The Rip Off Britain team investigate the jaw-dropping tale of how a company sent one family to a succession of villas it turned out they had no right to stay in.
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We asked you who's left you feeling ripped off when it comes to your
holidays, and you came back with a catalogue of travel disasters.
When we got to the hotel, it wasn't to the standard...
We felt totally ripped off, and we paid to move somewhere else.
It happens all the time,
that somebody else has paid less for the holiday that I paid more for.
So, whether it's a deliberate rip-off,
a simple mistake or a catch in the small print,
we'll find out why YOU'RE out of pocket,
and what you can do about it.
Your stories, your money.
This is Rip-Off Britain.
Hello, and welcome to Rip-Off Britain,
where this time we're bringing a taste of summer into your homes.
For this series, we've come to the island of Tenerife in the Canaries.
We're here to investigate some of the stories you've sent us
about holidays that you've told us have gone horribly wrong.
Disastrously so, in some cases.
And the people that we're going to be hearing from would all say that when things DID start to go wrong,
they were very much left to themselves to sort it out.
Which, when you're thousands of miles from home, let's face it,
is by no means an easy thing.
Not a good position to be in.
And what makes these particular stories worse
is that none of the situations
we'll be hearing about should ever have happened in the first place.
As you'll see, it really is staggering how some of them are actually handled.
And it's left several of the people involved,
not just seriously annoyed, but seriously out of pocket as well.
Coming up: Of all the jaw-dropping stories you've sent us
about holiday villas, this tops the lot.
Just wait till you hear what happened
to these sisters and their husbands.
Sheila was in tears. I was only just holding myself together.
And, five years after investing their savings
in holiday homes in the sun,
why are these viewers' dream properties still not built?
We haven't been able to retire,
because we've lost our only capital.
I would love to take my grandchild,
but we can't do anything.
Now, you often tell us about your disastrous experiences
of booking a villa abroad.
But it's rare to hear of such a catalogue of disasters
that befell two sisters who actually contacted us
while they were still away.
Through no fault of their own,
they and their husbands found themselves booked into villas
they should never have been sent to.
It was almost like, this is just my worst nightmare.
We just couldn't get in, and our hearts just sunk.
It was a world away from the relaxing break
that sisters Sheila Thorpe and Mo Hutson had been hoping for.
Two years previously, they'd had
such a great trip to Orlando, Florida with their husbands
that, when they started planning a holiday for August 2016,
they went straight back to the company they'd used
the previous time - a UK-based company called 3501 Travel Ltd.
And they asked to book into the exact same villa
in Haines City, Florida.
When the agent told us that the villa was available,
-we were chuffed to bits, weren't we?
We were really excited, because, you know,
we had happy memories associated with the villa.
Sheila and Moe paid almost £3,200 for a three-week stay in the villa,
including car hire.
They paid by bank transfer,
and were told by 3501 Travel Ltd
that a confirmation of their booking would be sent to them
four weeks before their departure.
In fact, it didn't arrive until a week before they were due to travel.
That was a bit unsettling,
but all concerns were forgotten once their flight landed
and they were on their way to the villa
they'd been so looking forward to revisiting.
When we were arriving at the property,
I mean, we know the area very, very well
and driving in we knew exactly the way to go,
and we're going, "Oh, there it is..."
From the outside, the villa looked just as they remembered.
But, when Sheila tried to get INSIDE the property, using the access code
that 3501 Travel Ltd had sent them,
she found the number wouldn't work.
I don't think anyone believed me at first.
-I was trying the lock box, and I thought, "Have I got it right,
"have I got the number right? Yes, I've got it right."
Tried it again, tried it again...
and then everyone came and tried it.
And we just couldn't get in, and our hearts just sunk.
Instead of the welcoming holiday home they were expecting,
the whole place was deserted,
with no hint that any visitors were expected.
The pool was covered.
The gate was locked.
The chairs were all over the place.
-You know, there was no preparation.
Thinking there might have been a mix-up in their travel dates,
Mo called the caretaker of the property,
whose number was still in her phone from their previous visit.
He gave the couples some shocking news.
I explained the situation, and he said,
"You won't get in the villa,
"because it's been foreclosed."
Sheila was in tears.
I was only just holding myself together.
When they officially got internet access,
they discovered an e-mail from 3501 Travel Ltd,
confirming that the villa they'd booked and paid for
had been repossessed by the bank.
