Holiday fraud: 'How we were caught out'
"I considered myself quite savvy but now I'm suspicious of everybody."
Neil Garnham from Rochester, Kent, works in an industry dealing with cold hard cash. He's so careful with his money, he doesn't even own a credit card.
But when he tried to treat his family to a holiday, even he wasn't immune from a scammer's net.
Fraudsters are coming up with sophisticated methods to target holiday-makers.
New research suggests that in the last year alone, more than 5,000 people were scammed when they attempted to book a break - with their losses reaching a total of £7m.
Neil was one such person - and he thinks himself lucky to have only lost £350 out of the £1150 he was expecting to spend on a villa in Spain.
"My daughter found the villa through a post on Facebook," he says.
"There was a website and contact details for the location. My daughter telephoned the woman who was advertising the deal and spent a long time discussing our needs - including child-friendly equipment."
Dogs barked, nobody home
"The 'owner' of the place said she didn't normally let out her villa to anyone who wasn't a friend or family member but she liked the sound of us and wanted to help. She said there was high demand on the dates we wanted to go but she only wanted to let it out to us. I went ahead and booked for a week."
He paid the deposit by bank transfer, as suggested by the fraudster, and the family bought flights and paid for other associated expenses.
They were given receipts and a contract and everything seemed above board. However when Neil tried to clarify details for the final payment, the once-working email address bounced back, the phone numbers failed to connect and the website had disappeared.
The original Facebook post had been removed and all traces of the conversation had been marked as spam.
Neil tracked down a UK address but when he knocked on the door, dogs barked but nobody answered.
"We reported this to our bank but understandably they could not refund our money. The situation has upset us significantly. We will be going on holiday but we've had to pay a lot more. These people have no compassion.
"We were always so careful but we got caught out."
When Jane Smith from Wolverton, Buckinghamshire, booked flights to India for a break with her friend, the pair thought their early booking meant they had a cheap deal - but it turned out to be a costly mistake.
"We booked flights in February for a trip in November. I googled one airline that I had flown with before. But the site that I thought was the official one, wasn't.
"It looked almost exactly the same but, on later inspection, it turned out to have key words missing. The agent in question said I was only allowed to pay £70 by credit card and the rest of the £900 costs had to be made by money transfer. I thought I was booking directly but it turned out to be with an agent that just kept fobbing me off."
She said their reservations were repeatedly cancelled and they were unable to get a refund from the agents.
"We ended up booking another ticket with another airline. I had a good holiday - although my friend and I haven't spoken since."
Jane said when she returned from India, she messaged the agent asking for her money back, but they said what had happened was not their fault.
Eventually, she went to the small claims court and her money was returned.
"Now I'll physically go to a travel agent if I'm planning to book a big holiday," she says.
Tips to avoid holiday fraud
- Check the booking agent's web address is legitimate and has not been altered by slight changes to a domain name - such as changing from .co.uk to .org
- Don't just rely on one review - do a thorough online search to check the company's credentials
- Check whether the company is a member of a recognised trade body such as ABTA
- Wherever possible, pay by credit card and be wary about paying directly into a private individual's bank account
- Examine receipts and invoices as well as terms and conditions
- If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Sources: ABTA, Action Fraud and Get Safe Online
Chartered accountant Sandy Ogunbote of Barking, Essex, is also now far more likely to be on his guard.
He was contacted by a travel agent who had many of his personal details already.
"I think they had obtained stolen data of mine and used it to target me. When they rang, I was already thinking about flying to Nigeria for a funeral. They claimed they were an agent for a major airline and gave me a booking reference to check with the airline.
"I was hesitant to book the trip but I called the airline and was told the reference was genuine - so I decided to go ahead and pay £605 for the flights."
Sandy asked the 'travel agent' if he could pay by credit card but was told that it wasn't possible as the company didn't accept it. In order to get the deal, he had to pay by bank transfer.
"That's when it started getting a bit strange. Soon after they received the money, they started giving me excuses as to why I hadn't received a ticket. They said the deal was off as I paid them two days too late - which wasn't true. I asked for the money to be returned but that still hasn't been done."
Sandy contacted the airline again to ask them about the reference they had said was genuine but was told it belonged to a travel agent in the US - not one in Greater Manchester where the fraudsters appeared to be based.
He says his lesson to take forward is: "I'm not going to book with anyone who doesn't accept a credit card now. That's a non-starter."