Could My Perfect Irish Holiday Rental Be a Scam?

My heart sunk when I received an email in February from a reader named Dana…

She found the perfect Dublin vacation rental property on VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner), which is part of HomeAway — both are well-known, trusted vacation rental websites.

When she inquired, the property manager wrote back with bad news. The townhouse of her dreams was no longer available. However, she was directed to another property listed on a different website called www.360travelonline.com (website no longer available).

Things Looked Legitimate

Everything seemed to be in order… the company had a Dublin address, provided an Irish phone number, presented a nice-looking website, held office hours, and Mr. Marcus Westerlind promptly replied to emails. It was enough for her to overlook the risk of 360travelonline’s policy of only accepting bank transfers for payment… “maybe that’s how they did things in Ireland.”

She followed Mr Westerlind’s instructions and wired payment to the company. Then… nothing… no one replied to her emails… the phone number led to voice mail… she had no idea if her family would have a place to stay when they reached Dublin.

Her brother went “undercover” and inquired about the same rental on the same dates for which she paid. A swift reply from Mr. Westerlind stated the property was available. Dana knew their holiday was in trouble.

Going Dark

Dana wrote me with her dilemma, “I appreciate any advice or insight you can give, and I learned a tough lesson on staying safe with reservations — no more wire transfers!!!”

In all my years traveling Ireland, I had dealt with accommodations that promised more than they delivered or made it difficult to cancel or change a reservation, but never a flat out scam.

I put on my “investigative reporter/travel advocate” hat and reached out to 360travelonline. At the very least, I expected the usual “I’m sorry, we only discuss matters with the customer” reply. Mr. Westerlind did not write back, and I suspect Mr. Westerlind does not even exist.

It looked as though Dana’s cash was gone, she had no recourse, she felt utterly foolish, and she still needed a place to stay in Dublin.

Other Victims

Several weeks later, the Irish Times reported the story of a French group who were stung by Mr. Westerlind and 360travelonline. They wired money to an Italian bank account to secure the accommodation and arrived in Dublin for St Patrick’s Day celebrations to find they had no place to stay.

The entire business was a scam! After the Irish Times article, the 360travelonline website disappeared and then reappeared under a new name, United-Travel.

Dana’s Lesson

At this point, Dana has not found a way to track down the people who stole her money. She has reached out to authorities in Ireland, but there’s no way of telling what will happen next.

Fortunately, she hasn’t let this experience dampen her family’s plans. She has booked accommodations with a reputable company, and she says, “I’m still looking forward to the trip and cannot wait to see the beauty of Ireland.”

scam

Protecting Yourself

While stories like this have been around long before the birth of the internet, set-ups this blatant are rare in Ireland… and it should be noted that based on the Irish Times article, it’s likely the scammers are neither Irish nor based in Ireland.

How do you avoid being scammed when booking your accommodation?

  • Use your credit card – because Dana initiated a bank transfer, she has no way to get her money back once the transaction took place. In this day and age, most accommodations accept credit cards. By using a card, you can dispute claims and have a chance of receiving a full refund from your bank. Note that some B&Bs still operate as cash-only; if they require payment before reserving your spot, make sure they are legit or find another place to stay.
  • Stick to a trusted booking site – Dana started in the right place when she found a property on VRBO, but scammers used the site to recruit her for their fake site. Truth is, even lawful businesses have been known to encourage customers to jump to another site so the property owner can avoid paying fees and commissions. However, if you follow their instructions, you put yourself at risk for a scam; and you are probably not eligible to post a review (good or bad) about the property on the website you found them… most companies that provide excellent service prefer to have you leave a great review than try to save themselves a little money in fees.
  • Stay clear of places that are too good to be true – When a property lists far under market value, there’s a reason; it might not always be a scam, but you don’t want to find its “warts” once you get there.
  • Trust word of mouth – I always feel better when I choose a place to stay based on a referral. When my closest friends don’t have suggestions, I look to my IrelandYes travel forum friends; a quick peek at the archives will display the generosity of the regulars on the forum. Best of all the forum is well-moderated; so if there’s a newcomer who behaves suspiciously, their comments will be challenged or removed.
  • Visit review websites – while both the most disparaging critiques and overly glowing reviews are often flawed online, looking at a property’s reputation on verified websites validates their existence and lets you know what kind of business they operate.
  • Plan ahead and don’t rush – scammers prey on easy targets, and if you’re getting desperate you’ll be more likely to make a bad decision. Scammers often add pressure by suggesting there are other people looking at the property or that there are no other properties available in the area.