But, because one of the company's directors had been unwell,
that message had only been passed on to Sheila and Mo
after they'd already left the UK.
3501 Travel Ltd WAS able to offer the sisters an alternative villa
nearby, although it wasn't clear for how long.
-We felt helpless, and that we had no control over the situation.
And you're in a different country, different laws...
Sheila tried calling 3501 Travel Ltd,
to establish how long they were going to be staying
in the new villa,
or whether they should be prepared to move again.
But she was told they could only communicate by e-mail,
and in the end,
it wasn't from the company they'd booked with
that Sheila and Mo eventually got the answer.
It was via a shocking phone call
that came through on the property's line.
He said, "I'm the owner of the property at Rebecca Drive,"
and Mo said, "Thank you so much
"for allowing us to stay in your property."
And he said, "Well, I'm afraid I didn't know
"that you were even in my property.
The owner said he'd only discovered
there were people staying in his property through neighbours.
He went on to say the villa had been up for rent on 3501 Travel Ltd
entirely without his knowledge or permission,
and Mo and Sheila weren't
the first people that the company had sent there.
If the floor could have opened up
I would have been quite happy at that point,
because I just did not know what to say to the man.
To their intense relief, the owner of the villa told Sheila and Mo
they could stay there until the end of the month,
at which point it was let to someone else.
But that still left them short of somewhere to stay
for the final week of their trip.
The man was so kind, and said, "Look, don't worry,"
but we just didn't feel comfortable any more.
We just felt that we were trespassing.
Just six days before they were due to leave the temporary villa,
3501 Travel Ltd contacted Sheila to say it HAD finally found
somewhere for them to stay for their last week.
Hugely relieved, Mo and Sheila agreed to go and check it out.
But their hopes were soon dashed.
The villa was in no way prepared for rental.
The pool was green, the lanai was broken.
The house was dirty, it was ill-prepared.
Mm. the blinds were all hanging down in the windows...
I mean, it was awful.
With their trust in 3501 Travel Ltd completely shattered,
Sheila and Mo decided
they'd have to find and pay for another villa themselves.
Well, it was just over £2,000 in all, wasn't it?
It was, yeah. It's a considerable amount of money.
-That we work hard for.
Now back in the UK,
Mo and Sheila have taken 3501 Travel Ltd and its owner
to the small claims court
to get back what they'd paid
for a villa they never got to stay in,
and to be compensated
for the time and money they'd spent on sorting everything out.
But in the meantime, they've been shocked to discover
that the original villa - the one that was foreclosed -
was still being advertised for let
on a website called The Villa Rental Company,
a related company of 3501 Travel Ltd.
Oh, there it is!
Just look what it says, Mo.
"This grand villa is located on Kokomo Loop, on Southern Dunes,
"and is a marvellous example
"of how important the choice of where you stay
"can make or break your vacation."
Why is it still here? That's outrageous.
Well, we contacted 3501 Travel Ltd
to ask them how this succession of disastrous bookings
could possibly have come about.
But, just like the sisters, we've heard nothing back.
However, there ARE ways to protect yourself
when choosing a villa abroad.
Booking your villa as part of a package,
through a well-known reputable British company,
and paying by credit card,
can offer security if things go wrong,
as aviation expert Julian Bray explains.
The key thing is, they must be registered in the UK
in order to take advantage of the ATOL regulations,
and I should say, that's the air tour operators' licences.
Basically they're selling you a package,
which means there has to be something like
a villa and a flight involved.
Now, if that happens, and something goes wrong,
at least the Civil Aviation Authority is mandated
to bring you back to the UK.
And also, of course,
you can then use the Consumer Credit Act to try and get back
some of your money through the credit card company.
But Sheila and Mo, who DIDN'T book that way,
have been left counting the cost of a holiday
that turned into a disaster.
What strikes us, I think, to this very day,
is that we've never had an apology.
We've never had this agent saying "I'm really sorry for this."
Now, for some people, the annual fortnight away simply isn't enough,
and the prospect of year-round sunshine
and perhaps even a whole lifestyle abroad
can make investing in property overseas
a very attractive proposition.
But whilst homes in Spain and France have tempted Brits for decades,
more recently it's been locations much, much further afield
that some of you have signed up to.
And although being hundreds of miles away from home
can all seem part of the appeal,
if the promises you've invested tens of thousands of pounds in
then getting things resolved so far away from home,
or indeed getting your money back, can prove almost impossible.
