price? Then there's the time sensitive nature of such deals. The thought of missing out, and maybe not having a holiday at all... that sounds like the perfect mechanism for the scammer.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the more prevalent holiday scams out there, as well as a few things we can do to make sure we don't fall victim.

1)      Finding a trustworthy travel agent

First and foremost, we need to remember that age old saying – if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

Holidays on sale for staggeringly low prices are something to be suspicious about. While it might be a genuine deal, a price that undercuts the rest by a significant margin could be indicative of a scam. Holiday prices are largely set by airlines and resorts. There is some leeway where the travel agents can decide to slap on a commission, or forego it to give us a better deal, but in reality those prices are not all that flexible. 

We can combat this by making sure we do business with reputable companies. You can usually tell if a company can be trusted by looking for ATOL and ABTA logos.

ATOL stands for Air Travel Organisers Licence, and covers holidays where you travel by plane. ABTA is the Association of British Travel Agents, and if a travel company is a member, you’ll have much better financial protection should things not turn out as planned. ATOL and ABTA protection helps ensure if a holiday is mis-sold, or a company goes into administration, you’re not left out of pocket.

       2)   Check out reviews 

When it comes to booking the holiday, there are a few things to take into account. As with all online shopping, reviews can help inform our purchases. Check the company, check the resort, check reviews for anything you can think of. If a company is actively defrauding people, there’s a strong chance online reviews will tip you off before you fall victim too.

Make sure to check a number of sources, so you get a balanced view. After all, posting fake reviews is all too easy. Is the information in the reviews vague? Do a lot of them read the same, or very similar? Consider whether these could be fake reviews looking to sway your decision-making.

3)      Parting with some cash

Let’s say we’re set. We’ve found our dream destination. We’ve picked out some accommodation, and all we need to do to secure seven sweet days of all-inclusive cocktails and three buffet meals a day is make a payment.

A common ploy fraudsters use is to insist on payment by bank transfer. This should be avoided at all costs, as it’s usually a clear indication something isn’t right. 

This could mean one of two things. It could be a scammer, hoping we blindly make a payment. Or it could be the banks don’t trust the holiday seller enough to be willing to provide them with credit card facilities. Either way, it’s not great news! Direct bank transfers are almost impossible to have refunded, and it can be very difficult to trace the money once it’s been sent. 

Make sure you’re paying by credit card, or through a service like PayPal. This way, should it turn out to be a scam, you’ll be afforded a much greater level of financial protection.

Of course, back in the day, your friendly high street travel agent would do all the hard work, you’d part with your hard earned cash and, before you knew it, you’d be off sunning yourself on the Costa Del Somewhere. But along came the internet, making things a bit more complicated.

Nowadays, there are more and more ways to book a holiday. Comparison sites allow us to scrutinise every last detail of our trip, and squeeze every little bit of value out of it. Services like Skyscanner make it possible to find the cheapest flights, and the likes of Airbnb open up a whole world of options, allowing us to live like locals when we’re away.

And the more services we sign up to, the more ways there are for us to be scammed. Lookalike websites, phishing emails, fake properties… there’s a myriad of potential pitfalls. Luckily for us though, if we know what to look for, avoiding the traps is relatively straightforward. 

As with anything we do online, when we’re booking a holiday, we need to remain vigilant and be cyber aware. Check for dodgy URLs, be wary of unsolicited emails, and take everything with a pinch of salt.

See, buying a holiday online is no different from buying one on the high street. We need to use trustworthy firms, we need to check reviews, and we need to pay in a safe and secure way. Aside from that, we just need to nail our cyber basics.

If you think you’d benefit from a refresher, head over to www.dorset.police.uk/cybercrime for some free and impartial cyber security advice. And don’t forget, if you represent a business or community group, you can always get in touch to arrange a free cyber crime prevention talk. 

In the meantime, if you are off for a bit of sun, enjoy yourself, bring us back stick of rock, and make sure you come home in time for next month’s instalment.

Until then, stay safe out there. 

Chris  

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