The festive season typically sees a boom in travel-related sales volumes as many South Africans make their way to local or international tourism destinations. The unfortunate reality, however, is that unsuspecting travellers caught make easy pickings for scammers and fraudsters. South Africans are therefore encouraged to keep their wits about them when searching for travel packages and deals.
Several cases of travel fraud have stood out as prime examples of how vulnerable South Africans can be caught in criminal activity. In a recent case, a woman now referred to as the ‘holiday swindler’, was alleged to have defrauded as many as 2500 would-be travellers.
Commenting on this is Christo Snyman, CEO of forensic investigative services company CS Forensics, who says that travel fraud can be notoriously insidious. Despite the elaborate nature of these scams and the well-crafted façades used to cover them up, the age-old saying is right, ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’
“The holiday swindler’s company touted luxury getaways, complete with first-class air tickets and five-star accommodation, to destinations such as the Maldives and Dubai. In many of the cases, former clients reported having paid for their trips and never having received booking confirmations. Some clients are owed as much as R68 000 for holidays that simply did not materialize,” says Snyman.
In a similar case which stirred interest recently, travellers purchased direct flights to the Seychelles and the Maldives, which were later withdrawn by the airlines, however, the clients were never refunded. The travel bookings agency responsible for these bookings has subsequently shut its doors, leaving a long list of clients out of pocket for up to R230 000.
Snyman adds that CS Forensics recently investigated a case in which a travel agency was defrauded of an amount over R3 million. The agency in question became liable for the accumulative amount after two independent agents used the agency as an intermediary to book flights for their clients.
Shortly after these flights had been booked, the agency received a flurry of “chargebacks” from the relevant airlines, with the agency becoming liable for the cost of the air tickets. Upon further investigation, these chargebacks were traced back to a credit card used by the independent agents in question.
In another unrelated case the complainant, who registered a criminal complaint against one of the same agents, is a High School Principal who requested assistance with a group booking for 22 learners to travel to the USA. The agent received two upfront payments from the school, however, the agent failed to make the necessary bookings. The agent was arrested and appeared in one of the Regional Courts in Cape Town on charges of theft and fraud, totalling R 683,880.00. The agent was released on R 20,000.00 bail.
The agency has since been contacted by numerous airlines and passengers who purchased air tickets, but subsequently discovered that their tickets had been voided without their permission. Several passengers also reported that they had been sold the tickets at discounts of up to 50%.
Top tips on how to guard against travel fraud
“In this as well as other examples lie important lessons for prospective travellers, the first of which regards the importance of conducting thorough research on a company before making use of their services as a travel agent. Reviews and customer testimonials on independent sites can go a long way in authenticating travel service providers,” says Snyman.
Another useful tip is for travellers to check that the agent is a member of credible bodies such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Association of South African Travel Agents (ASATA), who represent over 90% of the South African travel industry. The institution ensures that travellers who book with member agencies are assured of professional service, ethical conduct and trustworthy processes and policies.
As Snyman concludes: “People work hard to deserve a good holiday, so having a scammer steal this from you can be crushing, needless to say, the effect it will have on your finances. Awareness is key in preventing scammers from achieving their malicious aims. The more the industry stakeholders can raise awareness of these travel scams, the more we can equip customers and businesses across the entire value chain with the information they need to make good decisions.”