Episode 5 Rip Off Britain


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Episode 5

Julia Somerville, Gloria Hunniford and Angela Rippon get to the bottom of a fresh collection of scams designed to trick people out of hundreds of pounds.


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Transcript


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We asked you - who has left you feeling ripped off

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when it comes to your holidays?

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And you came back with a catalogue of travel disasters.

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Obviously, I'm not going to risk my child's life,

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so I had to get off the flight.

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I am absolutely devastated for my grandson, who's not getting the holiday

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I wanted him to have.

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Whether it's a deliberate rip-off,

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a simple mistake or a catch in the small print,

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we'll find out why you're out of pocket and what you can do about it.

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Your stories, your money.

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This is Rip-Off Britain.

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Hello, and thank you so much for joining us once again on Rip-Off Britain.

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Now, this series comes from sunny Tenerife, and this is where we're

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looking into some of the problems that you've had with holidays and travel.

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And today's programme is a reminder that, just because you're on holiday,

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it doesn't mean that the fraudsters are taking a break as well.

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Sadly not. Indeed,

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we're going to be hearing about holidays that have been left in tatters by

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some really nasty scams,

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some of which have left the people involved out of pocket to the tune

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of thousands of pounds.

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And what's really distressing is that they no longer have any idea about

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who they can trust the next time they come to book a trip away.

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Well, as we investigate exactly what's gone on,

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one thing you can rely on is that we're going to have all the advice

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you need to steer you away from the same kind of situations so that,

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when you're booking a holiday,

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you don't end up sending your money straight into the grubby little paws

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of someone who's spinning you a line.

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Coming up, how fraudsters hijacked the details of villas that do exist

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to trick people into handing over hundreds of pounds to book ones that don't.

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It was heartbreaking.

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I don't cry but, quite honestly, I was close to tears.

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And we're on the trail of the Tenerife lawyer supposedly helping

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time-share owners to win a Spanish court case.

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Will his office be where he says it is?

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"Calle Duque de la Torre." Calle Duque de la Torre!

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Just got to find number 29 now.

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Now, several times before on this programme,

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we've heard from people who've booked luxurious-looking villas abroad

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only to discover too late that they had been scammed.

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Those villas either didn't exist at all or, if they did,

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no reservation had actually been made.

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But it seems the problem is far worse than even we realised.

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The number of cases of this type of fraud has rocketed and, with so many

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seemingly genuine sites now advertising holiday homes abroad,

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it's all too easy for any of us to be taken in.

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So stand by for advice to make sure that the villa you may be tempted by

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is the real deal and that, like the people in the next film,

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you're not left literally thousands of pounds out of pocket.

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As we've highlighted before,

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when the details for the villa you've booked are entirely bogus...

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Villa Eugenio, Avenue Europa, Tenerife, Canary Islands.

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..you can face a wild goose chase before discovering the truth.

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This gentleman here is looking for a villa that he booked.

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This is the area, San Eugenio.

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-OK.

-Ah!

-It's the area.

-Yeah.

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And although they'll usually include just enough genuine details for the address

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they give to sound plausible,

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fraudsters are becoming even more crafty when it comes to tricking you

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into booking holiday accommodation that you never get to stay in.

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And I'm afraid that's exactly what happened to Alan Muresan and his wife Jean,

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from Morpeth, who've long enjoyed heading to sunnier climes for the winter.

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Over the last ten years, we've been to Australia eight times,

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and that was mainly to get away from the very cold North East winters.

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But for Christmas 2016,

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the couple planned a ten-week break in the Canary Islands,

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where they spotted a beautiful villa in Lanzarote that was big enough for

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their family to comfortably stay as well.

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This was a five-bedroom, lovely big pool in Costa Teguise, an area which we know...

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..and so we thought it was ideal.

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It was absolutely spot-on for what we wanted.

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Alan had found the house on a website called Canaries Villas,

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not to be confused with companies of a similar name,

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and, when he e-mailed the property manager through the site,

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he was told that, not only was it available for all the dates he wanted,

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but, if he booked and paid now, he'd get a discount.

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The expense initially was £12,000 but, if I paid by cash,

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they would reduce it to £10,600

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with a £500 deposit for damage.

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And that seemed reasonable.

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And Alan was reassured by the comprehensive detail in the four-page contract

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he was sent to sign.

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And it went through end-of-term agreements, safety regulations,

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public indemnity and public liability, force majeure,

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and so there was no real concern.

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So, happy that all was above board,

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Alan paid the money directly to Canaries Villas via bank transfer.

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He then received an e-mail confirming the booking,

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which he was told included an airport transfer.

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Towards the end of November, I thought, right, I'll just check

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so, when we arrive at the airport, there's somebody there to pick up.

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When I did that, no response.

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I e-mailed again, no response.

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And immediately, at that time, I felt uncomfortable.

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After several failed attempts to contact Canaries Villas,

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it became clear that the company was bogus.

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There was no villa and Alan had handed over £10,000 to conmen.

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I was upset, very upset.

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Jean ended up in tears and it was just...

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It was heartbreaking. I don't cry but, quite honestly,

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I was close to tears.

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Hoping to track down the fraudsters,

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Alan tried employing a private investigator and Spanish solicitors.

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But without any contact details other than the e-mail address,

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there was little that anyone could do to get his money back.

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And similarly, when we tried contacting the company,

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we heard nothing back.

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We look back at ourselves as being old fools.

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We went through what we thought was all legitimate and, at the end of it,

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we've been scammed. We're just...

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..absolutely appalled.

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Well, I think Alan's being rather too hard on himself.

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Any of us might have been convinced by the ad that had fooled him,

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not least because the photographs and details had been stolen from

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the description of a genuine villa on an entirely different,

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legitimate website.

