Fake Holiday Villa Websites
Over the past few years there’s been a big increase in the number of people reporting that they have been ripped-off by fake Villa Rental websites. While researching this article, it became clear that much of the advice offered online by UK Newspapers is inaccurate, or impractical. In fact, it is very hard to provide sure-fire advice to avoid being ripped-off, except to point punters towards a costly ATOL-protected package holiday. However, some of the larger rental sites such as HomeAway or Airbnb hold the payment from the owner until after you have checked-in, affording some protection to the customer. As someone who has worked developing Villa rental websites, the irony of pointing customers to old-fashioned Travel Agents and Multinational Corporations in an era that was supposed to bypass the middleman is not lost on me.
How to spot a Fake Villa Rental Website
Unfortunately, the criteria that many people use when deciding whether they should trust a website or not is deeply flawed and full of misconceptions:
But it had a Secure Certificate!
I see people, who have been duped out of thousands of pounds, protest that “the website had a Comodo SSL Certificate”.
A SSL certificate is used to encrypt the data between you and the website – nothing more. It does not tell you if it is a crook behind that website. Nor does it tell you anything about how your Credit Card details or any other data will be handled once it has been transmitted and stored in their database. As recently as 2015, I have seen my own credit card details sitting around on a printed fax in a hotel lobby – from a booking made on one of the biggest global hotel sites.
In short: a SSL certificate tells you nothing about the trustworthiness (or lack thereof) of the website.
But the Website looked so professional
It is not difficult to make a professional-looking website, especially if you are an unscrupulous criminal who is happy to just copy and paste the content from someone else’s website, complete with professional poolside photos. In fact, the home-made, less professional-looking website that you saw advertising the same villa probably belongs to the Villa owner and was put together with the help of his computer-savvy nephew.
It was no.1 in Google
It is very unlikely that a fly-by-night Fake Villa Rentals website is going to appear at the top of Google’s Organic results for a popular query such as “Lanzarote Villas”. It is more likely that the operator of the fake site is paying Google for an Ad that will appear, instantly, above the actual search results. To be fair, the ads are designed to look like genuine search results, but if you look closely, you will see a small green rectangle with the letters “Ad” inside it. If you scroll past those results, you will get to the genuine search results.
Unhelpful Advice from Newspapers
Contact Address and Phone Number
I often see the Newspapers advise people to only use websites that list their street address and a landline telephone number – have these people ever used Airbnb or Booking.com? Good luck finding that information. Even if the website does list a phone number, it’s no guarantee that they are genuine.
Don’t pay more than 10% Deposit
This is another piece of unhelpful advice, this time from the Telegraph. I know of very few Villa Owners who are willing to accept a 10% deposit for a 2 week booking in August. Think about it, if a customer cancels at the last minute, then 10% is not going to come close to covering the owner’s costs.
So What can I do to avoid being ripped-off?
- Sadly, we have come to the conclusion that to be as safe-as-possible, it is better to use one of the well-known booking sites such as Airbnb or Owners Direct and always pay using a Credit Card.
- Avoid paying by Bank Transfer, as there is very little that can be done to recover your money in the event of fraud.
- Be especially wary of any attempts to get you to pay by means other than the booking form on the booking website where you found out about the Villa in the first place, e.g. on another website, by Paypal, Western Union or others.
- Make sure that you search Google for the name of the website plus the word “scam” to check if there are any recent complaints on forums such as Tripadvisor.
- If you are really unsure, why not create a post on Tripadvisor asking about that company? Just remember to discount positive feedback from newly-registered users (who may well be from the fraudulent website).
- There have been cases where the owner’s or even the booking website’s email has been hacked by criminals. So be especially wary of any changes to payment conditions that you receive by email. Also, be vigilant to any changes in email address from the owner/booking site, and especially vigilant about any links to websites that they send to you via email.
- Feedback is your friend. If a Villa has several years worth of reviews, then it is likely to be genuine. However, this only applies to the big international booking sites, since a fraudster could easily create ‘fake’ reviews on their own website.
The vast majority of independent Villa Rental websites are genuine, and it is very unfortunate that the actions of a few scammers means that we have to advise, as a general rule, against using these companies. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use smaller villa rental websites, but rather only use those websites that have been recommended to you by people that you trust. Above all, it pays to be especially cautious when using a website that you have never heard of before.