Online holiday booking scams and how to avoid them

New research into cybersecurity has revealed UK holidaymakers lost more than £7m to fake sites and fraud in 2018. We outline the five most common scams and ways to protect a trip and your data
With UK holidaymakers looking to book their summer breaks, industry experts are warning them to look out for online scams and fake websites.

Fraudsters stole more than £7m from holidaymakers in 2018, according to a new report from the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), the national cybercrime reporting centre, Action Fraud, and awareness organisation Get Safe Online. More than 5,000 people reported being scammed in the last year, with an average financial loss of £1,380 per person. Figures are up from 2017, which saw 4,382 victims lose a total of £6.7m.

“Fraudsters are using increasingly sophisticated methods to target destinations and times of the year when demand is high and availability limited, as they know people will be looking for good deals,” says Abta chief executive Mark Tanzer. “As victims often find out just before they travel or even in-resort that they have been defrauded, it can then be difficult and expensive to obtain a legitimate replacement booking.”
Another survey (of 2,000 UK holidaymakers), from cybersecurity firm McAfee, found one in five Brits had, in their lifetime, either been scammed or “nearly scammed’” when booking a holiday online. Those who had nearly been scammed included, for example, people who had reached a payment page before realising the site was not legitimate and others who had been put off when redirected by fake property owners on trusted sites to pay on another platform.

As with the organisations involved in the Abta report, McAfee believes the actual figures are likely to be much higher. Some people may not be formally reporting scams because they are embarrassed, while others may not know what should be reported or who to report it to.

If you’re planning on booking a holiday online – like four in five people in the UK now do – here are the most common five scams to watch out for – and how to avoid them.
Fake websites that look real
According to Abta’s report,53% of online holiday scams reported related to the sale of airline tickets: for example, booking a flight on a fake site and receiving an imitation ticket, or paying for a ticket that never arrives. The same type of scams can happen with accommodation and package deals, too. McAfee found that 27% of those surveyed did not check the authenticity of a website before booking, with 12% admitting they didn’t know how to check if a site is trusted.

The advice
Before paying a deposit, travellers should check that the web address is legitimate. In particular, check the domain name (that’s anything before the .com or .co.uk; so, for example, make sure you’re on thomascook.com and not thomascookdiscountdeals.com) and the top-level domain TLD itself (because .net and .org are rarely used for online shopping sites). Also check for https:// (rather than http://), which should always appear on the payment page. Misspellings, additional words or characters, fuzzy or low-resolution pictures and logos are also indicators of a fraudulent website.
Being directed away from trusted sites for payment

Some fraudsters lure consumers away from trusted booking platforms and request payment on a separate site – often tempting people with a better rate if they pay on another platform. Even louder alarm bells should ring if a host or travel company rep asks for payment via an online bank transfer instead.

The advice
“Be wary of paying a private individual by bank transfer, even if you are offered a discounted rate. Paying by credit card will offer you much more protection from fraud,” says Tony Neate of getting Safe Online. “Trust your instincts; don’t get rushed into making impulsive decisions if something doesn’t feel quite right.”

Raj Samani, a chief scientist at McAfee, agrees: “While it might sound enticing to get an extra discount, it would be much worse to find the money had been taken and you turned up to no accommodation,” he says. “Holidaymakers should keep all communications, bookings and payments on trusted platforms to help protect them from fraud and phishing.”

If you have already paid for something that has turned out to be fake or non-existent with a credit or Visa debit card, you do have some rights, and will in some instances be able to get your money back through your bank.
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