Online fraudsters target ski tourists
Travel agencies have warned of a new internet scam targeting holidaymakers who are booking skiing accommodation online.
Some people have transferred thousands of pounds to conmen posing as the owners of luxury chalets.
Chalet operator Consensio Holidays has asked for dozens of fraudulent chalet listings to be taken down from rentals websites.
Travel association Abta said it was a "growing problem".
It is planning a campaign in the new year to raise awareness of the issue.
Consensio Holidays' managing director, Ceri Tinley, said: "Fraudsters extrapolate pictures and words from internet listings for our chalets and try to pass them off as their own.
"Often they will embed their email addresses inside the photos, encouraging people to contact them directly in order to make a booking, before transferring money into their bank accounts.
"The clearest sign of a fraudulent listing is the cost - some scammers charge only 10% of the chalet's actual market price."
Manuela Zwingmann-Wood, from Hampstead in north London, has been caught out by the scam. Her friends decided to book accommodation online, paying £13,000 to a man who had posted a listing on a holiday rentals website.
She said: "My friend Julia found a spectacular chalet in Val d'Isere for a very good price. She emailed the owner who said he would give us a 5% discount. But the thing was he asked for her to pay by bank transfer. We all thought it was too good to be true, but it was a reputable website which Julia has used for more than 10 years.
"We just couldn't believe how gullible we had been. We all use the internet every day and consider ourselves to be savvy - I can't believe we would fall victim to something like this. It is shocking the lengths that these people are prepared to go to."
Some scammers have apparently made even more elaborate attempts to exploit the ski chalet market. Three weeks ago the specialist travel agents, Oxford Ski, forced the take down of a website which it says was an almost complete carbon copy of its own.
Its director, Mark Gibbins, said: "It was exactly the same except they had changed some of the property names and set up outward links to unauthorised listings in Airbnb. They hadn't even bothered to change our business address.
"The current case in point is a chalet in Klosters. A client saw a listing on Airbnb and has paid 7,000 euros to a Lloyds bank account as requested by the person that listed with Airbnb. Since setting up the payment they have been unable to contact this person."
Over the next few months, millions of British holidaymakers are expected to book ski holidays in France, Italy and Switzerland.
Ms Tinley says she has serious concerns about the season ahead: "What we're now coming to see, and really worrying about is that come Christmas Day we may have two clients turning up, the client who has booked with us and perhaps others who have booked with these fraudulent listings."
Abta spokesman Sean Tipton said there were some simple measures people could take when booking ski holidays online.
"Ensure the company's a member of a trade association such as Abta or Atol and when you pay them, don't pay by bank transfer, go to a company that accepts a credit card or a Visa debit card, because if something does go wrong - if it turns out there's a problem with accommodation - you'll be able to get your money back through the credit card company or bank if it's a Visa debit card," he said.
The holiday accommodation website, Airbnb, which hosts listings for more than 500,000 properties, acknowledged that in some instances people had been able to post fraudulent listings for luxury chalets.
A spokesman said: "These kinds of listings are incredibly rare, but when they happen, our team works quickly to ensure they are removed from our community and we're always developing new tools to fight fraud.
"We also protect host and guests by handling transactions. When you use Airbnb, your money is protected and can be refunded if anything goes wrong."