Planning your next getaway soon?
A recent survey conducted by computer security software company, McAfee, revealed that nearly one in three Singaporeans had a history of being scammed or came close to being swindled when booking a holiday online.
Asia Law Network sits down with Viviene Sandhu, a litigation lawyer from Clifford Law, to understand more about online holiday scams.
Could you share with us some of the recent trends involving online holiday/vacation scams?
Based on a recent survey, over an alarming 30 per cent of Singaporeans book holidays via email promotions and pop-up advertisements. These are platforms are prone to bogus deals and impersonation to phish for victims’ personal data.With the rise of e-commerce platforms such as Shopee and Carousell, scams are increasingly widespread and becoming more sophisticated. More than 112 e-commerce scams involving hotel room bookings and attraction tickets have been reported to the police in the first four months of 2019. Recently, a man was arrested for running hotel room booking scams on Carousell amounting to more than S$40,000. Back in 2018, a woman was arrested for trying to sell discounted airline tickets to several people after collecting deposits ranging between $1,400 to $16,000.
What should you do if you fall for an online holiday scam?
First, make a police report. To strengthen your complaint, you must collect and produce sufficient evidence on the scam. If investigations are successful, the scammer is likely to be charged in court under one of the sections from Section 415 to Section 420 of the Penal Code, depending on the severity of the offence.
Next, you should contact the vendor/seller to inform them of the problem and ask if they can offer any solutions.
Following that, you should check the contract that you signed with the travel agency and verify the scope of services that they had promised to provide you. If they did not deliver what they promised in their contract and if the vendor is not insolvent, you may be able to sue them for breach of contract and/or misrepresentation to obtain a refund or any other remedies mentioned in the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.
A breach of contract usually provides monetary compensation to the buyer while the Misrepresentation Act only provides remedies for a buyer if he or she enters into a contract based on misrepresented terms given to him/her by the vendor. When misrepresentation is established, the buyer may choose to either rescind the contract or affirm the contract and the buyer may be entitled to damages for losses suffered due to the misrepresentation.
Alternatively, you wish to file a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals (SCT) if the sum of your claim is less than $10,000 and has not been over a year from the date on which the cause of action accrued. The SCT will only clear certain types of contractual disputes, and you can check the State Court’s website to see if your claim falls within the SCT’s jurisdiction. You can either file your claim online, by fax or in person at the SCT. Your dispute will then undergo mediation.
Another option would be to make a complaint with the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) and attending mediation through CASE to try to resolve the dispute out of court.
What should you do if you find out that your travel insurance did not cover certain aspects of your travel?
No matter what the travel insurance website represents, you should always read the insurance policy that you are purchasing in order to fully understand the scope of the policy’s coverage.
If the promised coverage is incorporated in the policy, raise the inconsistency with the insurance company and demand that they cover you for what they promised. If they do not, you are entitled to sue them for breach of contract and/or misrepresentation.
When booking your accommodation on platforms such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing, what recourse would you have if you encounter any issues with the hosts or the property?
Contact the Airbnb & Couchsurfing safety teams immediately through the app or website to inform them of the issues. Airbnb may provide refunds and/or pay for alternative accommodation. If it’s a safety and criminal issue, you may also wish to make a police report.
Lastly, could you provide our readers with some general safety tips when booking accommodation or a holiday package online?
Firstly, always be wary of deals that seem too good to be true and avoid making impulse buys. Holidays and accommodation sold at low prices often come with a catch. If it is not a scam per se, there are often unclear terms and conditions attached which could give rise to problems later on.
Secondly, if a seller is unable to verify his identity with an address or phone number, there is a chance that he is not a legitimate seller. It is also important to carefully read reviews, if any, before committing to a purchase especially with the prevalence of bogus online reviews on e-commerce platforms. These “sellers” may provide a Singapore bank account number or provide a fake copy of an identification card or driver’s licence to make their scams seem more believable, but these may not belong to the sellers.
Furthermore, it is advisable to opt for escrow payment, where funds are only released after the buyer confirms the receipt of the product or service. Buyers should always try to use reputable shopping platforms and safeguard their data by using the e-commerce platform payment options, such as the CarouPay option on Carousell, Paypal, or opt for credit card payment over the debit card option.
Where possible, always check the authenticity of a website before booking a holiday online. It is advisable to check with official sources such as the Singapore Tourism Board (www.stb.gov.sg) and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (www.natas.travel) if the seller is an accredited travel agent. It is also advisable for buyers to keep all communications, bookings and payments on trusted platforms to safeguard information from phishing and other types of fraud when making such bookings.
For accommodation bookings, take time to look through reviews on hosts on Airbnb or Couchsurfing. Try to keep communications within their in-built messaging functions so that Airbnb and Couchsurfing will have easy access to all records of your conversations. Never pay in advance or outside the service website as paying through their website means that you will be protected under their Terms of Service, cancellation and refund policies, Host Guarantee, Host Protection Insurance program and other safeguards such as verified IDs.
Do not be tempted to follow a web link that arrives in an email, however good it looks. If you are prompted in an email to log in to your profile, go to the official site and do it from there. If the email is genuine, the same message will be there. If you are already logged in and the message you received isn’t on the internal system, then it is likely to be from a scammer. Before you confirm any bookings, sites such as Airbnb and Holiday Lettings ban direct contact outside of their mail systems in order to deter fraudsters. As such, if you see a listing with the host’s email or phone name, proceed with caution.
Finally, readers may call the anti-scam hotline at 1800-722-6688 or visit www.scamalert.sg to search for more scam-related advice regarding online holiday scams.
 “Close to a Third of Singaporeans Scammed or Nearly Scammed When Booking a Holiday Online: Survey,” June 12, 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/close-third-singaporeans-scammed-or-nearly-scammed-when-booking-holiday-online-survey.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.