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And unfortunately, that's a tactic that's becoming increasingly common,

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which is of particular concern for Nick Cooper.

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He runs a well-established and successful holiday rental company

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called Villa Plus.

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In recent years, he's become very aware of the boom in bogus websites,

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and that's because, very often,

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it's the photos and details from his ads that the scammers are

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stealing and then using to create their own fake listings.

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If I take one of our villas in the Costa del Sol, Villa Los Ramos, San Pedro de Alcantara,

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and if I click on this other company...

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..they've got something called Villa Salcedo,

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which is apparently a spacious and impressive five-bedroom villa in

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the exclusive residential area of Atalaya Baja.

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So they've copied a lot of our words, taken a few things out,

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given the villa a different name, copied the pictures,

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and you can contact their property manager here,

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which will just be a made-up name.

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And people have booked this villa.

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And it looks a pretty genuine website, but it's totally fake.

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But in many cases,

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that fact only becomes apparent when the unsuspecting holiday-makers,

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who think they've booked their villa, turn up to try and find it.

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When we discovered they were using our villa images, I mean,

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we were really, really annoyed about it.

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And then we looked into it further and found this wasn't just one or two isolated examples.

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Nick estimates that around 1,400 stolen images have been brought to

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his company's attention over the years and he's said he's spoken to other

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legitimate villa rental companies that have experienced the same thing.

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According to Action Fraud,

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it's this type of scam that has contributed to a 20% rise in holiday fraud in 2016.

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When we filmed with Nick's company,

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his colleague Bob had just taken a call from yet another person who'd been taken in.

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He found, upon arrival, there were other people in the villa.

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The family actually turned up at the villa?

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They turned up at the villa.

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-Really?

-He obviously was very distressed and had young children,

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-but it just highlights how this can go seriously wrong.

-Yeah.

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Also finding themselves in exactly that situation were Andrew and his partner Tracey, from Huddersfield.

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In 2017,

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they booked this villa in the Algarve through what again appeared to be

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a legitimate website called Rent Holidays Villas,

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not to be confused with companies of a similar name.

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And they paid £3,000 for their two-week stay in the Algarve,

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and they only started to realise they'd been scammed when, on arrival

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at Faro Airport, their promised transfer was nowhere to be seen.

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When we arrived, there were lots and lots of people holding up boards,

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iPads with people's names on, and we walked through this...

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..long line of people and didn't see the name that we were looking for.

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Beginning to worry,

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the couple remembered another detail of the booking that hadn't felt right.

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The alarm bells started ringing because the other issue that had

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sort of planted a little seed of doubt in our minds was that we'd

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never been given a telephone number.

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Everything had been via e-mail.

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Still hoping their fears were misplaced and that there had simply been

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a mix-up with the transfer at the airport,

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Andrew and Tracey hired a car to find the villa they'd paid for.

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The journey from Faro Airport to the property was not good.

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We were both pretty quiet...

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..hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

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And I'm afraid the worst is what they got

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because, when they arrived at the villa,

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they found cars parked in the drive and another family staying in it.

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Andrew and Tracey realised they had been scammed.

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We just sat there in a state of shock.

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You do feel sick, you feel physically ill at that point.

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The couple were lucky enough to have friends staying on the island who

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were able to put them up but, before they flew home,

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they reported the scam to the police,

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eager to do all they could to recoup their money.

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The only comfort was that we didn't have lots of other family members

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with us, so I feel for anybody in that situation.

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Well, when we tried to contact the website through which Andrew booked,

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Rent Holidays Villas, again, we got no response.

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But Andrew and Tracey were actually rather fortunate because, when they

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contacted their bank,

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the money they'd paid out for the villa was traced to another UK account

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and the fraudsters hadn't yet cleared it out,

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so Andrew was able to retrieve it all.

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I'm as surprised as anybody with regards to how that one panned out,

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cos I was anticipating that, anybody who was scamming people,

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as soon as any funds dropped into a bank account,

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that it would be fairly quickly moved to some hidden place.

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While that's a very happy ending for Andrew,

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it's incredibly rare to get back your money once it's in the hands of

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the fraudsters. Coincidentally,

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the villa they thought they'd booked was amongst those that belonged to

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Villa Plus, but the details and information had been lifted and copied to

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the fake site, where they had seen it,

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which is why Nick Cooper from Villa Plus says more needs to be done to

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protect holiday-makers from this particular type of scam.

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Whenever he spots a bogus site or ad,

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he always reports it to the internet providers,

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but he finds them sometimes a bit slow to act.

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We want to shut them down today. We don't want to wait a week, two weeks,

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three weeks, four weeks, a month,

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and it is so difficult to shut them down quickly that that's the most

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frustrating thing about it.

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Making all of this even more worrying for anyone searching out a holiday villa

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is the fact that,

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in addition to the fake sites springing up using hijacked details,

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even some of the industry's big names have found their own sites

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infiltrated by fraudsters placing scam ads.

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So I'm afraid it doesn't necessarily follow that you'd be OK booking with

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a name you know. That's something we first reported in 2015 after Julie Roberts,

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from Leeds, responded to an ad she'd seen on the website Owners Direct.

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She went on to hand over £4,000 to the supposed villa owner,

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who called himself Michael Fitzgerald,

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but neither he nor the villa genuinely existed.

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We've been scammed out of £4,000.

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The initial thought was, "Right, we can't go on holiday,

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"and I've got to tell all my friends that this isn't happening."

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So it was horrible, it was absolutely horrible.

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At the time, although Owners Direct offered free insurance protecting

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against any losses resulting from fraud, it was capped at £700,

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so, while Julie did receive that,

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she was still left well over £3,000 out of pocket.

