Chris Beale booked a stay with Sun Holidays after responding to an advert on a free classifieds website. Picture: Liza van Deventer

Cape Town - If my inbox is anything to go by, booking and paying for holiday accommodation online is an increasingly risky business. There are several ways to get “caught”.

Fraudsters advertise holiday units at too-good-to-be-true rates, having got hold of the address and photos of the place – sourced on the internet. Their victims pay the money into a bank account, make the trip to the accommodation and then discover they’ve enriched a fraudster.

In a case I investigated recently, a woman created various websites in the name of holiday venues belonging to major groups, so that when consumers Googled a venue by name, her website popped up, looking authentic.

She’d masquerade as a genuine booking agent, get people to pay either in part or in full for their bookings, and then not pay the money over to the venues. The bookings were not honoured.

In most cases, the families only discovered this when they arrived at the venue, usually after a long drive. And so to Chris Beale’s experience.

He booked a stay with Sun Holidays after responding to an advert on a free classifieds website.

“Their initial response was good,” he said. “They offered me different options; I did a search on the net and found no adverse comments, and the cc number was verified, although the registered name of the business is Golf Resort Escapes, trading as Sun Holidays. Also. the price was mid-range for what was being offered.”

Beale initially asked in late September about Sun City accommodation for the long weekend of March 21. He received a quick response, and an invoice was issued in early October in the name of Sun Holidays, for R5 800 for a single eight-sleeper unit in the original Sun City timeshare complex.

Beale paid the amount, but after twice asking for booking confirmation, he received a response from Caroline Sanderson on March 13, informing him his booking was no longer valid.

“The units were severely under-costed by (an employee) and, unfortunately, on top of that, he stole funds directly from the business… Sun Holidays has sought legal advice on your matter and our attorneys will be in touch with you very shortly.”

“That left me in a very compromised situation,” Beale said. “We booked early to secure the accommodation. The weekend is a present for my son for his birthday and the excitement has been building since the bookings were confirmed last September.”

The “under-costed” line caught my attention. A search of my inbox revealed why. In April 2012, I took up a case with Sanderson after Timothy Conan raised a complaint about Sun Holidays with me. He’d made a booking after being quoted a rate, which was later increased.

When I took up the case and pointed out that the company was obliged to honour that price, Sanderson relented. At the time, she justified the unilateral price change by saying an ex-employee had “under-costed many units”.

Asked about Beale’s case, Sanderson said: “Although it may seem that this has a familiar ring to it, we have had a run of bad luck with employees. We… do not absolve ourselves from this responsibility.”

Beale managed to book Sun City accommodation for his son’s special weekend, which cost him R8 500 as it was a last-minute booking. “I have sent Caroline an e-mail asking for their attorney’s details, but still get absolutely no response,” he said. The attorney has told Consumer Watch her client is working on a plan to refund Beale his R5 800.

l When booking accommodation via a rental agent, use your online sleuting skills to check who owns the accommodation and then call the number. Source the number from somewhere other than the ad you used. Find out if the offer is real and the agent is mandated to represent the company – before you make any payments. - Cape Times