The Easter weekend is a peak period for holiday accommodation across South Africa.
The online world has made it incomparably easier for everyone with internet access to compare prices and to find bargains for their vacations, but it has also opened for the door for some specialised fraudsters.
Estelle Nagel of Gumtree SA says that while the vast majority of online holiday rentals are completely genuine, fraud in the category is a very real problem: “At Easter and Christmas in particular, con artists can take advantage of the holiday excitement, the demand for accommodation and people making hasty decisions when they’re booking at the last minute.
Nagel says the modus operandi differs but usually a scammer will put up an advert renting out a home that they don’t actually own: “Once the deposit has been paid, the unsuspecting guest arrives at the address to find the rightful owner has no clue about what has transpired. Sometimes scammers will list ads using the identity of legitimate guesthouses. They may even rent the same property out to several people at once.”
Nagel urges anyone making an online holiday booking to follow some basic rules before committing to a booking and, especially, before paying any money for a deposit.
1. Don’t be fooled by photography
A scammer will pull images from a legitimate ad or property site and use them as advertising bait. Before committing to a booking, ask the advertiser to send you additional photos of the property and, if possible, use Google Street View to confirm that the property is at the address advertised.
2. Be wary of cheap options
Whatever you’re purchasing, bear in mind that if prices seem too good to be true – they usually are. Beachfront properties can triple their prices over Easter and a cut-price bargain should raise alarm bells. If you’re suspicious, try driving a hard bargain – usually a scammer will very quickly agree to a very low sum.
3. Confirm ownership
It is possible to request information about current ownership from the municipality online. For a fee of about R150 you’ll be able to confirm whether or not the person renting out the property is really the owner. Or you’ll be able to contact the owner to confirm that the renter has the right to do rent it out on their behalf.
4. Don’t be pressured.
If the person renting out the property is hounding you constantly to make a decision or to make payment, that should send up a red flag. Take your time and do your checks.
5. Check the fine print.
Bad spelling, foreign telephone numbers or strange e-mail addresses are all warning signs. Make sure there is a phone number listed and that it works. Insist on speaking to the person letting out the property.
6. Ask for references
Get contact details for references from previous guests. Not only can you confirm the legitimacy of the rental with them you can also find out some travel tips for the area.