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Since we reported on her story,

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the company said it's significantly stepped up its online security and

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it now covers the whole cost of any fraud that affects holiday-makers

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who've booked and paid through their website.

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But, of course, over the years,

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we've heard of people who've ended up being scammed after using other well-known sites,

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for example, Airbnb and even Booking.com -

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all legitimate booking sites,

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but where scammers have been able to advertise and take money for

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properties that simply don't belong to them.

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Sites like those also stress they have stringent systems in place to

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protect customers from scams and they're constantly updating them so

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that they can detect and resolve any potentially suspicious activity.

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But they point out cases of fraud remain extremely rare,

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and you will generally be protected if the booking

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is completed through their own sites rather than,

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as fraudsters would sometimes request, using other methods of payment.

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Even so, fake villa scams are clearly on the rise throughout the industry,

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so Nick Cooper says there are things we should all look out for to reduce

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the risk of being conned.

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First thing you have to look up - when was the website registered?

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And if they have a telephone number, is it a local area code number?

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Can you find out where the company are?

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Do they have too much availability in peak season?

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If it's too much of a bargain, then it might well be false.

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Fortunately, Andrew's experience hasn't put him off booking villas in

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the future, but it has made him more wary about how he'd go about it.

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We've been booking villas via the internet for 20 years and we've never

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had a problem, and I think...

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..you get a bit, "It'll never happen to us." You take that sort of view.

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And, lo and behold, it did.

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Now, there are some issues about which you contact us time and time again,

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and one of them is time-share.

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Whether you've written to us because of increasing maintenance fees or

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you're just fed up of being tied to a property that you don't often use,

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there's no doubt that plenty of you are desperate to get rid of yours

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once and for all. So, when a company gets in touch and promises to do all

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the work for you, it's very easy to see why it might sound like a tempting offer.

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Well, that's exactly what lawyers based right here in Tenerife are claiming that

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they can do for thousands of time-share customers.

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But, as I've discovered, those lawyers and, indeed, their claims really don't

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stack up to much at all.

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Though, for decades, time-share holidays have had their share of bad press,

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there are many people for whom they still have their benefits.

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And for many years, David and Jackie Harrington from Essex loved being able

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to holiday around the world with the peace of mind that the quality of

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the accommodation would suit them perfectly.

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We just fell in love with the whole system of what they do.

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We had several trips to various resorts in the Canary Islands,

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Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

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The main one that we thoroughly loved was in Florida in Kissimmee.

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We went out there to Orlando, had a magnificent five-bedroom house.

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Good boy, Troy! Good boy.

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But over time, like many others who contact us,

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David and Jackie became frustrated with their time-share.

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As well as rising costs,

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there was increasingly restricted availability of the sorts of

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accommodation that they wanted,

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to the point where they felt they just were not getting enough for their money.

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We built ourselves up on the points system to become platinum customers,

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which we were told would give you priority of wherever you

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wished to go. That wasn't the case -

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you'd always phone up, wanting to go to this destination...

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..it was always booked.

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Thoroughly fed up, the couple was keen to get out of the contract -

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something they were eventually able to do after Jackie became too ill to travel.

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My wife had quite a serious heart problem,

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and she got whisked off to hospital and A&E.

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The bottom line is she was told she couldn't fly for at least a couple of years.

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And we presented all the medical evidence,

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and they dropped our account and, since then, we haven't been with them.

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David and Jackie were thankful that they were no longer paying out to a company

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that was not giving them what they wanted.

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Then, out of the blue, they were contacted by a solicitor from Tenerife.

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He said, "Are you aware that there's a court case against them in November,

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"in Santa Cruz High Court?"

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I said, "No." He said, "Well, we'd like to represent you,

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"not just yourself and your wife, but a number of other people as well.

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"We feel that you have a perfectly legitimate case

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"and the likelihood you will win your case, and we'd like to represent you

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"on a no-win, no-fee basis."

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The solicitor said he represented many others like Jackie and David,

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who felt that they'd been paying well over the odds for their time-share

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while being offered substandard accommodation.

0:18:140:18:16

He convinced David to join the legal action to get back the thousands

0:18:160:18:20

that they'd paid out, but he also said that, to get things moving,

0:18:200:18:24

under Spanish law, they'd have to pay 600 euros' court fees upfront,

0:18:240:18:29

and David agreed.

0:18:290:18:31

I think, because you're dealing with outside the UK,

0:18:310:18:33

obviously, they have different laws, and you just have to go by what you

0:18:330:18:37

feel that you're being informed. They do things differently.

0:18:370:18:40

The Spanish lawyer dealing with their case was called Emilio Leyes Catillianos.

0:18:410:18:46

He sent all the relevant paperwork, which even detailed a court date.

0:18:460:18:50

All David and Jackie had to do was wait for the verdict and perhaps compensation.

0:18:500:18:55

We were informed within a few days that we'd won our case and

0:18:550:19:00

the agreement through the courts we would receive roughly about 15,000 euros.

0:19:000:19:06

This seemed great news,

0:19:060:19:08

and Emilio sent over instructions for how to release the funds.

0:19:080:19:12

And I'm afraid there was another payment involved.

0:19:120:19:15

The main payment was on the basis that, once a court has agreed to send

0:19:150:19:21

someone overseas X amount of money, they had to pay a tax levy, which,

0:19:210:19:27

if you're a non-resident of Spain, was 21%...

0:19:270:19:30

..which amounted to just under 3,000 euros,

0:19:310:19:34

and this apparently made it very,

0:19:340:19:36

very clear had to be paid before the money was sent to us, and it would

0:19:360:19:40

obviously be reimbursed back on to the cheque.

