12° Nicosia,
22 June, 2024

The 'holiday scam': Protecting yourself when booking online

An increasing trend in online vacation planning comes with risks, scammers exploit the summer season

Ioanna Kyriakou

An increasing number of individuals are opting to plan their vacations online, a trend that, as observed in previous years, carries potential risks and pitfalls. During the summer season, in particular, numerous scammers exploit this trend, giving rise to the so-called "holiday scam." This encompasses a range of fraudulent activities, including fake airline ticket bookings and non-existent hotel reservations. In an effort to shed light on the operations of these fraudsters, as well as the various forms of scams and measures for safeguarding citizens, "K" sought insights from both law enforcement officials and representatives from the tourism industry. The aim was to provide guidance on how individuals can protect themselves and arrange their holidays securely.

How fraudsters operate

Holiday fraud occurs when individuals make online payments for services such as purchasing tickets (airplane, train, ferry, etc.), booking accommodations, renting cars, or purchasing complete holiday packages, only to discover later that the service they paid for either doesn't exist or was paid for with a compromised credit card belonging to another victim, rendering their purchase invalid. The aim of these scammers is to extort money from their victims, and in some cases, they may utilize stolen credit card information to buy legitimate travel services at a lower price, which they then offer to unsuspecting buyers.

According to Andreas Anastasiades, the Director of the Electronic Crime Sub-Division, there have been no reported complaints of holiday fraud this year. However, based on past experiences, it is only a matter of time before such incidents occur, as last year during this same period, there was an increase in complaints of this nature. Many victims, particularly those who had paid for family packages, lost significant amounts of money. Typically, the perpetrators entice people with luxury accommodations advertised at extremely low prices and create a sense of urgency by claiming limited availability. By doing so, they prevent potential victims from making further inquiries, leading them to fall into the trap of making an online payment. Ultimately, when these individuals arrive at their holiday destination, they find themselves with nothing.

Difficult but not impossible to identify the perpetrators

Once a complaint related to holiday fraud reaches the Electronic Crime Directorate, an investigation into the case is initiated. "We thoroughly examine all electronic data and transactions to identify individuals who may be involved," explained Anastasiades. However, he clarified that the fraudsters are often located abroad, their utilized data is fictitious, and as a result, the investigation process faces delays. He reassured the procedures involved are challenging and time-consuming, but there have been several successfully resolved cases.

Advice to the public

When it comes to arranging holidays online, caution and investigation are vital for protection. Anastasiades emphasized the importance of not rushing and advised people to gather more information about the company and individuals offering the services. This can be done through personal contact or video calls. He also urged individuals to avoid making payments through informal arrangements like Western Union or Revolut, and instead, opt for direct bank transfers. Additionally, it is advisable to choose secure websites that display a lock symbol next to the link and to seek feedback or reviews from other internet users regarding the service they plan to purchase.

On the other hand, speaking to "K," Haris Papacharalambous, the spokesperson for the Cyprus Travel Agents (ACTA), recommended that people make their bookings through travel agents who have knowledge of their partners and the services they provide. This is because consumers are protected by legislation regarding package holidays. If someone decides to organize their holiday independently, Papacharalambous cautioned against visiting unfamiliar websites or those offering unusually low prices. He emphasized that if a hotel is priced significantly lower than others, it may indicate something is amiss. He acknowledged the conveniences of online shopping but stressed the associated risks. Furthermore, he highlighted that scams are not limited by geographical boundaries and can be carried out through fake websites and information. Individuals may unknowingly provide their details to malicious actors and become targets for other deceptive offers.

Warning signs

Here are some warning signs that can help you recognize potential traps:

1. Unsolicited contact from a previously unknown travel agent or company offering a holiday at an unusually low price.
Scammers employ tactics such as fake online advertisements, sales calls, emails, text messages, or other messages enticing you with incredibly cheap prices to encourage you to book a holiday or purchase a service. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

2. Suspicious website appearance, characterized by limited property or hotel details and few or unfavorable online reviews.
Be cautious if the website lacks comprehensive information and photos of the property or hotel, and if the available online reviews are scarce or negative.

3. Request for payment in cash, through bank transfers using platforms like MoneyWise or Western Union, or even in virtual currencies like Bitcoin.  Fraudsters prefer payment methods that are difficult to trace and non-refundable. If you are asked to use these payment methods, exercise caution.

4. Pressure to make immediate payment or face the risk of losing the deal.  Scammers may push you to pay quickly by creating a sense of urgency, claiming that the property will be given to someone else or offering a specific discount only available with immediate payment.

Remember to stay vigilant and trust your instincts when arranging holidays or making online transactions. If something feels suspicious or too good to be true, it's best to investigate further or seek advice before proceeding.

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

Cyprus  |  travel  |  fraud

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