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THE NAKED WATCHDOG

The holiday villa market is a multi-million pound industry - but where’s there’s brass, there’s always muck, in the sense that there will always be somebody, somewhere, trying to put the ‘con’ into consumer.

Booking a villa for your next vacation should be something to look forward to, and in the majority of cases, holidaymakers are usually very pleased with the choices they make. But in recent years - especially with more people making their travel arrangements online rather than through the traditional means of travel agents and package holiday companies - there have been a growing number of cases of fraud, often involving villas that don’t actually exist, or hackers claiming to be villa owners. The result? Holidaymakers losing their deposits, and in some cases the full amount of the money they have paid, or - the ultimate nightmare - turning up at their destination to find there is nowhere to stay, and then having to pay for another villa or a hotel to rescue their holiday.

Of course, many naturists looking for villas and other self-catering options either book, or at least find their accommodation, through established specialist websites such as European Naturist, Naturist Directory, Naturist Travel, Bare Beaches, Naturist Holiday Guide, Naturist Holidays and Naturist Property Direct, the relative newcomer naturistbnb, or via naturist tour operators and travel agents such as Chalfont Holidays, Obona, Natural Holidays and Travel Buff. And there have - to my knowledge - been no cases of rental scams involving any of the above.

Some of the larger, more generic holiday property websites such as Owners Direct, Holiday Lettings and Homeaway, whilst notching up hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers every year, have not been quite so lucky in avoiding the taint of scandal, and whilst the number of cases of fraud have been comparatively few, they are inevitably the ones that have made the headlines, usually accompanied by calls for tighter controls either from duped individuals, outraged consumer organisations or tub-thumping journalists.

And then there’s the third option - lesser-known villa websites or responding directly to adverts from the owners.

So whether you are planning to find your holiday venue via a website, or source it directly from the owner, what are the possible pitfalls? And what should you be looking out for to avoid a potential holiday disaster?

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Ensure the website is a legitimate entity. Sometimes just Googling the name of the website with the words "complaint" or “problem” next to it can produce some interesting results.

A thorough online search will also result in reviews that can reveal more about the property, owner or company. If somebody or something doesn’t have an online history these days, it’s tantamount to not existing. So maybe they don’t.

Use Google Maps to confirm the location of the property. You may also be able to use the Street View facility to see that the property matches up with the pictures posted online.

Check how long the property has been advertised - usually the joining date of the advertiser is given on the website. The longer it has been on the books, the more likely it is to be genuine.

If the owner has their own website do a Whois Lookup by entering the website address in the search box. This shows details of who owns the website. Does it match the owners’ details provided to you and those on listing sites? How long has the domain been registered for? If it’s only a few weeks, be cautious.

Check reviews by other renters, either on the site you are booking through or on TripAdvisor. Good reviews can be faked, so beware of those that list nothing but glowing accounts. Bad ones meanwhile tell their own story.

Check that the website address that appears in the top window is correct. Fraudsters can clone legitimate websites but will often change the last part of the web address, such as from .com to .org to bypass the genuine one.

Bogus listings often copy and paste genuine accommodation details but then use generic photographs. Make sure the photos match the descriptions.

Is the property managed by an established villa management company who does the cleaning or meet and greet? Ask for their details so you can verify the rental.

Use your judgment. If there is something about the website, the property description or the owners that you aren't happy about, or if the price seems too good to be true, don't book. There are lots of other options out there.

BOOKING ONLINE

Speak to the owners on the phone first - their number should be provided (and note that a landline gives you more security than a mobile). Ask for details about the property, the area etc, and gauge how knowledgeable and trustworthy they seem to be. Ask them for their postal address too - you would be unwise to sign a contract with anyone whose address you don't know.

Check the terms and conditions to confirm exactly what you are paying for, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. A legitimate company will be able to answer your queries straight away or get back to you with the answers you need.

Do not send any money without receiving, and checking that you are happy with, the written contract.

Be very wary of security deposits; ensure that the terms for returning or calling on the deposit are clear, and that the amount is not disproportionate - 10% of the rental might be reasonable, more than 25% is clearly too much.

When entering your personal or payment details online, make sure the site you are booking on is secure. Where possible, book with a credit card, which then offers protection. Do not rely on PayPal buyer protection for instance. Holidays are deemed by the company as intangible, so they are not covered.

Never pay directly into an owner’s bank account. Book with a company that will arrange the contract on your behalf.

A con artist is likely to ask for the price of the rental upfront, and also ask you to send it by bank transfer to a foreign bank account. Equally, if you are ever asked to send money by Western Union or telegraph transfer, be very suspicious. These payment methods are notorious for being abused by foreign criminals as there is no consumer protection whatsoever. Once the monies have been sent, anyone can collect them from a Western Union office with minimal ID.

If the rental contract seems in any way suspicious, listen to your instincts. A lot of scammers seem to use US templates and the contract will talk about "attorneys," "escrow” and the like.

COMPENSATION

If something does go wrong, where do you stand? Even the most legitimate holiday rental websites are not generally liable for any financial losses you have suffered as a result of falling victim to a scam, even if the criminal has used the site fraudulently. They simply provide a service for advertising holiday accommodation, and are under no obligation to carry out security checks to verify whether advertisers genuinely have holiday property available. In high profile incidences where a lot of victims have fallen prey to the same bogus rental owner, a few holiday websites have been known to provide some compensation. However, there is no statute or regulation which makes them legally responsible, so you are reliant on the website's goodwill.

Some legitimate websites have now reacted by offering insurance against bogus advertisers, so think about protecting yourself. If you are paying a considerable sum for a holiday villa by bank transfer, would an insurance policy with fraud protection give you the peace of mind needed? Make sure you read the terms and conditions of the insurance policy however, as some specify measures which you need to have done before they will pay out.

As always, the key phrase has to be caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. You might be going naked on your holiday, but you don’t want to be caught with your pants down.

Thanks to the following for their help in compiling this article: ABTA, ActionFraud, Safe Communities Algarve, BL Claims Solicitors, Schofields Insurance, Daily Telegraph.