0:19:400:19:43

So that's what we did.

0:19:430:19:45

A week after the 3,000 euros had been paid,

0:19:470:19:50

David and Jackie then received a letter in the post,

0:19:500:19:52

but the cheque supposed to be with it was missing,

0:19:520:19:55

so David got straight back on to Emilio.

0:19:550:19:58

I explained to him that there's been no cheque received at all,

0:19:580:20:02

and his immediate reaction was, "Oh, my God, what's happened here?

0:20:020:20:05

"I shall investigate and look into it."

0:20:050:20:07

Got back to us within 24 hours.

0:20:080:20:11

Apparently, there was a source in the local post office that intercepted it

0:20:110:20:16

and passed it on to apparently East Europeans that were working out of

0:20:160:20:22

Los Cristianos, and they'd banked the cheque within 24 hours.

0:20:220:20:26

Emilio reassured the couple that he would resend the cheque via a courier.

0:20:260:20:30

So, again, David and Jackie waited.

0:20:300:20:33

We received a letter from Emilio saying that the law in Spain requests

0:20:330:20:38

that anything over 10,000 euros they can't send through a courier,

0:20:380:20:42

it's got to be done through a bank transfer,

0:20:420:20:44

and by doing this you have to send a small amount to

0:20:440:20:48

pay the fee.

0:20:480:20:50

Which we did, which was about 500 euros,

0:20:510:20:54

and that was the last payment which we did. Um...

0:20:540:20:57

And then, really, after that, it all just went dead.

0:20:570:21:00

By now, David and Jackie had paid £4,100 to Emilio,

0:21:020:21:07

and they were starting to fear that the whole thing may well have been

0:21:070:21:10

an elaborate con trick.

0:21:100:21:11

They didn't know if Emilio had stolen the money,

0:21:110:21:14

if he was really a solicitor or even if there'd ever been a court case.

0:21:140:21:19

Fearing they'd sent their money to a total crook,

0:21:190:21:21

they contacted us, and we took the paperwork to UK lawyer Stefano Lucatello,

0:21:210:21:27

who's a specialist in international property,

0:21:270:21:30

to see what he made of it.

0:21:300:21:31

The notepaper purports to be from a Spanish lawyer.

0:21:320:21:36

And then the manner in which the letter is actually written,

0:21:360:21:38

it says, "Apologies for contacting you in this manner."

0:21:380:21:42

No lawyer would contact a person in this manner,

0:21:420:21:46

so immediately I'm suspicious.

0:21:460:21:48

Though the letter to Jackie and David may look official, as a lawyer,

0:21:490:21:53

Stefano is quickly convinced it's a scam.

0:21:530:21:56

The reasons why they contacted this person in this manner are also then

0:21:560:22:00

described, and it quotes an authority, a European authority,

0:22:000:22:03

which doesn't exist.

0:22:030:22:04

But, of course, a lay person would not know and could easily be drawn into

0:22:040:22:09

the fact that this headed notepaper seems to be true and not fictitious.

0:22:090:22:15

In fact, Stefano has seen letters like this before and he's heard many

0:22:150:22:19

similar stories of money being handed over to a foreign solicitor who cold calls,

0:22:190:22:24

claiming to be taking action against a time-share company.

0:22:240:22:28

But he says any such call should immediately make you suspicious.

0:22:280:22:32

No Spanish law firm would cold call a person,

0:22:320:22:36

whether a Spanish person or a foreigner abroad in another jurisdiction.

0:22:360:22:40

Why? Because it's against the Code of Conduct of the Spanish Lawyers' Association,

0:22:400:22:45

and it doesn't matter whether you're in Madrid or in Barcelona

0:22:450:22:48

or in Tenerife, the lawyers' Code of Conduct nationally is the same.

0:22:480:22:53

Stefano says there are specialist lawyers you can contact if you want

0:22:530:22:57

to get out of your time-share contract or if you think you might have a case

0:22:570:23:00

against a time-share company,

0:23:000:23:02

but you should ignore any unsolicited contact.

0:23:020:23:06

If you do receive a cold call, whether it be an e-mail,

0:23:070:23:10

whether it be a letter or a telephone call, my advice to you is to put it in the bin,

0:23:100:23:15

to disregard it.

0:23:150:23:16

If you do have a time-share and you receive such a piece of correspondence,

0:23:160:23:19

then seek English law advice from an expert.

0:23:190:23:22

You can find them from the Law Society directory.

0:23:220:23:26

These are people who specialise in either getting into time-shares and

0:23:260:23:30

doing it correctly or getting you out of a time-share, if you would wish

0:23:300:23:33

to leave such a time-share.

0:23:330:23:34

But while it's clear that what Jackie and David had been told was not stacking up,

0:23:350:23:40

we were keen to find out more about the lawyer that they'd been dealing

0:23:400:23:43

with and find out what he'd done with their £4,100.

0:23:430:23:46

So, while we were filming in Tenerife,

0:23:460:23:48

I tried to visit the address given as his office on the paperwork.

0:23:480:23:52

The trouble was, I couldn't find many people around to help.

0:23:520:23:55

This is really weird.

0:23:570:23:58

There are just no people here on the streets.

0:23:580:24:01

There are cars driving through this town, but no people.

0:24:010:24:04

It's a bit like being in a ghost town or on a film set!

0:24:040:24:09

Certainly not somewhere where you'd expect to find a high-powered international lawyer.

0:24:090:24:13

It seems I may have come during siesta time,

0:24:140:24:17

but I'm determined to find our mysterious lawyer,

0:24:170:24:20

so I wonder if any locals know of our friend Emilio.

