Wednesday , June 7 2023

‘My bank did not stop £6,500 payment to holiday scammers despite my pleas’

A woman scammed out of £6,500 while trying to book a Greek holiday villa has described begging her bank to halt the money transfer she had made to the fraudsters, only to be told by staff that there was nothing they could do.

Londoner Sarah Graham* says that, looking back on it, she cannot believe she fell for a holiday property scam that Guardian Money first highlighted in 2013. She says she feels let down by the holiday accommodation firm Vrbo but even more so by the bank.

With Easter only weeks away and at a time when many people’s thoughts are turning to summer getaways, her case is a warning to anyone thinking of booking holiday accommodation that they need to be on their guard, as the sector has been increasingly targeted by fraudsters.

Here we outline what happened to Graham and offer our tips and advice for how to keep yourself safe.

Graham says that for more than six hours after she had authorised a €7,155 (£6,500) payment to a Bank of America account in the US, the money continued to sit in her First Direct bank account. When she received an email an hour after making the payment warning her that the villa’s listing on Vrbo had been removed for security reasons, she immediately phoned First Direct back to halt the transfer.

But she says that despite her pleas, the bank’s 24-hour calls staff could not, or would not, intervene. The money finally left her account just before the fraud team started work the following morning at 8am.

It arguably makes something of a mockery of First Direct’s claim that it has “an ‘always on’ approach to fraud prevention”.

Her case is a reminder to others booking holiday accommodation to only use authorised payment systems that protect your money if the listing turns out to be fraudulent.

The bank says its staff asked her about possible fraud and said that once the transfer was made, it could not be stopped.

Graham had logged on to the website of Vrbo, which used to trade under the Owners Direct and HomeAway brands and advertises thousands of holiday villas to rent.

Having found what looked to be a good-value villa on the island of Mykonos, she had used the “contact owner” button on the site to ask some questions, and went away to check if the dates were still suitable.

“When the next day I went to book the villa, the price had mysteriously shot up, so I went back to the ‘owner’ by email to ask what was going on. I was informed that a promotional offer had just ended and that was the reason the price had risen so much.”

At this stage, she says, the people purporting to own the villa said they might be able to do Graham a deal if she was prepared to move outside Vrbo’s email system, and to email directly.

“Alarm bells should have been ringing but I assumed they just wanted to save some commission. In the end, I was offered what seemed like a good price – a saving of £800 – but I had to sign up very quickly and pay the full amount. Looking back, it was all about pressuring me into making the payment. I had a lot going on at the time – and, having paid for holiday accommodation in this way before – I decided to just get it done and make the payment. It would be one less thing on my plate.”

However, within an hour of her making the 11.30pm bank transfer via First Direct’s call centre, an email arrived from Vrbo warning that the property listing had been “falsely represented”, and as a result it had been removed from its websites.

The property would not be reactivated and would no longer be available to book, the email stated, before advising anyone who had made a payment to “stop any conversations with the host and to contact their credit card or other payment provider immediately to stop or reverse any payments”.

In a state of panic – it was now past 1am – Graham called First Direct’s 24-hour call centre to get them to stop the payment. She was heartened by the fact that she could see that the £6,500 she had sent to the fraudsters was still in her account.

Beach chairs at Elia beach, Mykonos, Greece
Sarah Graham was planning a holiday on the island of Mykonos. Photograph: Crbellette/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“What happened next was ridiculous, and I am still angry about it now. Having listened to me saying I had been the victim of a scam, the bank staff said there was nothing they could do to halt the transfer – even after I explained that this money was going to criminals. I was instructed to call the fraud department when it opened at 8am. As you can imagine, I didn’t get much sleep that night,” she says.

By the time 8am came, the money had gone. In the intervening weeks, she has learned that First Direct tried to recall the money – but not until three days later. It was unsuccessful. Since then, she says, all her attempts to get some answers, or some kind of redress from the bank, have drawn a blank.

“They have been about as useless as they could be,” she claims.

For its part, Vrbo has come good and, after the Guardian raised the case with the company, which is part of the Expedia group, it has now refunded Graham the £6,500 she lost.

“We realised an error incorrectly allowed this listing to bypass our stringent technology solutions that detect fraudulent activity and go live on our platform. In this case, [Graham] paid for the booking off the Vrbo platform, which means the payment is not protected under our book with confidence guarantee. However, after reviewing the situation, Vrbo has decided to issue a full refund to her in the hope that her next Vrbo experience is seamless,” it said in a statement.

First Direct says that protecting customers from scams “is a priority for us”, and that when investigating a case, it takes guidance from the contingent reimbursement model code and “works hard to ensure fair and reasonable outcomes for our customers”.

It adds: “Although we are unable to refund the customer, we have taken steps to recall the funds from the beneficiary bank, which requires proof the transaction was fraud to recall the payment. We are still working with the customer to see if we can resolve this and to obtain the information needed for the recall.”

The bank has also offered Graham £100 to compensate her for its service failures.

How to protect yourself from scams

For years Guardian Money has highlighted the scams consumers can face when booking holiday accommodation, and while the problem continues to grow, there are ways to keep yourself safe.

Scammers post fake listings of properties complete with glamorous photos – either mocked up or stolen from a legitimate listing. They will typically price them below the market rate and then sit back and wait for the inquiries to come in.

Most accommodation websites such as Vrbo, Airbnb and so on have internal email systems. The scammers’ aim is to get you to communicate outside these, directly via an email.

The lure is a cheaper price, or dates that you were initially told were unavailable suddenly become possible – but only if you book “direct” and pay upfront in full via a bank transfer.

Scam alert warning on a laptop.
Scammers may try to get you to communicate outside companies’ internal email systems. Photograph: Kirill Ivanov/Alamy

One of the reasons that Airbnb has been so successful is its internal payments system – the host does not get paid until you check in. So you should always use it when booking on Airbnb.

Vrbo initially did not offer the same system but it now has its own “book with confidence guarantee”. This promises to refund you if the listing turns out to be fraudulent. It tells customers: “When you pay through Vrbo, we protect your rental payment against fraud. If your payment ends up in the hands of someone other than the host, we’ll pay you back.”

If the site you are using doesn’t offer such a payment system, alarm bells should be ringing.

Check the house exists using Google Maps. Try to go with listings that have good feedback and, most important of all, don’t send money, unless you have spoken to the host and you are as satisfied as you can be that it is all genuine.

If you think this is alarmist, it isn’t. Holidaymakers have found themselves standing, suitcase in hand, outside villas they thought they had booked, only to learn they had been scammed.

* Not her real name

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