Here are a few place to look for accommodations:

Websites with “approved” properties:

Booking sites that are generally trusted and offer customer reviews:

Peer-to-peer booking sites that are generally trusted and offer customer reviews:

Author: Corey

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11 Comments

  1. Corey thank guys for the warning!!

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  2. If they are actually United-travel, why can’t they be traced that way?

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    • They simply picked up a new domain name and changed their logo… since anyone can put up a website, there’s no verification that a business is legit. When the hosting company learns of a fraudulent site, they usually suspend the account.

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  3. Corey,

    Great and important info for everyone traveling to Ireland. Since I frequently do self-catering rentals in Ireland I notice that a lot of legit websites want bank transfers too. I think it is because of fees involved with credit cards, etc. In over 40 years of travel to Ireland I’ve been lucky I have not been scammed. So I would say this is rare but probably on the increase now with the Internet where anyone from any country can claim anything.

    I have booked self-catering in the past with PayPal, which offers a layer of protection to the buyer.

    One thing I always do when using booking websites is search using the name of the establishment or company. Often you will find legitimate websites in the name of the self-catering place. For instance one of my favorites Doire Farm Cottages is on many booking sites. But by doing a search with their name you will reach their personal website: http://www.kenmareholidaycottages.com/ Then you can make a decision whether to reserve through the booking site or directly with the owners.

    Also doing a Google search with the name of the company plus “reviews” or “scam” might turn up something. It is obviously important to take your time and research, not making snap decisions. Renters might also contact Tourism Ireland and DiscoverNorthernIreland.com to inquire about the legitimacy of the property.

    Many B&Bs have apartments or self-catering units associated with them and I would be more comfortable booking with places like that. I have a few rentals recommended on my website and a lot more in my book that are excellent and legit: http://www.irelandyes.com/irelandselfcatering.html You already mentioned my Ireland Travel Forum in the article but anyone is welcome to post there for feedback: http://ireland.activeboard.com/

    I absolutely hate the thought of anyone being scammed in Ireland. It is such a genuine, friendly place and I wouldn’t be surprised if the scammers in this instance are from another country entirely.

    Michele

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    • as always, good and thoughtful ideas, Michele. I have not been scammed in many years of travel to Ireland either — but then I often return to the same lodgings and ask the people at those places for recommendations when I am traveling to a place I have not been. your site in a great resource too.

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    • Excellent advice Michele.

      I was so sickened by this situation as well… I’ve been lucky over the years.

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  4. Corey,
    I had seen about this in the Irish Times — good on you for sharing the information to those who may not read there, and for offering reassuring tips and sources for seeking honest booking situations — which most in Ireland are.

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    • It’s frustrating that anyone has to deal with this. Dana and her family want this story shared so no one else gets into trouble.

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  5. There is a B&B network you can go to. You can actually buy vouchers and they are good throughout all Ireland, with all the participating B&Bs. If you are traveling around Ireland, you can stop at one for a night, and then they will ask where you are heading and call another B&B in the area you are heading to and set you up for the next night! It’s a great way to travel and actually have people looking out for you!
    We travel over every year, and always stay with our friend (who we met by staying at his B&B) Todd O’Loughlin at White Lodge in Trim (http://www.whitelodge.ie/bed-and-breakfast-trim/) when we stay in a Trim. Actually we are leaving in a few days to go ack over. We have stayed with Todd for the past 8 years.
    Most Irish B&B’s still do the honor system, in as much as reservations. You contact them and they pencil you in. If you can’t make it just call them and let them know. We have NEVER had to prepay or put a deposit down on a B&B and we go over every year. We travel all over Ireland. Contact your chosen B&B directly, never use a site that list many B&Bs.

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  6. Great tips and a valuable cautionary tale. Wire transfers should always be a red flag. I’ve heard of similar scams with car-buying or even asking for a cashier’s cheque for payment. The same thing with those cheques is that once the money’s gone, it’s gone.

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  7. It used to be the case that holiday cottage owners would ask for a deposit rather than whole thing, with the balance paid at some stage. I think the paypal idea is a good one if the whole amount is sought.

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