0:24:200:24:23

-Jose, you know everybody around here.

-Yes.

-Do you know this lawyer - Emilio?

0:24:230:24:27

-Emilio Leyes... No, no.

-Catillianos?

-No.

0:24:270:24:30

And that's what he says is his address.

0:24:300:24:32

The address is not correct.

0:24:320:24:34

Have you ever heard of this lawyer here in the town - Emilio Catillianos?

0:24:340:24:39

No, not in this town.

0:24:390:24:40

-No?

-No.

-Thank you.

-You're welcome.

0:24:400:24:43

Have you ever heard of Emilio Leyes Catillianos?

0:24:430:24:47

-I don't know him.

-Do you think there's a lawyer in this town called that?

0:24:470:24:52

I would say no.

0:24:520:24:54

-But you've never heard of this man?

-No, no, never.

0:24:540:24:56

-Never?

-It's the first time.

-OK. Thank you very much indeed.

-You're welcome.

-Thank you.

0:24:560:25:00

In a small Spanish community like this,

0:25:010:25:03

you might think that everybody would be familiar with a lawyer.

0:25:030:25:06

While it appears they're not, I can at least still try to find his office.

0:25:060:25:10

Do you know this lawyer - Emilio Leyes Catillianos?

0:25:100:25:15

I have people, lawyers, maybe they know him, you know, but...

0:25:170:25:23

You've never heard of him?

0:25:230:25:24

Emilio, no.

0:25:240:25:26

-Right.

-No.

-OK.

0:25:260:25:27

-So, if I want Duque de la Torre, I have to go down here?

-Yes.

0:25:270:25:32

Well, I'm getting close to the street.

0:25:320:25:34

I have a feeling he's not going to be there.

0:25:340:25:37

"Calle Duque de la Torre."

0:25:370:25:39

Calle Duque de la Torre!

0:25:390:25:41

Just got to find number 29 now.

0:25:410:25:43

And once I'm there,

0:25:450:25:46

it's immediately obvious that there's no legal firm at this address

0:25:460:25:50

and the whole thing has been an elaborate scam.

0:25:500:25:52

Well, this is clearly 29 Calle Duque de la Torre, but we're in a town called Arona,

0:25:520:25:59

not Santa Cruz.

0:25:590:26:01

And, in fact, the sat-nav says that there is no Duque de la Torre in Santa Cruz.

0:26:010:26:06

The only one on the whole island is here in Arona.

0:26:060:26:09

But what do we find?

0:26:090:26:11

This is all part of the council offices.

0:26:110:26:14

If this really was the office of a lawyer called Emilio Catillianos,

0:26:140:26:20

there'd be a thumping great brass plate here somewhere

0:26:200:26:23

saying that this was his office.

0:26:230:26:25

Well, the address might not be real, but the scam most definitely is,

0:26:270:26:31

and a quick search for the lawyer's name online turns up plenty of other

0:26:310:26:34

people who've lost money in the same way

0:26:340:26:37

and would be equally keen to find him.

0:26:370:26:39

And back at their home in Essex,

0:26:390:26:41

while David and Jackie accept they're unlikely ever to get their money back,

0:26:410:26:45

after learning such a hard lesson,

0:26:450:26:47

they want to make sure no-one else gets stung in the same way.

0:26:470:26:50

There is absolutely no way that we will ever get involved with anything

0:26:500:26:55

in reference to investing into time-share or holiday homes,

0:26:550:27:00

and it's made me even much, much more wary, suspicious,

0:27:000:27:04

of people than I had before, certainly.

0:27:040:27:07

Still to come on Rip-Off Britain, the fake flight companies taking

0:27:130:27:17

thousands of pounds for fares that aren't for real.

0:27:170:27:20

I just put the phone down and I literally cried.

0:27:200:27:24

I never thought that I could be a victim of this.

0:27:240:27:28

Our travel expert Simon Calder is full of tips to save you money on your travels.

0:27:320:27:37

He's got plenty of ideas on everything from how to avoid the crowds

0:27:370:27:40

to the best way to steer clear of those tourist traps.

0:27:400:27:43

This time, it's all about Sicily.

0:27:450:27:47

The stone next to the boot, as it's called,

0:27:490:27:51

is the biggest island in the Mediterranean,

0:27:510:27:53

and it's also the warmest part of Italy, with spectacular landscapes,

0:27:530:27:58

towns and cities steeped in millennia of history,

0:27:580:28:01

and gastronomic delights.

0:28:010:28:03

Sicily really has it all.

0:28:030:28:05

There are more direct flights from the UK to Sicily than ever.

0:28:050:28:09

But if your local airport can only get you as far as Rome,

0:28:090:28:12

then consider this spectacular way to arrive.

0:28:120:28:16

From the Italian capital, there's a direct train that runs south to

0:28:160:28:20

the toe of Italy

0:28:200:28:22

and then trundles onto the ferry for the journey across to the island of Sicily,

0:28:220:28:28

continuing to the cities of Catania and Syracuse.

0:28:280:28:31

You don't even get your wheels wet.

0:28:310:28:34

But if you do fancy getting your wheels wet, then head to the Aeolian Islands

0:28:340:28:38

off the north-east coast of Sicily.

0:28:380:28:40

Made up of a scattering of volcanoes,

0:28:400:28:42

each one is worth exploring, and they're connected by a busy network

0:28:420:28:46

of fast hydrofoil ferries.

0:28:460:28:48

For the best possible start, take the early morning nonstop ferry to

0:28:480:28:53

the most distant island, Stromboli, with its seething volcano,

0:28:530:28:58

then meander back at your own pace,

0:28:580:29:01

but try to stop at as many islands as you possibly can.

