New Zealanders are falling victim to holiday accommodation scams and people are being warned to do their research.
It’s not just naive digital non-natives who fall victim to bogus online listings, which can be difficult to spot, even if you’re using a reputable website.
Fraudsters post listing for properties they have no connection to with some persuading holidaymakers to make bank or wire transfers.
Others hijack or phish websites to make it look like the victim is booking and paying through a reputable site. Victims typically realise they’ve been scammed only after they’ve handed over payment. In the worst case scenario, when they’re standing at the door with suitcases in tow.
Keep your scam radar on, however, and you can ensure your holiday isn’t ruined before it’s even begun.
IF THE PRICE SEEMS TO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS
New Zealanders most often fall victim to overseas holiday accommodation scams according to a spokesperson for Netsafe.
A desirable property is advertised at a good rate and photos and a contact email address are provided. The scammer, posing as the owner, asks for a deposit – which is not unusual – and for it to be paid into a bank account or via a money transfer service such as Western Union or Moneygram. By the time the victim realises it’s a scam, their money is gone and their point of contact won’t answer their calls or emails.
The safest way to book a private holiday property is though a reputable booking site or a tour operator. It can be cheaper to book directly with the owner but there is a greater risk of fraud and it will be harder to sort things out if they do go wrong.
When researching properties, remember to compare like with like, Luke Ashall, New Zealand area manager at Booking.com says. If a listing stands out because it looks far better than others in its price range, be wary.
READ THE REVIEWS
Checking reviews is one of the best means of ensuring a listing is genuine, booking sites say. If a property has dozens, if not hundreds of positive reviews, you can feel pretty confident that it’s genuine, Ashall says.
“If there are no reviews, I would be worried that it might not legitimate,” he said.
Good reviews can be faked so beware if a property has nothing but glowing endorsements. The reviews on sites which only allow travellers who have stayed in a property to review it are most likely to be authentic. If possible, check reviews on multiple sites (the site you are booking through, other sites the property is listed on and TripAdvisor).
GOOGLE MAPS AND REVERSE IMAGE SEARCHES
Use maps.google.com to confirm the location of the listing and determine whether it’s where you want to be. Check Street View to confirm that the property looks like it does in the pictures.
A reverse image search will help you find the original source of photographs and profile pictures.
USE A SECURE PAYMENT METHOD
Many of the larger booking sites offer bespoke payment systems, which offer a certain level of protection. Airbnb uses a combination of technology and behavioural analysis techniques to help prevent fraudsters from using the platform, a company spokespersons said.
“We have a real-time risk detection system that uses machine learning and predictive analytics, instantly evaluating hundreds of risk signals to flag and then stop bad actors and scams before anything happens. When we detect potentially concerning behaviour, we take a range of actions depending on severity, from requesting additional information such as a government ID or credit card verification through removing users from the platform.”
Scammers do break through such barriers, however, and manage to persuade holidaymakers to send payment by bank or money transfers.
Such scams have prompted Airbnb to put warnings on its listings telling users to make payments only through its own platform.
“When guests keep their payment and communication strictly on the Airbnb platform, payments are accurate and your account is secure… Whether the reservation is two days or two months away, we hold the payment until 24 hours after check-in before giving it to the host. This hold gives both parties time to make sure that everything is as expected, and any issues are resolved.”
Some booking sites recommend never paying by bank transfer but, if you do, Netsafe advises checking that the name of the advertiser/owner matches the name on the bank account. Never transfer money to an account in a different country to the accommodation, the organisation says.
Netsafe recommends that you never pay by money transfer as these payments can’t be traced.
Even if you’re using a reputable site, however, you’re not necessarily safe. A common type of fraud, known as “spoofing”, sees fraudsters hack into the accounts of real owners and redirect victims to their own payment pages.
A classic sign of spoofing is a slight change in the company name in the website address, so keep an eye out for variations, Ashall advises. Also ensure that there is a secure connection – indicated by “https:/” – when making payment.
If someone calls you after you’ve booked and asks you to resubmit your payment again, don’t, Ashall says. Instead, call the customer service number of the site you booked through to confirm that the payment has been received.
Netsafe recommends being particularly vigilant during peak periods – such as school or summer holidays and major events – as scammers often target them.
COMMUNICATE WITH THE OWNERS OR YOUR HOST
Accommodation sites say contacting owners before and after your booking is one of the best methods of defence against scams.
If you can, call the owner (preferably on their landline) and ask them specific questions about the property as well as their own address details, Netsafe suggests.
“Look out for any hesitations in answering and check the phone number location against the address given.”
If the owner is vague or tries to push you to make payment, end the call and get in touch with the booking site’s customer service centre. While there’s nothing to stop a scammer posing as an owner, many are unwilling or unable to answer detailed queries about a property and will eager for you to pay quickly.
If you’re using a booking site’s email communication system, take the opportunity to ask questions. Don’t accept invitations to email outside the site as they may be an attempt to persuade you to pay for a fake booking or reveal sensitive financial details.
The Airbnb spokesperson recommends taking advantage of the tools available to get to know your host and their listing before you book.
“Read their description thoroughly, including house rules and amenities. Check their cancellation policy and see if there is a security deposit. And go to their host profile page to read more about them, including where they went to school, where they work, and what languages they speak.”