One of them, operating on the website OLX, is targeting dozens of upmarket guest houses in Durban and uM]Uhlanga.

Johannesburg - If you are about to go online to look for festive season holiday accommodation, beware – cyberspace is teeming with adverts posted by fraudsters who have simply “lifted” photos and write-ups of guest houses and B&Bs from legitimate sites and posted them on free advertising websites as bait for the unwary.

One of them, operating on the website OLX, is targeting dozens of upmarket guest houses in Durban and uMhlanga, using their material but brazenly undercutting their prices.

Janus Horn of Sica’s Guest House, which has three properties in the Glenwood area, said he feared many people would fall for the scam, pay their deposits to the fraudster and then arrive during the December holidays to discover that their booking doesn’t exist, and that the establishment is fully booked, leaving them out of pocket and scrambling for somewhere to stay.

It’s a scenario that plays out in coastal resorts every December.

“This same person has listed a host of other hotels and guest houses on OLX, mostly in the uMhlanga and Durban North areas, using the same cellphone number,” Horn told Consumer Watch. “When I called the number, the man who answered was not at all fazed by the fact that he was committing fraud.

“He told me to try and catch him if I can.”

Horn said he’d been in touch with “Guido” of OLX’s support team, who undertook to remove the fraudulent sites but said he was unable to block a particular cellphone number, with the result that new sites are popping up daily to replace the ones that have been removed.

“Guido” told Horn in an e-mail last week: “Unfortunately, our system at this stage doesn’t block phone numbers.”

I asked Guido to forward my e-mail to OLX’s marketing department for an official response and advice for consumers but there’s been no acknowledgment.

When I called the cellphone number on one of the scam OLX listings, the man who answered couldn’t have sounded more dodgy if he tried, which is a good thing.

When I pressed him for the address of a particular guest house, he said “on the beachfront in uMhlanga”. I pointed out that that was the wrong suburb, at which point he asked me to e-mail him. When I insisted on the physical address of the guest house in question, he put the phone down on me.

Last week, he was using the company name “Gate-Way Vacation Home”. The fraudsters usually speak English as a second language and their spelling and use of the language is odd, always a tell-tale sign that all is not what it appears to be.

For example, when one woman asked for an invoice, he emailed her one which read: “This is a reservation for Jessica xx for a 4 bedroom apartment at xxx is situated in a lovely, quiet part of Umhlanga Rocks Durban Kwazu-Natal…”

And then: “Make the below banking details useful for payment an get back to us with your proof of payment.”

Cilla Rose of Anchor’s Rest guest house in uMhlanga, said: “This person is a dreadful con artist – anything that you can do to expose him and put a stop to this would be greatly appreciated.”

“We haven’t had any unbooked arrivals yet,” said Elsabe Scholtz, who manages Bally High B&B in La Lucia, one of the many establishments “hijacked” by the fraudster, “but I suspect most of the bookings would have been done for the December holidays because of the excellent prices he’s offering.”

Claire Cobbledick, head of marketing for Gumtree South Africa, told Consumer Watch recently that the fake rental agent was the website’s number one online scam – that’s both for rented as well as holiday accommodation.

Online sites are fantastic as long as you know how to protect yourself. It boils down to doing your homework – never blindly trust that what you’re told is the truth. Do your own checks, and do them properly.

Make sure that the accommodation being advertised exists at the address the advertiser claims it to be, and make sure that he or she is mandated to advertise the property and accept the payment of deposits, before going ahead with that bank transfer.

If you get vague or evasive answers to simple questions, back off.

Con artists know that the prospect of an incredible bargain overwhelms logical, rational thought in some people – enough people to net them a healthy unearned income.

The Star