0:29:010:29:05

They're all delightfully different.

0:29:050:29:07

In the year 2000,

0:29:080:29:09

the Aeolian Islands were listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and

0:29:090:29:14

Stromboli itself has been studied for thousands of years,

0:29:140:29:17

providing invaluable insights into the depths of the Earth and its secrets.

0:29:170:29:21

If you're lucky, you may even get a unique opportunity to watch its eruptions.

0:29:210:29:26

Back on the mainland, Sicily is a melting pot of history and culture.

0:29:290:29:35

Sicily has a scintillating story to tell through its museums and

0:29:350:29:38

archaeological sites.

0:29:380:29:40

And many of them offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month.

0:29:400:29:45

Be warned, though, that on other Sundays many of them are closed,

0:29:450:29:49

and Monday is an almost mandatory day off.

0:29:490:29:53

So a bit of planning helps

0:29:530:29:55

if you're going to get to grips with the island's heroic heritage.

0:29:550:29:58

Now to a scam that's been doing the rounds for many years

0:30:020:30:05

but is so convincing that, unfortunately, it's still catching people out.

0:30:050:30:10

And while it's easy, with hindsight, to see the red flags and the warning

0:30:100:30:14

signs that something deeply suspicious is unfolding,

0:30:140:30:17

when you're in the middle of it, it's not always that simple.

0:30:170:30:20

So when you hear what happened to the latest people to tell us about

0:30:200:30:23

their experience, we hope that you learn enough to stop you from falling into the same trap.

0:30:230:30:28

We all want to make sure, when booking a flight, that we've got the best fare.

0:30:310:30:34

And there's no shortage of businesses and websites competing

0:30:340:30:38

to offer bargain deals.

0:30:380:30:39

But in the rush to bag one, there's always a risk of being conned.

0:30:390:30:43

That's what happened to Stanley Nkomo

0:30:440:30:46

when he was looking for a cheap flight to visit family in Zimbabwe.

0:30:460:30:50

I do go back to Zimbabwe every year, which is where I come from.

0:30:500:30:54

I've got my father there, who's old.

0:30:540:30:56

He's in his late 80s.

0:30:560:30:57

So, each year, I make sure that I go and just check on him,

0:30:570:31:01

that he's keeping well.

0:31:010:31:02

I always try and get the best deal, the best possible deal,

0:31:020:31:07

so that, whatever few money I save,

0:31:070:31:09

then I can use for my travelling expenses and other things when I get back home

0:31:090:31:14

to spend with friends and family.

0:31:140:31:16

As was the case with previous trips,

0:31:160:31:18

Stanley had saved all year for his five-week break.

0:31:180:31:22

Then, as the time approached, he searched around for the best deal.

0:31:220:31:26

I went online...

0:31:260:31:27

..typed in cheap flights to Harare,

0:31:280:31:32

put the dates I wanted to travel out and the days I wanted to come back,

0:31:320:31:36

so a number of agencies started contacting me.

0:31:360:31:39

Joy Travel happened to be one of those agencies.

0:31:390:31:42

Joy Travel UK Limited,

0:31:420:31:44

a travel agent most recently registered in Port Talbot and not to be

0:31:440:31:48

confused with companies of a similar name,

0:31:480:31:50

appeared to offer a fare that was hard to refuse.

0:31:500:31:53

It said it could get Stanley flights with Air France, via Paris, to Zimbabwe

0:31:530:31:58

for just £540 - a saving of around £160 on the usual cost of a flight.

0:31:580:32:05

They were pushing me to say, "Look, we are offering this ticket at a very,

0:32:050:32:09

"very discounted rate.

0:32:090:32:11

"We've got only two seats going.

0:32:110:32:13

"If you miss it, then, obviously, you'll have missed the opportunity."

0:32:130:32:17

So I thought, "Oh, it's one of those opportunities you wouldn't want to miss."

0:32:170:32:20

Worried it might be too good to be true,

0:32:200:32:23

Stanley did a quick check that the times and dates of the flights on offer

0:32:230:32:27

tallied with the details on Air France's own website.

0:32:270:32:30

Reassured that they did, and eager to snap up such heavily discounted seats,

0:32:300:32:35

he followed Joy Travel's instructions and paid via a bank transfer.

0:32:350:32:39

He received a booking confirmation and there was no reason to suspect

0:32:390:32:43

anything was untoward until the day of departure.

0:32:430:32:46

I went into the check-in desk.

0:32:460:32:48

They typed in, then they said they couldn't find my name on the flight list.

0:32:480:32:54

So, obviously, I had the booking confirmation,

0:32:540:32:57

and I was adamant in my mind that I am booked onto this flight.

0:32:570:33:00

I couldn't believe what was happening.

0:33:000:33:02

Staff at the Air France desk said they had no record of Stanley's booking,

0:33:030:33:07

but he hoped it might all be a simple mistake.

0:33:070:33:10

I've been travelling to Zimbabwe, using almost the same method each year,

0:33:100:33:14

and I've never had a problem,

0:33:140:33:16

so I was hoping and praying that, out of the blue, my name would be called out,

0:33:160:33:20

that the flight is going.

0:33:200:33:22

But when the flight left without him,

0:33:220:33:24

all Stanley could do was return home and call Joy Travel UK Limited to find out

0:33:240:33:30

what had gone wrong. But when he rang the number he'd used when making the booking,

0:33:300:33:34

he got his next big surprise of the day.

0:33:340:33:37

They were saying, "No, we're not a travel agent, we are a supermarket,

0:33:370:33:40

"we sell groceries."

0:33:400:33:42

Then I realised that these people were no good.

