Holiday fraud: villa villains

My definition of a “villa villain” is: someone who steals by fraud thereby ruining someone else’s holiday. Not exactly a legal definition, but I think this summarises the growing number of, and distress caused through, online holiday booking fraud.

I will start by saying that this is not a problem peculiar to the Algarve or indeed Portugal, but instead a global problem which is increasing.

So what do I mean by holiday booking fraud?

Holiday booking fraud is when you hand over money only to discover the holiday, accommodation or flight you’ve paid for doesn’t exist. Fraudsters are making millions of euros each year through fake websites, false advertising, bogus phone calls and email scams, often leaving their victims without a flight or holiday, or even stranded in another country with nowhere to stay. Research shows that fraudsters are most likely to target you if you’re booking airline tickets, package holidays (especially sports packages or religious holidays), or self-catering villas and apartments online.

In the UK last year, online holiday fraud resulted in losses of over £2.2 million. In a recent statement, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and police warned holidaymakers to be extra vigilant when booking over the internet, whether through a travel company or via adverts on websites such as Facebook and Gumtree.

Just a few days ago there was a massive holiday villa scam in Spain allegedly operated by a British couple, who cancelled hundreds of bookings for ‘phantom’ luxury Marbella villas and kept hundreds of thousands of pounds after claiming their firm had gone bust.

Safe Communities Algarve has received a number of emails over the last few months from people who are booking holidays using online villa letting companies such as Owners Direct, where either fraud is suspected or simply asking for advice to avoid falling into the hands of fraudsters – hence this article. Some of these have been referred to police.

Ironically, although Owners Direct is one of the names most frequently used by fraudsters, the company itself has gone a long way in creating awareness through its Trust and Security Centre which has comprehensive security advice especially as regards to the transfer of money.

Likely scenarios
However, it is still relatively easy for fraudsters to advertise a property with a description and because all the final transactions are between the client and the owner, the system is relatively easy to exploit. Typically those involved in fraud create false email accounts which look almost the same as those used by legitimate companies to communicate with clients. Hyper-links on such correspondence are to cloned websites where properties are advertised without the owner’s consent.

Often these are copied from estate agents’ windows or simply online pictures. The fraudster simply adds a description, contact details which are difficult to trace, such as a Gmail account or a mobile phone number. People using the contact details may be asked to pay a deposit into a bank account which may not be in the country where the property is located or the owner is based.

Concern has been expressed by legitimate property letting companies over properties advertised here in the Algarve through Facebook, where it is unclear who the owner is and without any indication whether the property is registered under the “AL” (Alojamento Local) regulations – so beware.

Look very carefully
It is therefore very important to look at villa letting websites carefully, and if there is an absence of information such as the company’s full contact details, registration number, liability clauses etc. treat it with suspicion. One easy way to check if the site could be false is to make a google search with the name of the company plus the word “scam”.

With email addresses look very carefully indeed, particularly if you receive unsolicited mail or the email is in the form of a link on a website. A legitimate website may end in .com, but the fraudster may use the same name followed, for instance, by The idea is to trick you into thinking that the message is from someone you trust, which makes you open the email and follow its instructions.

It is important to note that these emails do not originate from, and are in no way connected to, these legitimate companies; the email addresses are just edited to make it appear this way.

For account holders with online companies
If you receive emails purportedly from the company with links, there are simple ways to check if the links are trustworthy: a) Hover your mouse over the link and check that the url that pops up will take you to the correct website b) if you click on a link, check that the log-in page url starts with ‘https’ and the padlock sign before you enter your account details – this denotes that the site is safe and c) If you have any doubts, always Google the site you want to use and access your account from there.

If anyone is aware of holiday rental scams in operation and has substantive information please forward in confidence to [email protected]

|| Hints and tips to avoid scams

Check the website – does it look legitimate? Does it have credible contact details, testimonies, AL registration number etc. Google its name followed by “complaint or “scam””.

Use companies that offer insurance against bogus advertisers. Companies such as “Owners Direct”. It also has a Security Centre with secure messaging.

Ask letting agencies that host properties for advertisers what steps they have taken to establish the authenticity of the owner and property being advertised.

If a website offers a property at a price which is too good to be true then it probably is – avoid it.

Take care when funds are required upfront to be sent to a foreign bank account. If asked to send by Western Union or telegraphic transfer be suspicious.

If you want enhanced consumer protection consider booking with members of ABTA or ATOL.

If you are suspicious contact the owner, ask for details, utility bill and use landline phone number of villa if there is one, plus of course the AL registration number..

If possible pay by UK credit card which offers protection under Sec 75 of Consumer Credit Act 1974.

Payment by PayPal is convenient and reliable but remember as holidays are deemed intangible they are not covered by PayPal Buyer Protection.

If you are a villa owner, try to Google its name and town and check if it is listed anywhere where it should not be!

By David Thomas
|| [email protected]

David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at