Crystal clear waters, glorious sandy beaches, year-round sun.
All the reasons why, until its recent sharp downturn,
the Egyptian Red Sea coast was a firm favourite with holiday-makers
seeking a luxurious but affordable destination.
And busy pub managers Stephen and Jane Burr
were set on buying their own slice of Egyptian paradise.
The culture, the history is amazing,
the Red Sea, it's absolutely beautiful.
The people are so friendly.
They can't do enough for you.
The couple went online to search for properties in Egypt,
and came across a new glossy complex on Egypt's Red Sea coast,
called Oasis Marina.
So curious to find out more, they flew out to take a look,
and the agent showed them around.
They took us to Oasis Marina, which was a brand-new development.
They only had I think 12 apartments built so far.
It was going to be a hotel complex
with restaurants, bars, spa facilities, things like that.
So it all looked so enticing and...
-Living a dream.
-A dream home, basically, yeah.
So the couple took the plunge, and bought an off-plan two-bed apartment
It's like... Can't believe this, our dream home.
Something we can all share as a family,
any friends that want to come over, it'd be great.
Any time, it's there, it's ours.
Back home in Bristol, they had to remortgage their home to pay for the
Egyptian apartment. And it was quite an outlay, but it felt all worth it.
Until a year later,
when it became clear that the dream home hadn't materialised,
and indeed was still only partially built.
We went back to visit the apartments,
and they were still in the same condition as when we first saw them.
We thought, "'Ey up, what's going on?
"Nothing's moving, there's something wrong."
Well, that was in 2011.
And since then, Stephen and Jane
have been given a whole string of excuses
from the company behind the resort,
the Iraida Estate Agency.
Most recently, they even blamed the delay
on the country's political unrest.
They blamed the revolution for the first year after it was supposed to be done,
and then they said because of the celebrations of the revolution the year later,
supplies was not coming down because people was partying
and celebrating what had happened in Egypt.
I need a gammon, darling, and a mixed grill.
There are plenty of other people who sunk huge chunks of money
into the Oasis Marina development
without getting what they expected in return.
-Pleased to meet you.
-Pleased to meet you...
Well, they'd rather have met each other as neighbours
enjoying the Egyptian sunshine, but instead,
they're meeting for the first time at Stephen and Jane's Bristol pub.
These property developers really want bringing to book.
-Well, someone should...
-Someone's got to do something.
We are just ignored.
At the end of the day, all we want is our money back now, isn't it?
Yeah, we want our money back.
Barbara Woodhead and her husband Barry
had been after a place they could use themselves,
but also rent out to gain extra income in their retirement.
We were told that
the up-and-coming place to buy a property was in the Red Sea.
And then we saw the advert in a Sunday paper,
so we contacted the agent.
After a visit to the site, they used all their capital,
including money from two pensions and the remainder of an inheritance,
to pay for the apartment in full, totalling over £32,000.
But seven years on, the apartment remains unbuilt,
leaving the couple in a perilous financial position.
We haven't been able to retire.
Barry's still working part-time,
and I do a summer job because we've lost our only capital.
And it's affected our whole retirement,
and consequently our whole lives.
Although they were introduced to the complex by different agents,
all these investors put the blame for the state of their properties
squarely on the company responsible
for developing and selling the apartments,
a business called Iraida Estate Agency.
And when we looked, we found that its website and other ones linked to it
were still advertising property for sale.
Now, the man behind the agency is Ehab Shahwan.
He describes himself as "Honorary Tourism Ambassador for Egypt."
But according to the investors WE spoke to, that title -
indeed if it's correct - is hardly well deserved.
And what rubs salt into the investors' wounds even further
is that here he is in New York
apparently receiving an award for quality in construction.
We did deliver hundreds of apartments
during the last five years with very good quality.
And more worryingly still,
when we spoke to a lawyer based in Egypt representing some of those
fighting for their money back,
he told us that this was one of a whole string
of similar cases in Hurghada,
each involving hundreds of investors from all over the world.
And whilst those cases are unconnected with Shahwan
or indeed the Iraida Group of Companies,
they have created a backlog in the courts.
He told us that this, and the fact that the wheels of justice in Egypt
turn VERY slowly,
means that it could be years before these cases come to court.
So, we've called in overseas property lawyer Stefano Lucatello,
who's meeting the group to advise them on what to do next.
Thanks for coming, Stefano.