0:33:420:33:44

Horrified that he'd been scammed,

0:33:460:33:47

Stanley went back online to see if there were any other ways he could

0:33:470:33:51

get in touch with the people he'd booked with.

0:33:510:33:53

So, I thought, "Let me dig a bit deeper into this company."

0:33:530:33:58

So I tried to go onto their website,

0:33:580:34:00

to find out exactly where they are located and so forth.

0:34:000:34:05

The website was non-existent.

0:34:050:34:07

Everything about the travel firm had been a con,

0:34:070:34:10

so Stanley contacted Staffordshire Police, who confirmed that they were

0:34:100:34:14

dealing with over 210 similar complaints involving not just Joy Travel UK Limited

0:34:140:34:20

but two other travel firms based in the same county,

0:34:200:34:24

and the police have since told us that, while the potential suspects

0:34:240:34:27

relating to this case remain abroad,

0:34:270:34:30

there's been considerable work undertaken within the City of London Police

0:34:300:34:33

to take down bogus travel agency websites and phone numbers.

0:34:330:34:38

But I'm afraid fraudulent sites are becoming ever more common, as Sylvia Bedu,

0:34:380:34:42

from Croydon, also found out to her cost.

0:34:420:34:45

She was planning a family trip to Ghana and had already paid a deposit for

0:34:450:34:49

some flights when she was contacted by a different firm offering an even better deal.

0:34:490:34:54

A gentleman called and said, "Oh...

0:34:540:34:56

"..are you travelling this summer to Ghana?"

0:34:580:35:02

He said to me, "I've got a very reasonable ticket, would you like me to,

0:35:020:35:07

"you know, give you a quotation for it?"

0:35:070:35:10

And I said, "I've already paid money already, so I don't think I would,

0:35:100:35:15

"otherwise I'll lose my money."

0:35:150:35:17

And then, what he said to me is that, "Oh,

0:35:170:35:20

"you can get it for half price of what, you know, would normally be charged."

0:35:200:35:24

So I got interested then.

0:35:240:35:27

Sylvia had paid a £600 deposit for four tickets through a genuine agent

0:35:270:35:32

but, though by taking this new deal, she'd lose this deposit,

0:35:320:35:35

it would still mean she'd save a total of nearly £1,300.

0:35:350:35:39

But Sylvia too was suspicious that it might be a scam, so she asked for

0:35:390:35:43

proof that she was dealing with a genuine company.

0:35:430:35:47

The person on the phone gave his name as Jack Smith and said he worked for

0:35:470:35:51

a business called Easy Travel in Derbyshire.

0:35:510:35:53

For further reassurance,

0:35:530:35:55

he suggested that Sylvia should take a look at the company's online accounts.

0:35:550:35:59

He directed me to Companies House, so I was like, "OK,

0:35:590:36:04

"this is a genuine company," and I actually saw their accounts,

0:36:040:36:08

so it was a company that still exists, you know, and, you know, operating,

0:36:080:36:13

so I didn't have any doubts then that, you know, this could not be true.

0:36:130:36:19

Unfortunately, however,

0:36:210:36:22

while the details Sylvia were looking at were perfectly legitimate,

0:36:220:36:25

they had nothing to do with the man she'd been speaking to,

0:36:250:36:28

the so-called Jack Smith.

0:36:280:36:30

It was only later that she discovered he'd been using the name of

0:36:300:36:33

a genuine coach and minibus company,

0:36:330:36:36

purely to trick her into thinking she was dealing with a reliable company.

0:36:360:36:39

And it worked. She went ahead and made the payment.

0:36:390:36:42

I spoke with Jack and I said, "OK, I will use my card to do this."

0:36:440:36:50

So we did the transaction.

0:36:500:36:52

I paid £1,700...

0:36:520:36:55

..from my direct debit with the name and details that he'd given.

0:36:560:37:02

As soon as the money left her account, the con was complete.

0:37:020:37:05

No tickets turned up and further calls to Jack Smith went unanswered.

0:37:050:37:09

Sylvia had been fleeced out of £1,700.

0:37:090:37:13

I literally cried.

0:37:130:37:15

I never thought that I could, you know, be a victim of this.

0:37:150:37:19

But now I realise that anybody can.

0:37:190:37:23

Well, we've heard about numerous similar scams all over the country

0:37:230:37:27

and, in Norwich, one such scam drew the attention of Norfolk Trading Standards,

0:37:270:37:32

after a number of people in the area got in touch to say they'd lost money

0:37:320:37:35

to a firm which had suddenly popped up on their patch

0:37:350:37:38

calling itself either luxeflights.co.uk or luxetravels.co.uk.

0:37:380:37:44

Brian Chatham was the member of the Norfolk Trading Standards scheme who smelt a rat.

0:37:440:37:49

What I think is significant in this case is that they used the word

0:37:490:37:53

luxe at the beginning.

0:37:530:37:55

I've done a little bit of looking on the net,

0:37:550:37:58

and there are a whole number of established businesses who are connected

0:37:580:38:04

with luxury flights or with business flights

0:38:040:38:09

who have been there for a considerable period of time.

0:38:090:38:14

What the scammer was doing here

0:38:140:38:16

was clearly doing their best to masquerade as being one of those

0:38:160:38:20

legitimate businesses.

0:38:200:38:22

This firm not only used other companies' names to give it an air of authenticity,

0:38:220:38:27

it also had what appeared to be a genuine address,

0:38:270:38:30

but it was close examination of that address that really gave the game away.

0:38:300:38:35

When we checked the address that was on the website we found,

0:38:350:38:40

we couldn't believe that it was the Lord Nelson training ship -

0:38:400:38:44

this boat here!

0:38:440:38:46

Hardly a place where you would expect to get airline tickets from.

