A Jewish-run travel agent and its customers have fallen prey to the growing problem of booking fraud, with one holidaymaker losing thousands of pounds.
Fraudsters set up a website offering cheap villa holidays in the name of Expert Travel, a north-west London agent which has been established for almost 40 years.
However the site was bogus, and had no connection with Expert Travel which does not have a website.
One customer, who did not want to be identified, was conned out of £4,000 when he booked a holiday on the site.
His father-in-law told the JC: “He went on the website and booked a holiday in Portugal, after about two or three weeks emailing back and forth, negotiating everything from being picked up at the airport and high chairs.
“About a week later, the website suddenly disappeared. And that’s it.
“I went into the travel agent with my son-in-law to see the staff, and they said that they had received lots of calls about this, but that they don’t actually have a website”.
Simon Israel, managing director of Expert Travel, said he had become aware of the fraud two weeks ago after being contacted by customers.
He said: “It was evident that someone had cloned all our information, our ABTA [Association of British Travel Agents] number [and] our licensing number”.
He immediately reported the site to the authorities, including Action Fraud, the government body responsible for deciding whether reports of fraud and cyber-crime should be investigated by police.
Mr Israel said: “I contacted Action Fraud, and also notified the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] and ABTA, who both put warnings about it on their websites.
“Over the week I got 20 to 30 calls from customers who had seen the fake site and were interested in the villas. I told them all, it’s not us – do not send them money.
“On Monday or Tuesday last week, the site was taken down. It had a life-cycle of around 10 days”.
Mr Israel said he had found out that the “expert-travel” domain name used on the site was registered to a legitimate company in Germany.
However, the domain name had been leased to a company in Ukraine who had leased it on in turn to an unidentified party.
Booking fraud is an increasing problem for the travel industry. According to ABTA, £7.2 million was stolen from almost 6,000 unsuspecting holidaymakers and travellers last year.
The organisation cautioned people to be careful, giving them advice such as to “do a thorough online search to check the company’s credentials” and “wherever possible, pay by credit card or a debit card”.
It also told people to use their instincts: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”, a warning that was repeated by Mr Israel.
“The prices were too good to be true, too cheap”, he said.
“And if something is too good to be true, then it’s too good to be true.”