Streetwise: Online scammer nearly ruins retirement trip to Germany

Phillip Megson was determined to mark his retirement in style. As a surprise he planned a family get together in Berlin to celebrate 45 years of marriage to Elke, his German-born wife.

Thursday, 29th June 2017, 6:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:47 am
Philip Megson hoped to have a trip to Berlin Picture: Marek Heise Fotografie/Wikimedia

But the shine soon came off the get-together after he discovered he’d been conned by a scammer posing as an online private accommodation agency host.

Phillip discovered the Airbnb website a month or so ago. Rather than stay with relatives in the German capital he wanted to find somewhere homely to stay in Teutonic style with Elke and their two daughters and the grandchildren.

The 65-year-old Drayton marine engineer admits to being impressed when he clicked on a number of links to the site’s accommodation hosts and enquired about availability.

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He said: ‘The initial search results looked promising and I finally settled on a luxury apartment right in the centre of the city near the landmark TV tower.

‘It was close to the stylish Friedrichstrasse shopping centre so the ladies could shop until they dropped and we could wine and dine together in the surrounding smart cafes and restaurants with our extended family. As far as I was concerned it was an ideal location.

‘Subsequently an email exchange with the advertised property host resulted in a payment of 1,750 euros (£1,540.10) by bank transfer for a six night stay including a deposit.

‘A very convincing confirmation email arrived complete with Airbnb logos to say there was a mistake on the bank transfer paperwork, but to secure the booking a credit card payment would be acceptable instead.

‘I paid by card, checked that it had gone through and thought no more about it until I tried to email the host a few days before travel to ask about the apartment’s car parking arrangements.

‘To my horror I discovered the website was a fraudulent clone, and Airbnb had no record of the booking.’

Phillip tried remonstrating with the firm, but that only resulted in an apology but no refund. They quickly drew his attention to a prominent site warning not to book or pay by any method other than through their official genuine website.

An angry Phillip was annoyed about how easy it was for a low-life scammer to place a listing on the internet and help himself to his money with no possible comeback or compensation.

An Airbnb customer service advisor told him there was nothing more they could do. They insisted his money was protected only if he’d paid via their website. As he’d paid offline via another site they were unable to help.

Phillip called in Streetwise for help and advice.

We had to agree with Airbnb and couldn’t fault their stance.

We asked Action Fraud, the police fraud recording centre, whether Phillip’s case was unusual and quickly discovered he wasn’t the first person to be duped in this way. He certainly wouldn’t be the last. They told us holiday booking fraud was soaring with millions of pounds being swindled from unsuspecting victims.

It wasn’t just accommodation scams. Lucrative copycat airline rip-offs had left hundreds of unsuspecting holidaymakers stranded at UK airports after paying for non-existent flight tickets.

A spokesperson said that almost 6,000 holidaymakers were victims of booking fraud in 2016, a total cost of £7.2 million. Reported cases to Action Fraud jumped by nearly 20 per cent year on year, from 4,910 to 5,826.

He said: ‘Action Fraud has seen a consistent rise in the number of holiday fraud reports made over the past five years. We recommend people are thorough when researching their travel arrangements and book directly with an airline or hotel, or through a reputable agent. When deciding to deal directly with an owner or letting agent, ask them questions about the booking, room, location and area.’

The national trading standards e-crime team urged people like Phillip to report holiday rip-offs via the citizens’ advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06. Their website is packed with tips on how to spot fraud and avoid being taken for a ride.

But we had welcome news for Phillip after we disclosed lady luck was on his side. His retirement family reunion was not destined to be a nasty hit in the bank balance after all.

Because the initial untraceable bank transfer fell through he ended up paying by credit card. We advised the card payment left him open to making a claim on his card provider for a full refund because the apartment was never available and the bogus owner had scarpered without trace. On our advice he contacted the Halifax bank and they agreed they were legally liable to refund him in full.

Phillip said: ‘I just can’t thank you enough for what you did for us.

‘It was a thoroughly miserable experience that cast a dark shadow over what was to be a joyous occasion. You put us on the right road, and we’re very grateful.’