Stephen and the others had all assumed
that because they'd used an agent
to broker their property deals,
that they would be protected if something went wrong.
I thought I was clever because I went through an agent.
So I presumed they would have done all the homework for me.
But Stefano says that simply is not enough
to keep your money safe.
The first thing you need to do when you go to an agent
is to check up whether that agent is registered
with something called the Association of International Property Professionals.
The AIPP gives you the first step of credibility to an agent.
They have to go through a series of hoops to convince the panel
that they have indemnity insurance, that they've got a clean
track record, and that's what you want to be checking up -
check your regulatory body first of all.
But with that advice just too late for these investors,
they have a far more pressing question
they'd like Stefano to answer.
So do you think there's any chance of any of us getting our money back?
You won't get everything back that you've invested,
but in grouping together
it gives you power, and it gives you security.
I just want my money back!
Well, we tried contacting
the companies behind the Oasis Marina development,
the Iraida Estate Agency and Iraida Construction,
to discover just what had happened to the money
our investors had sunk into the project.
But I'm afraid we just didn't get a response.
For those affected, however,
the gathering together at Stephen's pub
has strengthened their resolve to find a collective solution.
I think it's lifted the morale...
-And Stefano here with his ideas and suggestions
has boosted the morale even higher.
We're going to keep on fighting until we get something.
You know. And don't forget I've got many years left inside me so...
20, 30 years, I'll still fight for my place.
Now, I'm sure that most of us will have allowed ourselves
just a moment of anxiety
when we hand over our luggage at the airport.
Will our cases get damaged?
Might they even go missing?
After all, we've all heard the horror stories.
But it's bad enough if it's your CASE that goes missing
or is damaged and suffers during transport -
quite another if it is the very thing
that you rely on to get around. Your wheelchair, for example.
And that is exactly what happened to the people in our next film.
And, as you'll see, while there ARE rules in place
to make sure that airlines sort this sort of problem out,
I'm afraid that things aren't always as easy to resolve as they should be.
Sometimes, a holiday is more than just a break in the sun -
it's a special journey that you've always hoped to make.
And for Alexis Macleod from Glasgow,
there was one place that she'd been desperate to visit -
Elvis Presley's former home Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.
My '68 special dress...
I'm a number one fan,
and he is and always will be the king of rock and roll.
From my childhood
I've always liked Elvis, and it's been my dream to visit Graceland.
Well, in January 2015,
Alexis finally had the chance to make that longed-for pilgrimage.
It was the first time
that I knew I could go
for a long time, do a big trip,
and it was his 80th birthday,
which is something that can never be celebrated again.
The holiday of a lifetime.
It's not easy for Alexis to fly.
She has post-polio syndrome - delayed symptoms
resulting from an attack of polio that she had as a child.
Because of muscle weakness,
she has used a wheelchair since she was a teenager,
but her disability has never put her off travelling.
I've been to Paris, Belgium, Portugal,
and it gave me the confidence to do this trip to Graceland for Elvis,
to celebrate his birthday.
Alexis paid £3,500 for the two-week trip and, as on previous holidays,
had made all the necessary arrangements to make sure
that her airline, British Airways,
was aware that she was a wheelchair user.
So, when the departure date arrived, she boarded the flight from Glasgow
trusting that her chair would be put in the hold
and seamlessly transferred to her connecting flight to the US.
Alexis had also arranged assistance at Heathrow,
so that she'd be met with another chair
to help her get across the airport.
She had 90 minutes to reach the departure gate -
which, with the help,
should have been enough.
But, thanks to fog,
her flight was over an hour late landing at Heathrow.
I was worried. "Am I going to miss my flight? What about my friends,
"how do I tell them where I am...?"
Erm... The anxiety, the frustration, the anger.
The fact that it was a holiday of a lifetime
that was going to be ruined if I didn't get to my flight.
It eventually became clear that with the late flight,
the person the airport support company had assigned to meet her
had clocked off for the day.
But time was tight, so Alexis decided that
rather than wait for further support to arrive,
she'd try to get across the airport on her own.
But, by the time she got to the gate, the flight had gone.
The next flight to Memphis wasn't for another 24 hours
so Alexis had to stay in a nearby hotel,
all the time knowing that the delay
was eating into her precious holiday time.
And when she did finally get to her destination, worse was to come.
Her luggage AND her wheelchair were missing.
An absolute nightmare.
They've already mucked up the start of my holiday -
how am I going to get about?
