Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Beware the digital Dick Turpins intent on ruining your hard-earned holidays

There are two types of holidaymakers. There’s the super organised traveller who books a year in advance taking advantage of reduced rates and has everything planned to military-grade precision.

Then there’s the last minute booker, who spends an hour scouring websites online and books everything from flights to hotels to day trips on a whim to jet off within hours or days.

Heading off into the sun, or even just getting away for the weekend in Ireland, is something we all look forward to.

We work hard all year, we save our hard earned money and our holidays mean so very much to us, so the last thing we want to encounter is a scam designed to steal our money.

Scammers stole £6.7 million from unsuspecting holidaymakers last year, according to Action Fraud, the UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre.

According to them the most common types of holiday fraud people in the UK encountered were in relation to:

Accommodation – where scammers set up fake websites, hacked into legitimate websites and posted fake adverts on social media to attract and snag victims

Special trips – sports and religious trips were a popular target for scammers

Caravanning – scammers took bookings for caravans and mobile homes that didn’t actually exist or belong to them

Airline tickets – holidaymakers were scammed into booking flights online and didn’t receive tickets or were sent a fake ticket. Flights to Africa and Indian sub-continent were particularly at risk of scammers

And even our staycations are not safe. Here in Northern Ireland the PSNI last week issued a warning alongside the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF) for people to be vigilant when booking hotel rooms online.

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls has reported that there has been a worrying number of holiday scams reported to police this Summer. “People are being duped into booking hotel rooms and apartments that simply do not exist via ‘fake’ websites and social media posts,” he told me.

“Northern Ireland has experienced significant growth within the hospitality sector in the last 12 months. Several new hotels have recently opened and there are numerous established hotels already operating. Many people book rooms online and very often they avail of good discounts. That said, I would encourage all travellers to be vigilant if and when making an online booking.

As a rule of thumb, you should read reviews of the hotel or the actual site offering the deal, check the authenticity of the website and if needs be contact the hotel directly to check if they recognise the platform that is offering the room.”

Janice Gault, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Hotels Federation urged people to do basic checks before handing over their hard earned cash. “We have probably all received emails promoting last minute deals in various hotels,” she said. “However, I would urge people to think twice and do some basic checks and research before committing to a booking. From time to time hotels will run their own promotional offers via their designated social media platforms.

“Such offers tend to be last minute deals for a variety of hotel services including overnight accommodation and are more often than not genuine. However, it’s worth ringing the hotel and checking directly with them that the offer you are looking at is legitimate, as we are seeing an increase in the number of ‘fake offers’ on social media sites.”

She says that if in doubt, the public can contact the NIHF directly on 02890 776635 or by email at office@nihf.co.uk for clarity or before you book simply ring the hotel if you have any concerns around the vendor offering deals for hotels within the region.

None of us want to fall victim to digital Dick Turpin’s. It’s better to be safe than sorry and watch your cash like a hawk.

Do your research, go online and check the company’s credentials. You wouldn’t just hand over your cash to a stranger in the street. Adopt the same rules for online. Research company reviews. There’s a good chance if they are defrauding people, vexed people have taken to naming and shaming them online.

Check that the company is a member of a recognised trade body such as ABTA and where possible pay by credit card – not into a personal bank account.

Trust your instincts and go with your gut. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and – as the police tell us constantly – if you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam. Report it to save others being caught out.

* If you have experienced any suspicious activity please report it to Action Fraud via their website www.actionfraud.police.uk or by phoning 0300 123 2040, or call police on the non-emergency number 101.

Further advice and information can also be obtained by visiting www.nidirect.gov.uk/scamwiseni or the ScamwiseNI Facebook page @scamwiseni