Holiday scams to avoid this summer
When you're booking holidays and making travel arrangements, scams, fraud and sneaky surcharges abound. Here are some of the tricks and pitfalls we could all do with avoiding.
A common trick is to create a bogus website or email address, which on the surface looks like the real deal. People who unwittingly come across these phoney sites or respond to these emails are lured into providing credit card details in the mistaken belief they are paying for a hotel, villa, an excursion or other service. The crooks pocket the money and may even attempt to max out the victim's bank account.
It is always best to visit reputable or official websites independently, rather than respond to unsolicited emails or rely on search engine results, as crooks can very easily set up dummy addresses. Check the credentials of a site before you make a booking and look to see whether they belong to a renowned travel association or scheme, such as Abta or Atol.
Dodgy health insurance card websites
If you visit one of the 30 countries in the European Economic Area or Switzerland, it is sensible to take a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you. This entitles you to state healthcare within the country you are visiting for free or at a reduced cost.
You can get an EHIC for free from the NHS or Post Office but there are numerous other operators that advertise on the internet and charge upwards of £20. In return for payment, they claim to offer corroboration, verification or checking services.
However, since these operators can't actually issue an EHIC or spot errors - such as the wrong National Insurance number - you are literally paying for something you can easily get for nothing.
Unfortunately, many of these sites look official, featuring images of the EHIC or the European Union (EU) flag. But as they are not affiliated with the NHS or the EU, it's highly unlikely they have permission to use these logos. In all cases, you'd be better off visiting nhs.uk for a free EHIC application.
Spurious visa services
A similar con covers the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) scheme, which is the US government's visa waiver programme. Several websites charge a small fortune to forward applications to the official government website (esta.cbp.dhs.gov), even though this is something customers could easily do themselves.
For example, Americantravelvisas.net charges around £40 to "check applications for errors/omissions which could cause delays or worse refusal of your entry". The poor grammar used in this description alone should make customers wary of the site's claims.
Another website, estavisas.co.uk, charges £79 for unnecessary services. Travellers would be better off paying the US government fee of $14 (£8.50) when they apply via the official website.
Similar ruses are run by websites offering passport-checking services, again for charges of £40 upwards. These sites are best avoided in favour of the official website (gov.uk).
For everyone who has had a great time getting off the beaten track in a hire car, there's another who got ripped off. Here are two of the more common car-hire rip-offs.
Fuel – many car-hire firms rent their cars with a full tank of fuel but you'll be hard pushed getting a reimbursement if you return your car with any petrol or diesel in it.
Surcharges – collision damage waiver is an insurance policy that may be included in the car-hire agreement. Even if it is included it will come with high excesses, often of more than £600. Car-hire firms will offer extra insurance to cover the excess but don't be tempted as it will be expensive. You'd be better off arranging car-hire insurance before travelling. In any case, give your car a thorough inspection before driving off. It's not uncommon for customers to return the car to the lot and be charged for damage they didn't cause.
Here's one example we found on Trip Adviser: "When I returned the car, the woman at the desk inspected the car and identified a small dent in the door, a dent so small that even if I had noticed it I wouldn't have drawn attention to it – yet this person managed to walk straight up to the car and identify it. It's obvious to me that this dent was already there. I was charged €800 [£655]."
As customers have to hand over credit card details before driving off, car-hire firms are able to levy charges after you return the vehicle – in some cases after returning to the UK, which only makes it harder to resolve any dispute. So always thoroughly check the car and insurance details before you drive off.
It may sound counterintuitive but it's always best to make card payments in the local currency rather than in sterling when you're abroad. The reason is if you use your credit card to pay for dinner in a Parisian restaurant, your card provider will set the exchange rate using the Dynamic Currency Conversion rate.
If you are asked whether you'd like to pay in sterling, refuse as the retailer or restaurant's bank will set the exchange rate, which won't be as good as your own card issuer's rate. Also, the restaurant can add a little to the bill before presenting a new payment total in sterling.
It's tempting to act on the spur of the moment when you're in holiday mode. But not all great deals live up to expectations. Visitors to popular holiday destinations, such as Benidorm or the Algarve, frequently return with stories of how they were approached about free tours, apparently organised to promote the local area. Many sign up, only to find that their day out is not a free, fun trip but what is commonly called a 'blanket tour scam'.
Once the excursion starts, staff take full advantage of their captive audience to relentlessly flog the usual holiday tat, but at an exorbitant rate.
Another version of this scam sees tourists stopped as they approach a well-known site, only to be told it's closed but your new friend knows an even better one and can ferry you there in his taxi. If you jump, in, you are taken to a number of shops - all selling items you don't want but feel pressured into buying through fear of being stranded.
Timeshares have been popular since the 1980s when Brits started to sign up for a guaranteed week or more at a specific apartment for a number of years. Over time, the company who originally sold the timeshare raises the maintenance and administration change, which customers continue to pay - even if they no longer visit the apartment.
To make matters worse, a new scam sees other companies offer to buy the timeshare from beleaguered customers. They insist that an up-front fee – often of more than £1,000 to cover the arrangements is made first. Victims pay this and never hear from their ‘buyer' again.
Holiday clubs claim to offer you access to high-quality trips abroad for attractive prices. To become a member you have to pay a joining fee, which is invariably large. The teams behind many of these clubs seek to lure people into joining by cold-calling them and claiming the potential victim that they've won a prize or handing people a scratch card, which is also always a winner.
To collect the prize you'd have to attend a slick and convincing presentation, which often go on for several hours. You may be tempted to sign on the dotted line just to escape but don't succumb. If you are genuinely tempted, ask for more information and a copy of any contract that you can go through at your leisure. And as for your prize, the chances are it will be fairly worthless or only handed over if you sign up to the supposed deal.
A scheme originally established in 1944 to provide protection against sickness and unemployment as well as helping fund the National Health Service (NHS) and state benefits. NI contributions are compulsory and based on a person’s earnings above a certain threshold. There are several classes of NI, but which one an individual pays depends on whether they are employed, self-employed, unemployed or an employer. Payment of Class 1 contributions by employees gives them entitlement to the basic state pension, the additional state pension, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, maternity allowance and bereavement benefits. From April 2016, to qualify for the full state pension, individuals will need 35 years’ of NI contributions.
This is more usually a feature of car insurance but it can also crop up in contents, mobile phone and pet insurance policies. An excess is the amount of money you have to pay before the insurance company starts paying out. The excess makes up the first part of a claim, so if your excess is £100 and your claim is for £500, you would pay the first £100 and the insurer the remaining £400. Many online insures let you set your own excess, but the lower the excess, the more expensive the premium will be.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.