Fraudsters have a new scam: They fake hotel sites, lure customers with attractive special rates there, collect a deposit - and disappear without a trace.
It was late February in an Austrian ski resort: A family from the neighbouring country Slovakia strolled through the lobby, gathered well-humored at the front desk and called a reservation number. The Manager looked for - and found nothing.
He then asked the alleged guests for details. They had booked on the Internet of one of the apartments, which belong to the five-star hotel, they said irritated. This could not be correct: The building next to the hotel, were actually apartments are located, is completely rented in the long term.
Soon came out: Through the colourful booking website "www.winter-sport-package.com" had been offered them one of the alleged hotel apartments for $650. A bargain that was too attractive to be true: During ski season the renowned mountain lodge is actually demanding rates of $300 per day, and furthermor it is fully booked for months.
How could that be? The holiday-makers promised the manager in duty that even photos of the hotel would have been shown on the booking website. He might just look on the particular internet address and see for himself. That was not possible: There was no website of any kind. A bad dream? Unfortunately, it had at least one true aspect: The tourists at the time of booking had done 390 dollars deposit. The money was gone, of course.
"To get this sort of gangsters is hard", says of the Austrian criminal police officer Harald Longhi, specializing in combating cyber-crime. The pattern is always the same: Crooks are producing so-called "Clones" which are deceptively similar web sites of hotel operators' ones.
Until the police becomes aware of what happens there, then identifies the provider and makes them to take them off the web, hundreds of bona fide bargain hunters on the frauds can be fooled.
Because that's the trick of criminals: curl with extremely cheap prices, preferred for prestigious hotels and in the high season. So the pressure increases on the booking people to hurry up in order to get hold of the good deal and not to check the thing so thoroughly.
Bookers from other cultural and language circles, who are unable to book in their own language and have to dodge therefore in English are preferred victims. They have of course not as good this Lingua Franca, so that errors do not catch their eyes.
For hoteliers, this new type of crime especially can be a damage to reputation. How can I protect myself against the clone pages? "There is no 100 percent protection unfortunately", says Oliver Pichler from Vienna, an expert on hotel consulting.
His tip: "Hoteliers can keep up at least informed by setting up a 'Google Alert', which once or twice per month provides them with any new information about the own property." Also, it is useful, any couples of weeks to "Google" yourself - but do not with your usual IP, for Google has allocated already a specific search profile on it.
"You should look through already the first 30 results, to discover fraud." If a hotelier does really find anything wicked, the work only has started: The provider of the website in question must be identified, contacted and warned off. It is a fight against windmill blades: "After the illegal pages have taken off the server, they appear again quickly with a different name", policeman Longhi says.
At least for the trapped Slovaks, the thing had a reasonably good end: In co-operation with the local tourism administration, the Austrian hotelier found other accommodation, so they were able to continue their holidays.This is strictly an exclusive feature, reprints of this article in any shape or form without prior written approval from 4Hoteliers.com is not permitted.
Roland Wildberg is Travel Writer and Correspondent based in Berlin, Germany. He started as an Editor for the National daily 'Die Welt' (tourism section), later on switched to a freelanced career and nowadays mainly publishes on the Web. Observing the hospitality industry always has fascinated him as it looks like the perfect combination of sleeping and writing – work-live-balance as its best.
Roland also heads the annual 4Hoteliers.com ITB Berlin news micro-site ournalist and video/photo teams. Details on our ITB Marketing options.