Anyone wanting to book a luxury ski chalet this winter now has to run the gauntlet of a rash of bogus internet sites that are netting fraudsters hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Last winter, a number of heartbroken families arrived in the big-name Alpine resorts on peak season dates to discover that they had paid a small fortune for expensive chalet accommodation that was either not available or simply didn’t exist.
While this was tragic, it involved a relatively small number of victims. However, in advance of this winter, fraudsters have become even more sophisticated. They use Live Chat to groom their customers and social media to create online profiles for their sites that can even match those of their genuine rivals.
Just by writing about the bogus holiday suppliers and revealing their addresses, I am in danger of fuelling their presence and importance online. Each person who then passes on one of these links to a fraudulent site, albeit warning others against them, risks enhancing the status of the site on Google. It is a virus that’s already morphed into an epidemic and Google, facebook et al are doing nothing to curtail it.
Here are a couple of the worst offenders. Please don’t create a hyperlink to them from your own blog, website or social media. Copy and paste their URLs into your browser if you wish to visit.
Premiumswisschalets dot com has a Swiss phone number, but their address, strangely, is in Latvia. ‘Reserve your chalet for the upcoming winter,’ states the home page, which clicks through to a huge choice of five-star chalets in Switzerland and France, complete with enticing photos.
Each chalet, claims the website, has been ‘professionally inspected – our properties won’t leave you with unwelcome surprises’. Oh yes, they will, if you attempt to rent one.
The fraudsters use genuine descriptions of the chalets and, even to someone experienced in the travel industry, it all looks utterly convincing. But the first clue is availability: your chosen chalet appears to be always available on the date you choose, regardless of length of stay. Once you’ve made contact with the site you’ll be pressed to complete the booking and pay immediately,
Cheekily they boast: ‘With over 10 years of experience in dealing with the luxury chalet market, we are perfectly placed and equipped to provide you the best chalets available. We have very close relationships with the owners of the chalets and that’s how we get the best price’. No, they don’t.
In reality, only Christmas and a handful of low season dates are still available for this coming winter. It’s sold by the week in its entirety, and not by the room or night. Real prices range from £9,950 in November and April to £32,500 on December 20.
On Premium Swiss Chalets it’s available in its entirety, at any time in the season, with prices from 1120€ per night, and with free airport transfers thrown in.
Lewis McKay, Le Chardon’s sales and marketing manager, contacted the site. ‘VIP Client Manager Anna Brice’ offered him January 12-17 for 8800€, including free airport transfers.
When he protested that she was actually trying to sell him his own chalet, she cheekily replied: “There is nothing illegal until you’d have paid money, so chill out, my friend. No one has been ripped off!”
Lewis commented: “Yes, they have – it’s conspiracy to defraud. I am absolutely disgusted and I am reporting them to the police and trading standards. What we need to do is to get these sites taken down”.
Richhuts dot com is another fraud site offering a whole range of Alpine chalets, also looking like the real thing. It has a UK address and phone number, having apparently ‘borrowed’ a genuine company in Edinburgh. Their website is registered in Panama.
One problem the fraudsters face is that a prospective client may well Google the chalet name before booking and discover a genuine website. Rich Huts simply makes up a new name.
Take Shemshak Lodge in Courchevel 1850, one of the best-known superchalets in the resort, run by Consensio. Rich Huts has it on their site under the fictitious name ‘Chalet Imma’. Google this and it will come up as No.1, with a link – surprise, surprise – to Richhuts dot com. In reality, only three weeks remain available for Shemshak at a price of £15,500 to £43,500. Yet Rich Huts offers ‘Chalet Imma’ from 1500€ a night with availability in every month of the season.
Ceri Tinley, managing director of Consensio commented: “My main concern as a chalet operator about these sites is their ability to con guests out of money. They have gone to such lengths to make their websites look so real and convincing. It is really very difficult to tell the difference between them and real ski travel agents.
“Rich Huts, which have our Chalet Shemshak listed as ‘Chalet Imma’, are purporting to be a proper registered UK company. However, I contacted the lady who owns the real company AC&H 243 who had no idea her company information/number was being used to con chalet guests”.
Andy Castle of travel agency Ski In Luxury and sister company Ultimate Luxury Chalets, has made a study of these scam sites. He commented: “I’m convinced that the main ones are all run by the same guy. They have got increasingly sophisticated and it is causing increasing concern that trust in websites such as ours might be compromised.”
For pointers on how to spot a rogue website, make sure you read Andy’s detailed blog.
If you want to book a luxury chalet, then either go direct through the chalet operators themselves, or through one of the many reputable agencies. These include Kings Avenue, Ski In Luxury, Ski Solutions, Alpine Luxury Chalets, Ultimate Luxury Chalets, Oxford Ski Company, Firefly, Summers & Winters, Alpine Answers, A&K Villas, and Interactive Resorts.