Travel News

Mum warns of holiday scam after forced to cancel family trip hours before flight

A mother-of-three who had to cancel a family holiday just hours before they were due to fly to Majorca after learning they had been scammed out of more than £4,000, with one of her children so devastated they “didn’t speak for a day”, is urging others to be vigilant as “it can happen to anyone”.

Emma Last, 48, a mental health and wellbeing strategist from Chorley, Lancashire, and her husband Zak, a 51-year-old artist, were due to fly out to a villa in Majorca for an eight-night family holiday in August 2023 – having seemingly booked a villa large enough to accommodate Emma’s parents and three children: Scarlette and Henri, both 17, and Xander, 14.

She first found the property on Airbnb but was then directed from there to WhatsApp, where she was provided with a link from “Travel Villas”, along with what claimed to be a Booking.com “portal” to process the payment later on.

Emma’s mother, Julia, 74, paid £4,120 for the villa via this link and Emma paid £1,722.98 for the flights directly with Ryanair – but just hours before they were due to leave for the airport on August 7, they realised they had been scammed.

The family learned the “Travel Villas” listing had been “cloned” from another website called Oliver’s Travels, and after calling the company, who confirmed the villa was fully booked, Emma realised the mistake she had made.

“We started telling the children that we weren’t going, which was awful because they had their suitcases packed and they were all excited,” Emma told PA Real Life.

“Devastated children is the word – one didn’t speak for a day.”

Emma was meant to fly to Majorca with her family for eight nights (Katie N Brand Photography/PA Real Life)

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Emma, the founder of corporate mental health company Progressive Minds, then battled for months trying to get their money back for the villa – and although they were eventually successful, the money for the flights has not been recovered as Ryanair was not at fault.

Emma’s family had saved for months for the much-needed trip, and while she initially felt “embarrassed” about the scam, she now wants to help others with advice from cyber safety brand Norton to prevent them from falling victim to fraudsters.

“There isn’t much support, and I think because you feel really silly because you’ve been caught out, it’s not something that you want to talk about – but it can happen to anyone,” Emma said.

“I have booked my own travel for years and never had a problem – you do your due diligence – but I suppose it’s just understanding that we are human, and perhaps we need to use more technology to protect us.

“But also, from the financial wellbeing perspective, I think there’s a massive piece around financial education missing, and I think we, personally, need to perhaps not be as embarrassed about it.”

Emma started looking at holiday options on Airbnb in July 2023, specifically family villas in Ibiza or Majorca to accommodate her parents and her three children.

Having “saved up” since their previous trip to Spain the year before, the family were looking forward to another summer holiday together, and they came across three suitable properties in Majorca on Airbnb.

Emma and her family did their “due diligence”, checking the villas existed using Google Earth, and they reviewed all the information provided, including the part which said she could supposedly book the property as a Genius customer via Booking.com.

When they clicked on the Airbnb listings, there was a note that said they needed to check via WhatsApp whether their chosen dates were available – and Emma proceeded to do this, sending a message to the number provided.

Emma then received a response from “Lyda from Travel Villas”, along with a link, confirming the property was available for the requested dates – August 7 to August 15 2023 – at a discounted rental cost of 600 Euros (£511) per night.

The message, seen by PA Real Life, continued: “Please send us your email so we can send you the PDF Brochure of the villa with all the details regarding the photos, services, location and terms of the booking.”

Emma was firstly directed to WhatsApp after finding the property on AirBnb (Katie N Brand Photography/PA Real Life)

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After some back and forth, Emma was then advised that she was “pre-approved to book” and her reservation “will be confirmed instantly once a payment is made”.

The message on WhatsApp continued: “Free cancellation policy within 24 hours prior (to) check in. Full refund back.”

A link then took her to what appeared to be a Booking.com “portal”, and she was offered a 10% discount due to the Genius loyalty programme she was already signed up to, which “reassured” her the booking for the villa was legitimate.

Emma’s mother, Julia, then made the £4,120 payment on July 30, and Emma paid for the flights with Ryanair, which cost £1,722.98 in total for the seven guests.

She subsequently received a booking confirmation email from “Puerto Soller Villa”, along with a message on WhatsApp, which said: “Now everything is in order with the payment.”

The message continued: “The check (in) is flexible 10am to 19pm. After 19pm, you can do it by yourself with a key pass code. If you have any special requests, such (as) renting a car, boat, catering, we can help you without any problem.

“Thank you and we look forward to hosting you.”

Emma sent follow-up messages about their flights on WhatsApp and asked for more information about the check-in process – but after receiving no responses over the following days from her texts and calls, she started to panic.

With a taxi due to take her family to the airport at about 11am on August 7, she set an early alarm and said she called Barclays for advice, as she had booked her flights with her Barclaycard and she had travel insurance with them.

Emma was potentially going to take the chance and board the flights, as she thought they could try to book a hotel upon arrival if they could not access the villa, but then she received a distressing phone call from her mother.

They realised that fraudsters had copied information and pictures from Oliver’s Travels onto a fake website called “Travel Villas”, pretending they were letting agents, and it was all a scam.

“I felt stupid, I felt really stressed about trying to get the money back, I felt devastated for my children and my husband,” Emma said.

“You save up, you plan, and the thing is, I work really hard. I’m a small business owner and I do so much for others, I give back to everyone else, and in my world the majority of people are amazing people.

“It just disappoints you that there are people like that in the world.”

Emma said she was advised by Barclays that she could put in an insurance claim for the un-used flights, as she would be covered when booking using her Barclaycard, and this gave her some “reassurance”.

She said Barclays also told her she could not transfer the flights at the time – but when following up later on, she said she was told that the bank was unable to consider her claim.

The reason given was that her “circumstances are not included under any of the specified incidents for which (her) policy would provide cover”.

Emma subsequently complained due to the “poor advice” she was given and, in an email seen by PA Real Life, Barclays has since apologised that she was “misinformed”, offering £100 for “the distress and inconvenience that this has caused”.

Although Emma and her mother did eventually manage to get the £4,120 back for the villa scam, she is still more than £1,700 out of pocket for the flights.

Now, despite initially feeling stupid, angry, and disappointed in herself for making the “wrong decision”, Emma wants to share her story to help prevent others from being scammed.

She said: “We did do some due diligence, but are there some learnings out of it? Absolutely.

“If they ask you to go off the site and into WhatsApp, don’t do it, if they ask you to pay on a different site, don’t do it.

“I have worked on my own mental health, and I’ve got all these tools in my kit bag because of the work that I do, but what really worries me is other people … the impact it can have on you, it can be devastating.”

Barclays has been contacted by PA Real Life for comment, but had not responded at the time of publication.

An Airbnb spokesperson said: “This listing was removed from the platform as soon as it came to our attention last July, and we are in touch with the guest to offer our support.

“We encourage and remind users to stay on Airbnb to communicate, book and pay to help ensure they’re protected by our policies, processes and 24/7 support, including AirCover.”

Fraudsters are becoming increasingly inventive when it comes to creating scams, and research from cyber safety expert Norton has found that the average Brit receives 10 email, text or phone scams a week.

The new app developed by Norton, Norton Genie, is an AI-powered tool that allows people to copy and paste, or upload, screenshots of a text message, social media post, email or website and check for scam potential.

To find out more, visit: uk.norton.com/products/genie-scam-detector.

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