The risks of booking for vacations online

Priyanka Verma* was browsing online for home-stay options in Coonoor and called one hotel to seek details. In less than an hour, she found her mobile phone flooded with photos and messages from other service providers she hadn’t contacted.

Priyanka realised her number had been passed on by the staff at the first home-stay property she had enquired about. Later, to confirm her booking, she was asked to send her identity proof to a WhatsApp group that could be viewed by other vacationers at the home-stay.

This underlines the lack of information protection in online holiday booking, which sometimes can result in loss of money.

To put things in perspective, let’s turn to some stats. According to a report from the British travel agents, Action Fraud and Get Safe Online, more than 5,000 people have reported being victims of online booking scams in 2018 in the United Kingdom, with an average financial loss of £1,380 per person. The numbers have increased from 2017, which witnessed 4,382 victims lose a total of £6.7m.

In India, we haven’t come across any major study of travel-related scams, but such horror stories are reported. Just over the weekend, over 500 Haj pilgrims lost ₹15 crores, allegedly to proprietors of Mumbai-based travel agency Alfa Enterprises. To make matters worse, the tour operator dropped off the radar on July 8.

Worth the wariness
  • Be wary of any unsolicited messages, calls or emails when you are planning a holiday. Double-check the authenticity of such mails before you get into a longer discussion where you have to reveal bank details and account number. Keep all communication booking on trusted platforms.
  • Always do transactions from a secure device. Even your smart phone needs to have security tools installed, so that if you lose your phone the device can help you locate it. Use security protection while browsing websites, so that it can help identify malicious sites.
  • Before booking a property, read up reviews from verified trip advisors about the place, stay and other features.
  • Try to keep your digital activities to a minimum. Avoid using a public WiFi to download images or any other document. If you have to conduct transactions on a public Wi-Fi connection, use a virtual private network (VPN) to keep your connection secure.
  • Compiled with inputs from Anindita Mishra, McAfee’s Cybermum in India

So, what are some of the common online scams? You booked a dream villa by the sea, but you arrive to find that there is no such place and the website that advertised it has disappeared.

Booking online is simple, but one needs to be wary of websites that come up with offers that sound too good to be true. Booking frauds are more common during the peak holidaying season.

“At the start of the holiday season, we see advertisements that promise holiday-goers the sky,” says Sanjar Imam, president of the non-profit Karnataka Tourism Forum. He says there is no such thing as a free lunch and it’s all built into the cost. The other common complaint is a mismatch between promise and delivery, such as the website advertising that the property is near the beach and you find out a whole new interpretation of the word ‘near’.

“Have a little bit of due diligence to check the background of the company,” he says.

Other online threats

A McAfee and HomeAway research involving 8,000 respondents across eight countries, including the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, France and Germany, says that 54% worry about their identity being stolen while booking and purchasing travel and accommodation online. More than 25% do not check the authenticity of a website before booking a holiday. More than a quarter of holiday fraud victims have been scammed after spotting ‘a great offer’. Other findings of the study are 46.3% of holiday scam victims say they realise they have been taken up a garden path only when they turn up at their holiday rental to find the booking isn’t actually valid.

Another red flag is being asked to pay by bank transfer. If someone asks you to pay outside of the site, be more vigilant, says Amit Damani, co-founder, Vista Rooms.

Some scammers distract people to other sites, tempting them with better offers. While online transaction is much safer, it must be done after double checking, he says.

Experts in the travel industry say that apart from creating awareness among holidayers, a redressal mechanism would also help.

OYO Hotels and Homes has an in-app SOS button feature that enables guests experiencing any emergency situation to receive the assistance of on-ground hotel staff, a trained 24x7 OYO Safety Response Team (SRT) and also initiate a call with the local law enforcement authorities.

The horror stories are rampant. But international campaigns are at the frontline. Earlier this year, industry-wide UK-based Secure Our Systems, spearheaded by Prevention of Fraud in Travel (PROFIT), aims to combat the growing menace of cybercrime relating to travel companies. Before you express your scepticism, the announcement comes just ahead of the launch of an industry ‘blacklist’ of known travel fraudsters, part of new anti-fraud system Fraud Intelligence Network (FIN), which is also being developed by PROFIT and will enable the reporting of travel fraud and vet job applicants.

FIN is a data-driven venture which enables its users to manage high-risk bookings, share data with other industry members, gain intelligence from fraud data, and report occurrences of fraud to the police. There’s also a community aspect in which like-minded individuals are put in contact with each other, creating a forum for discussion with security experts.

*Name changed to protect identity

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 5:21:34 PM |

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