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.
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.
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.
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.”
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: