TWO bridesmaids have been left £2,300 out of pocket after they were conned into paying a fraudster posing as a luxury villa owner.
Talia Tester, 30 and Rachel Smith, 29, are now “dreading” their best mate’s hen do after falling victim to an online fraudster – and being forced to foot the bill for 20 of the bride’s friends and family.
The pair were put in charge of organising a four day trip to Marbella, Spain, to celebrate 29-year-old Anna Harris’ wedding to Oli Draper, 31, in September this year.
The Brighton lasses, who’ve known Anna since school, picked out what they thought was an idyllic luxury villa on the HomeAway booking site.
But they were cruelly hoaxed into sending a 50 per cent cash deposit to a fraudster who they think intercepted their messages on the booking site.
“It was supposed to be her dream hen do,” said Talia. “It has been completely overshadowed by this and we are dreading it now.
“It was supposed to be the best weekend ever, we have spoken about it since our teens.
“We have had to pay out so much. The emotional stress has had a huge impact on my life. It ruined my Christmas.
“I feel guilty because we were responsible for looking after the money. We feel like we have let Anna down.
“It was supposed to be an amazing experience, but every time someone mentions the hen party I feel sick.”
Talia and Rachel planned for the group to stay at the Villa Siempre Domingo – a huge private villa with a swimming pool and secluded garden.
They were originally speaking with the villa’s real owner, Romain Dezutter, who confirmed the availability for their dates.
But Talia claims they were sent a message via the site’s official messaging service – by a fraudster posing as the owner – asking them to email him instead.
The fraudster asked for a direct bank transfer to secure the property, which they sent.
Talia said: “I was told to send an email to continue the booking and we were directed away from the site.
“It’s obviously a loophole. HomeAway have told us that because the payment wasn’t made on the site, they aren’t responsible.
“It all looked legitimate. The owner was genuine when we were talking initially. He was responding and it all seemed fine.”
But Talia twigged that something was wrong when the villa’s real owner, Romain, denied asking for the cash.
She added: “I rang Romain to ask if he received the payment but he said the last time we spoke was when we made the initial enquiry.
“He said ‘this isn’t me’ when I sent him screenshots of the emails.”
Talia immediately rang HomeAway and staff acknowledged it as a “scam incident” – but told Talia the company isn’t liable as the transaction was made off-site.
The traumatised pair haven’t been able to recover their cash and refused to carry on organising the hen do because they’re so scared of being scammed again.
Anna’s friends have now booked a different villa through Airbnb.
Talia said: “We have had to foot the whole bill. There is not enough protection for customers. We have been offered no help.
“Organising the whole thing was a big responsibility and we wanted it to be the best.
“We said we didn’t want to organise it anymore. I will never be using the site ever again.
“You never think something like this will ever happen to you but it can happen to anyone.”
A HomeAway spokesman said: “Our customer’s safety and security is a key priority and we continuously advise our travellers how to book and rent their holiday homes safely.
“In the case of Mrs Tester our Basic Rental Guarantee isn’t effective, as the booking as well as the payment were not made through our platform.
“We also work with the respective owner directly.
“This is a very rare case of phishing, which is an online-identity-theft in which a criminal interferes with another person’s online presence.
“This is a rare occurrence on the HomeAway platform and every year, millions of travellers book and spend unforgettable holidays with us.
“We of course understand that every single incident is very disappointing for the individual traveller.
“Unfortunately, increasingly sophisticated criminals are targeting online marketplaces across the board and it is important for consumers to be aware of the risks when they use any online platform, in order to minimise the chances of fraud.
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“It is very important to us to continually advise travellers on our sites of this and is why we are constantly working to ensure the systems and processes we have in place are effective.”
HomeAway advise customers to always pay with a credit card or through eCheck on their website, as well as only communicating through their site.
Customers should also sign a rental agreement, with details of their cancellation rights, before handing over any money.