Last year, £7.2 million pounds (we are told) was lost in around 6,000 cases of airline / holiday booking fraud. In 2015, that amount was around £11.5 million. The cases resulted mainly within the area of villa holidays and with either fake or cloned websites. In 2016, the City of London Police (alone!) asked for 160,000 fake websites to be suspended.
Not a very pretty picture, when compared to the years of Stabiliser (1965 - 1992) when not one person lost out, if they booked with an ABTA bonded holiday with an ABTA travel agent.
So, am I being a bit unfair? The ATOL Bill (the latest amendment thereof) trundles its way through Parliament. Yet another amendment to encompass the varying way travel and holidays may be sold.
Life was much simpler, before. Stabiliser made sure that everyone in the sales process, who held clients money, had enough behind them to make sure that the client's holiday happened. If it didn't, then they got their money back. Indeed, so successful was the system, that the Court of Appeal decided that it was in the public interest, even though it was a de facto cartel. What was even better, was that Stabiliser was to all intents and purposes, self-policing - anyone who opened up could not get access to holiday product to sell without membership and if anyone tried, local members would be on to ABTA faster than you could say "Can I get a cheap week in Teneriffe...?"
After Stabiliser came the EU Package Travel Regulations. This meant that, in order to sell travel, any EU operator/ seller had to have adequate means ... trouble was, it was up to each member state to determine how that was achieved. Along came the CAA ATOL schemes in its various guises. We have the full ATOL, the "Flight Plus", the "Small Business" ATOL, the "Franchise" ATOL, the "Trade" ATOL and we even have "Accredited Bodies". ATOL transcended the familiar ABTA logo, which ABTA logo was hitherto, the great symbol of stability and certainty. Then there is the matter of agents acting as an "Agent" or "Principal", bonding may come from various sources and ways and so and so forth.
Customers are urged to check that they are booking with a suitably agency (either on or off line - but mainly on) and when they locate the ATOL number, to check with ATOL that the number is valid. Then, we have to go through the process of seeing what has been bought - is it a package and who is responsible for what? One court case saw a Judge suggest that if it comes together like a package, works like a package and smells like a package - it's a package (or words to that affect).
Websites are making life very difficult. Once you have decided that you are not looking at a clone or a fake site, then you worry about not seeing an ATOL ... megasearch, which suggest flights and accommodation can come together (e.g. Priceline**) do not carry an ATOL logo. So, am I safe to book with them? Priceline is made up of several parts and depending on what you wish to do, you are sent to the relevant part. Trivago is an American company - or looks like one but in fact its registration is with the Dutch Chamber of Commerce and has its main office in Holland .... No, Germany. Oh! But Hang on! These are only metasearch sites, so they refer you to other sites. A search I did on Trivago found a hotel for me on Agoda (part of Priceline) and allowed me to sign in with Facebook. Who do I go to, then, when things go wrong?
Expedia is different. They do carry an ATOL sign, what is more, that ATOL checks out on the CAA website (even though the logo is very small, at the bottom of their page and the number is barely legible). The thing, here, is that consumers have to know the difference between metasearch and an actual booking site.
Flights can be the same. Skyscanner, for example, refer you to actual booking agents. In one example I checked, this took me to TravelTrolley. Travel Trolley have ABTA, ATOL and IATA logos on their front page, but no numbers (you are supposed to show your number, as well as the logo) There may be an ATOL number but it is illegible. Now, I know that Travel Trolley is part of Southall Travel; an agency that has been around a while, has a good name and above all ... has an ATOL. In another example, I looked at flights to Amsterdam. Skyscanner refers me to BravoFly (no sign of an ATOL). I tried booking a hotel and a flight (so, a package) again, no sign of an ATOL. Then, at the bottom, I spotted a note that says that BravoFly's services are provided by lastminute.com and its partners...... which does, finally, lead me to an ATOL. (It's in faint grey text, on a grey background right at the bottom of the Lastminute.com page).
It is almost as if many travel websites are actually ashamed to having to own up to being, well .... a proper travel website. Properly bonded, properly licensed and someone with whom you can safely spend your money. Not only is this very odd, it plays into the hands of the fraudsters. One can only wonder why any travel website would not wish to proclaim its surety from the hilltops.
Of course, you can save yourself a lot of fuss and worry by one simple step - book your travel through your local travel agent!
** Nothing wrong with Priceline, of course, other than they do not have an ATOL logo on their front page bnecause of their nature. (Neither do Trivago, by the way)