What to do if you are a victim of holiday fraud and how to avoid it

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Very few people escape the unpleasant experience of being defrauded at least once in their lifetime, but how you react can minimise the damage it causes to your psyche and your wallet.

There are many different ways fraudsters can dip into your pockets, and especially during the holidays, these criminals know you will be transacting more and, perhaps, not be as guarded.

“As always, prevention is better than cure, so familiarise yourself with the typical scams that occur over the festive season,” says Nitesh Patel, head of Customer Financial Solutions, Personal Banking at Standard Bank.

Some common scams include:

Travel scams

Holiday accommodation:

A con-artist will place an advert for a holiday home on the internet. They will invite an e-mail or a phone call if you are interested. Once you contact them, they may send you details and pictures of the accommodation, and request a minimum of a 50 percent deposit to secure the booking. It all looks legitimate at this point, but what you don’t know is that they have been collecting deposits from many people for the same fake unit.

How to avoid it:

Ask the holiday vendor for the details of the body corporate or management office to match the name with the owner. If it’s a private person, ask for employment details and a copy of their ID. If they are not legitimate, they will balk at this. A scammer will rarely agree to meet and show you the property, but if they do, they may claim that they don’t have keys, but you can ‘look from the outside’. This is a huge red flag.

Ask the vendor to chat to you on Skype and then do a screenshot to get a copy of their image in case of illegal activity. Use Google Maps to ensure that the property actually exists. Scam artists usually choose free methods of advertising. Try to negotiate a smaller deposit and agree to the balance on the day you get access.

This will limit your losses if you are scammed. If you have been scammed, report the perpetrator to the police as soon as possible, and then contact the publication or website in which you saw the ad to get them banned. Also, report them on other platforms such as Hellopeter, Facebook and Twitter.

“Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get your money back, but by reporting them, at least you can stop others from falling prey to the scam,” Patel said.

Fake travel agencies

Fraudsters create high-quality websites for fake travel agencies, offering too-good-to-be-true deals. Hundreds of would-be tourists are convinced to pay on the spot, but when scammers feel they’ve stolen enough money, they shut down the website and simply create a new one.

How to avoid it:

Ensure the agent is a member of Asata (Association of South African Travel Agents) or Iata (International Air Transport Association), the bodies that protect the traveller should anything go wrong.

Scout Hellopeter.com to see if people are complaining about the operator.

Call the resort or hotel and ask if they are undergoing renovations, or if there is construction in the vicinity. The last thing you want is to be woken up by a jackhammer every morning.

If you’ve been scammed, report the fraudsters to the police as well as various travel associations and the publications that you saw them advertise in. Sadly, it will be difficult to get a refund.

ATM fraud

ATM fraud is as common as the methods are varied, and distracted holidaymakers are the jackpot for these fraudsters. The three typical types are:

Card swapping: Criminals distract you while you are entering your PIN and then swap your card. Card skimming: This involves tampering with an ATM by placing an additional card reader over the ATM’s card reader. With a hidden camera, fraudsters steal your card details and PIN.

Vandalism: Criminals vandalise ATMS to force you to use ones in poorly lit, quiet areas, or to trap your card in the card reader. As a result, the following may happen: You key in your PIN while being observed from a distance. The criminal offers you the use of a cellphone to cancel your card.

They then dial an accomplice who claims to be a bank official. The criminal advises you to key in your PIN and press the cancel button to retrieve your card. This won’t work, but while you are entering your PIN, the criminal memorises it and removes your card once you have left.

How to avoid it:

Check for visible signs that the ATM has not been tampered with before you transact, specifically where you insert your card. If your card is swallowed, don’t accept help from strangers. Immediately call your bank to cancel it instead. Stand close to the ATM and use your hand and body as shields when entering your PIN.

Identity theft

Identity theft is a form of fraud in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person’s identity. The purpose of identity theft is, predominantly, to access resources or to obtain credit or other benefits in the victim’s name. It can be many months before you find out, and it can take a long time to undo the damage to your credit reputation.

How to avoid it:

Shred all documents that contain your personal information and do not throw anything away that someone else could use to impersonate you. Make sure all your accounts have strong passwords that are not easy to decipher.

Never respond to an e-mail or SMS that asks you to insert or update your personal and banking information by clicking on a website link provided in the content of the message.

Rather copy and paste the link into your internet browser, as this will enable you to determine whether you are accessing an authentic website, or not. If you receive a call from an unknown individual who requests personal information, rather offer to call them back to verify that the number they have given you, in fact, belongs to the correct company.

Be careful with the type of information that you share on social media sites and make use of privacy settings. Only carry identification documentation when it’s absolutely necessary and keep these documents safely locked away when not in use. Do not get taken in by scammers who send messages telling you that you have won a prize or inherited money.

Periodically examine your credit report to ensure that there has been no unauthorised activity in your name. You are entitled to one free credit report per year from the credit bureaus. Ask the credit bureau to put an alert on your account if they are approached by credit providers.

If you’ve been defrauded, report the matter to the police and the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service on 0860 101 248. “There is no doubt that it is better to prevent these unfortunate events than fix them,” Patel said. “By familiarising yourself with potential danger zones and staying especially cautious in crowded holiday destinations, you should be able to have a fraud-free festive season.”

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