By Adam Walsh, commercial manager at Interhome
Travel scams hit the headlines when two bogus villa rental sites were shut down by police after they were reported to Action Fraud. The sites had been accused of scraping real images and copy from legitimate operators’ websites and setting up a Google pay-per-click service to lure in customers.
Most significantly, when the owner of Villa Plus reported the websites, they were not taken down for weeks.
For travel operators, this is a hugely worrying trend, and something that it feels can only get worse. Abta reported in January that travel fraud is up 425% year-on-year and costs holidaymakers £11.5 million, according to stats from the City of London Police.
So what can we do to help protect our customers? For most UK travel companies, January and February is the busiest period of the year, and at Interhome we’ve certainly seen a major spike in bookings, so this is a particularly vulnerable time for our customers.
First, I think communication is key. One of the pale silver linings of the recent scam news is that it was widely published across the press, alerting customers to the dangers of scam sites and teaching consumers how to spot a potential bad apple.
As travel companies, we need to take this one step further. We need to be actively showing our customers the precautions they need to take throughout the booking process, via our website copy and marketing, and throughout the customer booking experience.
This means encouraging our customers to actively check if our company is registered with a travel association like Abta, Atol or Iata (because of course, a scam site could simply stick an Abta logo at the bottom of their website and claim legitimacy, if they liked). It means communicating the advantages of using secure payment systems over bank transfer at the point of sale, and it means sharing our own tips and insight on how to avoid being defrauded by a scam website.
For new travel startups and companies, or lone vendors which aren’t registered with a travel association, this will be tough, and they will have to find other ways to assure customers their site is genuine and secure, particularly if their business model currently requires a deposit.
Secondly, as travel companies, there’s no reason we can’t do some ‘police work’ ourselves, no matter how big or small your organisation is. This can be as simple as casual spot checks to ensure scam sites are not using your images or copy. To do this, you can simply nominate a team member to google chunks of your main website copy on a weekly or monthly basis. The scam site shut down last week had lifted word for word the promises made by a legitimate Greek villa rental company, and had scraped images from Villa Plus.
Finally, to help tackle cybercrime and protect our customers we need to find a way to work together. It is alarmingly easy for anyone to set up a travel company and take money from people on false claims. We need to share information quickly, educate our customers about scam sites, and work closely with bodies like Abta if we see anything untoward.
With a sustained effort, together we can help our customers to avoid scams.