Pretoria - The common thread running through most of my work in the past week or two has been online transacting.
My word, it’s easy to lose out financially when you let your fingers do the talking.
It can be your own fault – if you get a single digit of an electronic funds transfer beneficiary account number wrong, your money is likely to end up in the account of a stranger, in spite of the fact that the beneficiary name and branch details don’t match.
What most consumers don’t realise is that only the bank account number counts to the computer system.
Your bank then has to get the unintended recipient to agree to the payment being reversed. And, as a nurse who had mistakenly given a stranger almost R5 000 discovered, some people – quite a large percentage, sadly – have an ethical lapse in the face of an unexpected windfall, and decide they’re entitled to hang on to it.
It was the nurse’s saved-up overtime pay, by the way, money she had intended to deposit in her credit card account.
So check those beneficiary account numbers repeatedly, before hitting “pay”.
And then, of course, there are plenty of online traps for the unwary.
Quite a few people put the name of one of several popular KZN resorts owned by the Gooderson Leisure group into a Google search, clicked on a result with their chosen resort’s name in the website address, and then e-mailed the address at the bottom of the page to make a booking.
They assumed the sites were genuine Gooderson Leisure sites, but were, in fact, mirror sites.
Anne Sharpe of Hillcrest typed Drakensberg Gardens Resort into Google and clicked on this result: www.drakensberggardensresort.co.za
“I specifically didn’t want to go through an agent for our booking of self-catering units for Christmas,” she said.
She e-mailed the address on the site – firstname.lastname@example.org – made a booking with “reservations agent” Bianca Enslin and paid a deposit of R3 200. That was on July 8.
Later when Sharpe called the resort directly to confirm the booking, she was given the number of Gooderson Leisure, the company which owns Drakensberg Gardens Resort and nine others, mostly in KZN.
The company said it was no longer accepting bookings from Last Minute Travels’ Bianca Enslin, and that Enslin had not made a booking for Sharpe.
And by then the self-catering units were fully booked for Christmas.
Naturally, Sharpe tried to get hold of Enslin, but couldn’t reach her by phone.
Gooderson Leisure sales and marketing manager Gail Westphal said Enslin had for about 18 months maintained the official Gooderson Leisure website. That arrangement was terminated by the company, but the chairman and chief executive verbally agreed she could do bookings for their resorts in return for 10 percent commission, an arrangement the company had with other online agencies.
The arrangement worked as it was supposed to for a while, but the company recently discovered that while Enslin had taken several bookings, in some cases she had not paid deposits she had received from guests over to the company. And in several cases, including Sharpe’s, there had been no payment and no bookings either.
“Because she had been sending us good business, the resorts have been accepting the guests, despite not having been paid the deposits by Last Minute Travels,” Westphal said.
After Consumer Watch got involved, Enslin refunded Sharpe’s R3 500 – I had mistakenly inflated Sharpe’s deposit amount by R300.
Enslin’s attorney responded to my query by saying that Enslin had “made an error” when booking accommodation for Sharpe, and “on realisation of her error, she tried to resolve the problem and immediately contacted her and requested her banking details”.
The attorney sent me a copy of an e-mail, which appeared to have been sent by Enslin to Sharpe on July 17, the day Sharpe e-mailed her to say she had discovered Gooderson did not have a record of her booking.
Signing herself Bianca E Vermaak, she apologised for her office’s “huge mistake” with her booking, and asked for her bank details so she could refund her.
But Sharpe was adamant that she never received that e-mail, and M-Web, which hosts her e-mail account, later confirmed that no such e-mail had reached its servers.
The attorney said the Drakensberg Gardens Resort site which her client had set up, and others in the name of other Gooderson Leisure resorts, were in accordance with her agreement with the company – something Gooderson Leisure denies – and that the problems arose only because “Gooderson Leisure failed to supply correct invoices timeously to her”.
Responding, Gooderson Leisure chief executive Gavin Castleman said Enslin did not have an account with Gooderson Leisure, and had worked on a cash-on-delivery basis.
“An amount has built up of arrivals and non-payments for which we have still not received any payment, as per agreement in meetings,” he said.
“We continue to uncover bookings that potential clients made with Last Minute Travels, 50 percent deposits paid to them and no confirmation or booking made with Gooderson Leisure,” Castleman said.
Later it had emerged that Enslin had requested full payment upfront from several of those who had made bookings.
Asked if Gooderson Leisure would be refunding those who had paid Last Minute Travels but didn’t get bookings, Westphal said as the company did not receive the money, it was up to Enslin to make the refunds.
“But we are helping those people as much as we can by giving them discounts or upgrades on fresh bookings, at Gooderson’s expense.”
As it turns out, Sharpe was one of the lucky ones.
At the start of the Women’s Day long weekend, at least three families arrived at Gooderson Leisure resorts after long drives to discover no record of their bookings.
Johnno Johnston made a booking with Enslin for Gooderson Leisure’s Natal Spa resort in Paulpietersburg, believing he was dealing directly with the resort.
She asked him to pay not only a deposit, but the balance before arrival.
Like Sharpe, he had typed Natal Spa into Google and clicked on Enslin’s site which had that name as its domain.
He paid her the requested R2 780 for his family of four, but after a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Durban, they arrived to be told there was no booking.
“Not only that, there were no rooms left,” Johnston told Consumer Watch in an e-mail sent from the resort.
“I have tried to call Bianca and e-mail her, but have had no replies and her cellphone goes to voice mail.“
The resort accommodated the family in a room undergoing maintenance and charged them only for their meals – R1 400.
Enslin did respond to Johnston’s e-mails last week. On August 14 she sent him an e-mail promising to refund him as soon as her bank “released” her funds.
But when Johnston responded, his e-mail bounced back with an “illegal domain” message and he hasn’t heard from her since, or received his refund.
Enslin has failed to respond to Consumer Watch’s e-mails, as has her attorney. When I finally managed to speak to the attorney by phone on Friday, she said she had had “no further instructions” from Enslin and no longer represented her.
WHAT TO DO
It’s easy for someone to register a website in the name of a resort, or a name very similar. So when booking holiday accommodation online, first find the phone number of the resort, hotel, B&B or whatever, and ask if the person who is asking you to pay a deposit does legitimately have a right to act as an agent and ask for payments.
You should not be expected to pay the full accommodation costs upfront. That’s a red flag.
Holiday venues should regularly act as consumers would and Google their names or slight variations of them to see what sites pop up. They may just discover mirror sites they weren’t aware of and need to get them shut down.
Be extremely wary of booking holiday flats online, too. Many of those sites and adverts are created by fraudsters, pretending to be the owners or agents of flats to get deposits from unsuspecting people. - Pretoria News