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British police probe Cyprus villas scam

British police are investigating an Internet scam in which Britons paid morairaway.com and sister websites for non-existent Cyprus holiday villas after adverts appeared on villa rental sites Holiday-Rentals and Holidaylettings.co.uk

Centre of the morairaway.com scam (Times online)

Centre of the morairaway.com scam (Times online)

BRITISH POLICE are set to investigate a villa scam that robbed hundreds of Britons of their dream holidays in Cyprus and Spain over the summer.

The fraud, which spanned several tourist hotspots, included scamming up to 100 British families into renting a non-existent luxury apartment in Ayia Napa.

Many of the victims were forced to cancel their summer holidays or book again.

Thames Valley Police spokesman David Staines told the Cyprus Mail that officers will lead the investigation in the UK.

Thames Valley Police have completed a lengthy assessment of this matter and have identified that, although the vast majority of victims reside in the UK, indications are that the offenders have operated from a number of foreign jurisdictions,” he said.

The story was highlighted by the Cyprus Mail after desperate pleas for help from victims and was later picked up by the BBC and The Times newspaper.

The full extent of the fraud is still unravelling, but it’s known that the simple internet con netted over €50,000 just for the fake Cyprus apartment, with some estimating the overall figure to be closer to €1,000,000.

The scam kicked off when the popular online rental site Holiday Lettings was taken in by a fraudster advertising a bogus seaside apartment for rent and was quickly flooded with bookings.

The advert boasted a luxurious spacious villa, with swimming pool, fully fitted kitchen, air conditioning and fantastic view of Ayia Napa.

But an investigation by the Cyprus Mail revealed that the non-existent apartment’s location was large empty expanse of dusty wasteland scattered with old oil drums and cardboard boxes.

So far it is known that nearly 100 Britons went on to make bookings, with most accounts reporting customers coughing up between £850 and £2,300 for holidays scheduled between May and October this year.

The scammers took deposits and full payments from unsuspecting customers using online checkout systems such as PayPal.

Alarm bells began ringing back in June when several families, who had paid in full for the ‘apartment’ could not contact the vendor and became suspicious that they had been fleeced.

Our money was sent via PayPal, the apartment owner has not made any contact with us since, many people have been left with no alternative but to try and find other means of accommodation and to pay again,” one victim customer told the Cyprus Mail.

Last night, Holiday Lettings’ media officer Kate Stinchcombe confirmed that police investigations had been launched in the UK to the Cyprus and other tourist hotspot villa scams.

Holiday Lettings has been working with Thames Valley Police since the discovery of this fraud and is delighted that the investigation is continuing and proving successful. We remain hopeful that those affected will see a positive outcome in the coming months.

Many victims are fighting for redress from their banks, saying they could have acted quicker to stop money transfers if Holiday Lettings had issued a quicker warning.

The company removed the fake adverts from its site on June 18 – but did not email customers with a warning until June 22.

The UK’s trading regulator has repeatedly issued warnings about online scams and advised caution when booking holidays through private vendors.

Be careful, double check on places like Google and if you are caught by fraudsters report it to the European Consumer centre or Consumer Direct in the UK,” a statement said.

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2009

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