Which? warns of six new holiday scams and rip-offs as travel opens up again

Fraudsters are setting up bogus companies to sell imaginary flights and offering fake refunds to extract bank details and steal money as international travel reopens, Which? has warned.

The pandemic has provided new opportunities for fraudsters to exploit victims. Covid-related scams spawned from rapidly-evolving travel rules; coupled with widespread desperation for holidays after months of lockdown, this has created the perfect conditions for cyber crime. Even Brexit legislation has been leapt on by some unscrupulous traders as a chance to rip people off.

One of the cruellest scams has made victims out of people awaiting refunds for cancelled holidays. Scammers are cold-calling travellers and impersonating airlines, travel agents and banks, claiming they need their bank details and personal information to process the refund. But instead of doing so, they use this information to steal money from the customer, leaving them doubly out of pocket.

Which? has learnt of instances of fraudsters taking detailed steps to appear to be the business they are imitating, such as spoofing legitimate phone numbers and finding out booking details and exactly how much someone is owed.

A renewed appetite for holidays early in 2022 has left some families and individuals feeling under increasing pressure to secure their perfect getaway. Rogue travel companies are selling fake flights and others are promoting some of the most popular stays with scam adverts on social media, offering apparent late or peak-season availability for holidays that appear to be sold out elsewhere, Which? research found. Customers are enticed to click through to a website where they book and pay for a holiday that doesn’t exist. Some unfortunate customers do not realise they have been defrauded until they turn up at the airport or at their accommodation and find they are unable to check in.

The National Health Service has also been imitated by criminals. The NHS App gives proof of vaccination which can be used to gain entry to some of the most popular holiday destinations. An email, containing a link to a website that looks like an official NHS platform, invites people to apply for a digital vaccine passport. The email is in fact a phishing scam to steal personal information.

As fraudsters move swiftly to exploit new opportunities, Which? is calling on online platforms, banks and telecoms companies to do more to ensure their systems aren’t being exploited to target victims.

Added essential travel paperwork which emerged from Covid and Brexit has also been used by unscrupulous companies to con people out of their money. Which? has seen firms charging travellers as much as $99 (£75) for passenger locator forms, which can be obtained from the government for free. When Which? carried out searches in November 2021, 19 non-governmental results were returned on the first two pages of Google alone – all charging a fee. Some appeared as an ad or ranked higher than the gov.uk site.

Similarly, some companies are charging fees for the GHIC (Global Health Insurance Card), which is free and was introduced to replace the EHIC after Brexit. Which? has also found opportunists selling international driving permits for Spain for $49 (£36.25) – despite the permits costing just £5.50 from the Post Office.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, said:

“Criminals are exploiting the pandemic and the demand for holidays in a wide range of ways, laying new traps to trick unsuspecting travellers out of their money.

“Our advice for consumers is be wary of unsolicited calls and messages, and be cautious about holiday deals from unfamiliar firms.

“If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, you should report this to Action Fraud and your bank. Anyone who is struggling to get their money back from their bank should contact the Financial Ombudsman Service to review their case.”


Case study:

Banking professional Hwee Pee received an email, purporting to be from the NHS, which claimed that she could apply for a free Covid digital passport. Hwee clicked on a link within the email, which took her to an online form. Hwee believed that the form was genuine, as it had the look and feel of the real NHS website.

Hwee was prompted to input her personal information. She also provided her credit card details in order to pay the ‘£1.99 postage fee’. Shortly after, Hwee received a QR code from the fraudster ‘for use at border controls’. Realising that something was amiss, Hwee decided to report the incident to her credit card company, and ended up cancelling her card. She also reported the scam to Action Fraud.

She told Which?: “Within an hour, when I revisited the fraudulent website, it had been taken down. Even though I’ve protected my card, I can’t do anything about the leak of my personal details to the fraudster.”

Notes to editors: 

Which? Scam Alerts Service

The latest travel scams and rip-offs – and how to avoid getting caught out

  1. Fake refunds for cancelled holidays

Tips to stay safe:

  •  A legitimate company will never contact you out of the blue and ask for your personal information. If in doubt, hang up and verify the company’s phone number. That way you can get in touch yourself and check the request is genuine.

  1. Rogue travel companies selling imaginary flights

Tips to stay safe:

  • Make sure to check the company website for any spelling mistakes or irregularities. A PO Box, rather than a full postal address, or a mobile number instead of a landline, can also be red flags.

  • Be cautious if you’re asked to make a bank transfer, which is virtually untraceable. Instead, pay by credit card where possible so your money is protected under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

  • Make sure the company is a member of a trade association such as Abta or Atol by checking the relevant website.

  1. Scam social media adverts

 Tips to stay safe:

  • Avoid clicking links that you are sent via a private social media message. Instead, make your booking on the official site by typing the URL in directly. If you’re still unsure, get in contact with the owners of the property being advertised.

  • It is also a good idea to search the internet for negative reviews or forum posts by previous customers.

  1. Fake vaccine passports

Tips to stay safe:

Never click on links in unsolicited emails. Recipients should check the ‘from’ address, ‘contact us’ information and copyright dates. Signs of a scam email include impersonal greetings, different branding, unsolicited requests for personal or bank details, poor spelling and grammar. Fraudulent emails may also try too hard to sound official, or convey a sense of urgency to make the recipient feel rushed. If you’re still unsure whether a scammer is behind the email you received, get in touch with the brand or company featured in the email directly. More information is available here: How to spot an email scam

  1. Charging for free travel forms

Tips to stay safe:

  • Always use gov.uk for passenger locator forms to enter the UK.

  • For other countries, search for your destination at www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. The ‘entry requirements’ section will link to the official form.

Read more: Rip off websites are charging for free travel forms

Rights of reply:

A spokesperson for Google said:

“We have strict policies that govern the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms.

“We only allow Governments or their delegated providers to advertise for official documents or services.

“When ads breach our policies we take action to remove them.

“Last year, our team blocked or removed over 3.1 billion ads for violating our policies, of which over 99 million ads in our restricted business verticals such as government documents and official services.”

  1. Brexit paperwork rip-offs

Tips to stay safe:

  • Be wary of paid-for search-engine results – often the official site is the first or second non-paid link below.

  • Also look for ‘https://’ at the beginning of the web address when entering personal details. It shows that encryption is in place for your protection.

  • There is no advantage to applying for a GHIC or EHIC through a third party firm; a company cannot fast track your application.

  • UK citizens can apply for the GHIC on the NHS website. Non-UK citizens will need to fill out a form. UK students going to study in the EU can also get a Ghic by filling out a form.


About Which? 

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation, we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at endorsementscheme@which.co.uk

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