- Video report by ITV News Consumer Editor Chris Choi
Looking for time in the sun - you can end up in the shadiest corners of online crime.
ITV News has new evidence on villa rental fraud, which is expected to reach record levels this summer.
Criminals are building highly convincing websites offering holiday accommodation.
Our new research shows that every week there are dozens of new victims of this expanding fraud.
Families are turning up on holiday with suitcases in hand, only to discover their money has been taken and they have nowhere to stay.
Sophie Kennedy and her family fell victim to the scam in the UK and then to the home owner in Majorca who was surprised to get a knock on the door.
She told ITV News: "I found this amazing villa online and it was a great offer too and the pictures were just incredible, we were so excited."
But the Kennedy family had sent around £5,000 to a fraudster who had never even had a villa to rent.
Mrs Kennedy travelled to Mallorca with her husband and five children but then found out they were given a false address to the property and that the villa advertised was not available to rent out.
Mrs Kennedy said she felt "no emotion" when they found out.
"My heart sank, I couldn't say anything, I had no emotion.
"It was just blank, I thought this can't happen to us," Mrs Kennedy continued.
Figures we have from travel industry anti-fraud organisation International Property Rental Approval Certification (I-PRAC) reveal:
- 1,337 reported incidents last year
- 545 cases already this summer
- 39% increase in villa fraud in key destinations such as Spain
- Losses up to £15,000 per fraudulent booking
Experts have told ITV News more than half of villa fraud victims don’t report the crime and are so embarrassed by their losses they don’t tell anyone.
Villa letting agent, Clare Taylor, frequently helps scam victims to find accommodation at short notice if they arrive to find they can’t stay in the villa they’d booked.
Ms Taylor recommends "personal contact" at all times when hiring out a holiday villa and encourages consumers to check out social media reviews.
She told ITV News: "Always go with personal recommendations, always pick up the phone ... and speak to the person, ask for their WhatsApp, ask for further information, ask them to go to the property and call you from the property."
Police and consumer officials also say they are powerless to close the sites and online search engines tell us it isn’t their job.
Sadly that means the best defence for holidaymakers is to know the signs of a scam to look out for:
- Stay safe online
Check the web address is legitimate and has not been altered by slight changes to a domain name – such as going from .co.uk to .org.
It is safer to visit websites which use HTTPS or an address bar with a padlock displayed as any sensitive information provided on these sites is sent in an encrypted format.
- Do your research
Don’t just rely on one review - do a thorough online search to ensure the company is credible.
If they’re suspect, other people may well have posted their experiences warning people off.
- Pay safe
Never pay directly into an private individuals bank account.
Never pay by automatically clicking on a link in an unexpected email or text.
You should study receipts, invoices and terms and conditions, and be very wary of any companies that don’t provide any at all.
- Look for the logo
Check whether the company is an ABTA Member.
Look for the ABTA logo on the company's website and if you have any doubts, verify membership by visiting the ABTA Member search.
If you're booking a flight and want more information about ATOL protection, or would like to check whether a company is an ATOL holder, then please visit the CAA website.
- Check the paperwork
When booking through a Holiday Club or Timeshare, get the contract thoroughly vetted by a solicitor before signing up.
- Trust your instincts
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
If you feel like something is wrong, or uncomfortable sharing any sort of information with the seller/website, trust your instinct and tell the caller you will think about it and then call them back.
You should also try and have five minutes alone to think it over and if you want to continue with the transaction then you can.
- Report it
Victims should always contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or register via Action Fraud.
For further advice on how to stay safe when booking or researching travel online, go to Get Safe Online.