Imagine that you plan a holiday, find the ideal spot, pay an enormous deposit, pack the car and head for paradise, only to discover after a long car trip that the holiday of a lifetime you booked online is actually a scam and that another family has booked and paid for the same accommodation.
It seems that the scamsters get smarter every year and, depending on how ‘clever’ the fraudster is, the ill-gotten gains get bigger. Things were no different this holiday season and at least one estate agent renting out properties in Ballito is smiling all the way to the bank, while the holidaymakers who made use of her services have been left high and dry. It appears that former rental agent Tammy Cook, who runs the website North Coast Holidays, has vanished, along with the hefty deposits that at least five families had paid for accommodation in the popular holiday town. Estimates vary, but one of the owners of a holiday unit stated that she had not received rent for the past four months, although people had been staying in the home. She believes that Cook has raked in well over R1-million.
The experts have been warning holidaymakers about the dangers of booking accommodation sight unseen for years. Unfortunately, in this case it seems that Cook actually took some of the prospective tenants to view the units before the eager vacationers forked out either the full amount or paid a hefty deposit – a somewhat novel approach, given that most con artists wouldn’t usually be in a position to physically show tenants the various choices on offer. So how does one protect oneself from those who are intent on fleecing them of their hard-earned cash?
Firstly, people should be wary of dealing with properties listed on ‘free’ websites. There is very little, if any, control over what gets posted on these sites and it is easy for the unscrupulous to post a picture of a property which does not belong to them. Large numbers of people have been scammed in this way. They like what they see, pay the fee and on arrival either find that the property either does not exist at the given address or that the advertiser has simply rented out a property that belongs to someone else.
The other danger of renting sight unseen is that the camera can - and often does - lie and when the holidaymaker eventually arrives to book into the holiday home from heaven, they find that the actual property bears little or no resemblance to the photographs posted on the advertising site.
Of course, as has been discussed, this did not happen in the Ballito agent’s case. This woman kept her wits about her and leased out genuine properties. The only problem of course is that she booked the same accommodation two or three times over. Forearmed is forewarned and in instances where a rental agent is used, it is highly recommended that customers check that the agency is registered with the EAAB and local tourist organisations. Ask to see the agent’s Fidelity Fund certificate and double-check that it is valid for the current year. Do not hand over any money to an agent who cannot produce this mandatory document.
If possible, ask friends and family to recommend someone and try to book well before the holiday season gets into full swing. Con artists tend to pop up far more frequently around peak holiday periods, so the earlier in the year the accommodation is booked, the better.