Be careful when you proceed to book an online offer or click on to what appears to be an attractive price on a metasearch site.
It may be too good to be true.
The price you pay in the end may not be what was originally advertised on the website, or worse, you may be the victim of a scam with no way to get your money back.
In fact, a recent comprehensive screening of travel websites, initiated by the European Commission, found that two-thirds of them were offering 'unreliable' prices.
'Bait and switch' and outright fraud
Deceptive practises by metasearch and OTA websites have been a perennial problem in Europe, as well as in other parts of the world. 'Bait and switch' tactics or outright fraud has been observed on a plethora of travel websites.
Fraudulent websites that masquerade as legitimate hotel or chain URLs have succeeded in fooling a number of consumers in the US, where the practice appears to be particularly widespread.
Indeed, the AHLA (American Hotel & Lodging Association) has estimated that there were 2.5 million hotel reservations made through deceptive booking websites or call centres in the US during 2014.
According to the AHLA, deceptive bookings have cost consumers about US$220 million in lost reservations, cancellation fees and special charges.
These scams often involve hotels in major holiday destinations like Florida.
Irregularities found on 235 websites
Meanwhile, the European Commission and consumer protection authorities of 28 countries launched a coordinated screening of 352 price comparison and travel booking websites across the EU in October 2016.
Of the websites monitored, which were mainly in the travel sector, it was found that 235 websites, or two-thirds of them, were listing prices that were not 'reliable'.
For example, additional price elements were added at a late stage of the booking process without clearly informing the consumer or promotional prices did not correspond to any available service.
The screening revealed a series of irregularities in online comparison tools.
The main irregularities related to the price and the way it was calculated and presented on the 235 websites can be summarised as follows:
- In 32% of cases, the price on the page of the comparison list was not the same as the price ultimately displayed in the booking page;
- On 30% of the websites, the total price (inclusive of taxes) or the way this was calculated was not clear;
- 21% of the websites presented special prices, which were subsequently not available as advertised through the actual booking page; and
- 26% of the websites gave the impression that certain offers were scarce (e.g. "only two left", "only available today") without specifying that this scarcity applied strictly to their own website.
Other irregularities identified by the CPC (consumer protection cooperation) authorities related to:
- The identity of the provider of the comparison tool: 23% only gave limited information (e.g. name, address of establishment), while 4% did not provide any information at all;
- The user review process: 21% of the websites presented consumer reviews in an unclear or un-transparent way (and/or included elements that could question their truthfulness);
- The coverage of the comparison: 11% of the websites did not provide material information that was important for the comparison; and
- The least problematic issue was the presentation of advertising and marketing. Only 3% of the websites contained this type of irregularity.
The authorities have demanded that the websites concerned bring their practices in line with EU consumer legislation, which requires them to be fully transparent about prices, and present their offers in a clear way, at an early stage of the booking process, according to Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.
The number of reported cases of holiday booking fraud in the UK has risen for the fifth consecutive year, according to a new report by the City of London Police's National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, who note that there were 5’826 cases in 2016 - a year-on-year rise of 20%.
Fraudsters made off with a total of £7.2 million from duped holidaymakers by using a variety of scams.
The average amount lost per person in 2016 was around £1’200, but the damage goes beyond the mere financial aspect.
Over a quarter of victims say the fraud had a significant impact on their health or financial well-being and more than 250 people said the impact was severe, meaning they had to receive medical treatment or were at risk of bankruptcy.
Interestingly, those aged 20-39 were the most vulnerable, while older cohorts were less likely to be deceived by the fraudsters, particularly those over 50 years of age.
The majority of those who were defrauded paid by methods, such as bank transfer or cash with no means of getting their money back. Some fraudsters now actively encourage these payment methods by claiming that only these payment methods are protected by their own bogus insurance schemes.