0:38:490:38:52

The boat, whose address had been hijacked,

0:38:520:38:55

actually belongs to Norwich Sea Cadets,

0:38:550:38:58

but that wouldn't necessarily have been apparent to anyone thinking they were

0:38:580:39:01

booking flight tickets.

0:39:010:39:03

A scam website will either have a completely fictitious address

0:39:030:39:07

or they will possibly pick a premises at random and use it.

0:39:070:39:13

Enquiries on the net will tell you quite quickly that that premises is not

0:39:130:39:18

a premises where you're likely to be able to buy,

0:39:180:39:20

for instance, airline tickets from,

0:39:200:39:22

theatre tickets or something of that kind.

0:39:220:39:25

So... But this is unusual.

0:39:260:39:28

We have never before had somebody given an address like this.

0:39:280:39:33

Brian and his team managed to get the bogus sites taken down

0:39:340:39:37

so they were no longer able to operate.

0:39:370:39:39

The trouble is, there's nothing to stop the scammers just setting up a new site

0:39:390:39:44

under a different name and doing it all over again.

0:39:440:39:47

So, with that in mind,

0:39:470:39:48

for anyone looking to book a holiday or a flight online this year,

0:39:480:39:52

Brian has some absolutely key advice.

0:39:520:39:55

The safest way to buy on the net is through a credit card.

0:39:560:40:01

Under the Consumer Credit Act,

0:40:010:40:03

the credit provider then has a legal duty to protect you

0:40:030:40:08

and to reimburse you if, for instance, the money has gone to a scammer.

0:40:080:40:12

Some of the bank debit cards offer a similar protection as well.

0:40:130:40:18

It's worth talking to your bank provider.

0:40:180:40:21

Remember, too, that while legitimate travel firms may display an ABTA or

0:40:210:40:25

ATOL logo on their website,

0:40:250:40:27

it's very easy for fake travel firms to do the same,

0:40:270:40:30

so it's well worth checking the ABTA website for a list of some of

0:40:300:40:34

the booking sites known to be bogus.

0:40:340:40:36

You may be worried those bargain fares will disappear

0:40:360:40:39

but, rather than rushing to make the purchase,

0:40:390:40:42

take time to do some checks before handing over any money.

0:40:420:40:45

You have to do your homework.

0:40:450:40:48

The more you are putting into it,

0:40:480:40:50

the more I think you need to do your homework.

0:40:500:40:52

So, in the case of airline tickets,

0:40:520:40:56

usually, there's several hundred pounds involved.

0:40:560:40:59

It's worthwhile just taking that little bit longer,

0:40:590:41:04

really being sure that who you are dealing with...

0:41:040:41:07

..is who you think it is and that they are as good as you think they are.

0:41:080:41:12

Back home in Manchester,

0:41:130:41:14

Stanley will be very cautious if he comes across low prices again,

0:41:140:41:18

and he'll be taking extra care

0:41:180:41:20

next time he books his flights to Zimbabwe.

0:41:200:41:23

What is now much more important for me, yes,

0:41:230:41:27

the price will still matter, but what is important is,

0:41:270:41:30

is it a genuine offer?

0:41:300:41:32

I would rather pay twice the amount as long as I know what I'm doing is genuine.

0:41:320:41:36

Rip-Off Britain wouldn't be here without your stories,

0:41:450:41:47

and we've got plenty of ways you can get in touch.

0:41:470:41:50

Send us an e-mail to...

0:41:500:41:52

Or write to us at...

0:41:560:41:57

But please don't send original copies of any documents.

0:42:050:42:08

And even if you haven't got a story you'd like us to investigate,

0:42:100:42:13

you can join in the conversation on our Facebook page.

0:42:130:42:16

Just search BBC Rip-Off Britain.

0:42:160:42:18

You know, well over our various programmes on Rip-Off Britain,

0:42:220:42:25

we've covered a lot of scams,

0:42:250:42:27

but I never cease to be amazed and horrified, if I'm being honest,

0:42:270:42:30

at the tactics used by the people behind them to trick you out of your cash.

0:42:300:42:35

And while, as we heard, some scams never go away,

0:42:350:42:38

there are always new and very clever ones popping up as well.

0:42:380:42:41

-It's as if the scammers are just always one step ahead of us, aren't they?

-Always.

0:42:410:42:44

And, of course, when you're on holiday,

0:42:440:42:46

it's all too easy just to relax and let your guard down.

0:42:460:42:50

So the message really is just to stop for a minute or two

0:42:500:42:53

before handing over any of your money, whether you're at home or abroad.

0:42:530:42:57

Because it's that moment of reflection that could really save you from

0:42:570:43:01

an awful lot of bother later on.

0:43:010:43:03

And if you've ever been on the receiving end of a scam and you want to

0:43:030:43:05

use your experience to warn other people,

0:43:050:43:07

then do please get in touch with us.

0:43:070:43:10

The more we get the word out,

0:43:100:43:11

the less likely it is that the fraudsters will win.

0:43:110:43:14

But that's it from us for now.

0:43:140:43:16

Thank you very much for joining us in sunny Tenerife.

0:43:160:43:18

-And, until the next time, goodbye.

-Goodbye.

-Bye-bye.

0:43:180:43:21

Julia Somerville, Gloria Hunniford and Angela Rippon get to the bottom of a fresh collection of scams designed to trick people out of hundreds of pounds. In Tenerife, the team is on the trail of fake lawyers claiming to help with timeshare problems, while back in the UK, fraudulent flight companies offering non-existent seats are exposed.

Holidaymakers tell of their horror on discovering they had booked villas that don't exist, and Simon Calder has more tips on 2018's top travel destinations.