Alexis checked into the Heartbreak Hotel
feeling as blue as the man himself.
She had a jam-packed schedule planned
with, first up, a tour of Elvis's Memphis.
But without her lightweight wheelchair,
and struggling with a much heavier one
that the tour operator had provided as a temporary replacement,
such excursions were not easy.
I had to decide for myself
which parts I could do and which I couldn't
because I didn't have my wheelchair,
and there was too much walking involved.
Three days into her holiday,
Alexis WAS finally reunited with her wheelchair.
But even that wasn't the end of her troubles.
I was over the moon. Until I saw it - because it was broken.
Erm... And my heart
just dropped to my feet.
I was like, "This cannot happen.
"This is just too much.
"What am I going to do?"
The bracket that holds the armrest in place was damaged,
leaving it dragging onto one of the wheels.
For Alexis, that made the chair all but useless.
I was in so much pain and so much discomfort,
and I was so restricted...
And I'd missed so much of the holiday,
I was just...
utterly, utterly despondent.
Though Alexis was determined to make the best of it,
much of the rest of the holiday was spent
trying but failing to get her wheelchair fixed.
Two weeks later, when she arrived back in Glasgow,
British Airways did arrange a full repair
but by then, it was too late.
I'm just gutted. Totally gutted
that my memories are of the disaster
and not the pleasures of the holiday.
We put Alexis' case to British Airways.
The airline told us
it's "very sorry that Alexis's wheelchair was damaged",
and while its ground handling teams
"worked extremely hard to ensure
"every customer's bag made their flight",
"on this occasion, the knock-on disruption caused by the fog
"meant that didn't happen."
It reiterated that it did pay to repair the chair,
reimbursed Alexis's expenses, and offered a gesture of goodwill.
We also spoke to Omniserv, the company responsible
for providing assistance between flights.
It, too, said it was "very sorry" that Alexis felt let down,
explaining that although a standby team WAS activated to assist her,
there simply wasn't enough time for her to make her flight.
It went on to say it did everything in its power to help,
and is committed to providing "legendary service" -
adding that it helps
over a million passengers with reduced mobility every year.
But Alexis says next time SHE travels,
she doesn't want to let her wheelchair out of her sight.
The next time that I go anywhere,
I will keep my wheelchair to the door of the aeroplane.
This has made me more aware of the problems that can occur.
It won't stop me travelling, but
I'll have to think about it much more carefully,
and plan more
than I've ever had to plan before.
If you have a story you'd like us to investigate,
then we now have even more ways to get in touch.
You can join in the conversation on our Facebook page -
just look for BBC Rip-Off Britain.
As well as the most up-to-date news, you'll also find exclusive
behind-the-scenes clips and pictures from the show.
Or you can log onto our website,
where there's plenty of advice and fact sheets
full of tips on how you can avoid getting ripped off.
Or, if you'd like to send us an e-mail, then our address is...
Or indeed, if you want to send us a letter, then our new address is...
Well, I'm afraid that's just about all we have time for today,
but some of the really shocking experiences we've just heard
simply underline how vital it is
that the companies we rely on to look after us when we're away
do step up to the mark
and put things right when we need their help.
After all - THEY'RE supposed to be the experts, not us.
Which of course makes it all the more absurd
to hear of that company that was sending people to villas
that they had no right to be in.
But indeed, some of the stories that we hear on this programme
genuinely do leave me, and all of us,
I think, absolutely astonished.
But there is no doubt that,
when the company with whom you book
doesn't quite live up to its promises,
it really can completely derail the rest of your trip.
Well, clearly, some of the businesses that do so well
at winning our custom in the first place
need to really try that bit harder in their service
AFTER we've handed over the cash.
But that's the point, I'm afraid, we have to leave it for today.
We're going to be back to investigate more of your holiday horror stories very soon.
So, until then, from all of us in the sunshine, bye-bye.
Gloria Hunniford, Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville investigate continue the latest series of holiday investigations with the jaw-dropping tale of how a company sent one family to a succession of villas it turned out they had no right to stay in, with the family only discovering the truth when one of the owners asked them what they were doing in his house.
As one woman reveals how a pilgrimage to Graceland ended with a stay in the heartbreak hotel when her wheelchair was damaged by the airline, the team explores what should happen if similarly vital possessions don't finish the journey in one piece.
And viewers who invested their life savings in dream properties near the Red Sea try to uncover why - five years on - their homes have yet to be built.