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Don’t get stung paying for a free holiday health card

It has been a long wait, but finally the chance of a holiday or a few nights at a festival is no longer an impossible dream. But beware. Scammers are devising a raft of new, ever more devious ways to cheat you out of your money. 

More than £4.2million was swindled out of holidaymakers and festival-goers in the year to March 2021, despite coronavirus restrictions banning many holidays and most events, Action Fraud reveals. 

The crime reporting service expects the total to surge this summer. 

High risk: Criminals are preying on holidaymakers desperate to get away after months of restrictions

Scammers are poised to pounce as lockdown restrictions ease and we are able to go on holiday once again. Holiday scams cost victims £1,200 on average. 

One new swindle takes advantage of the launch of the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) at the start of this year. 

This card entitles British holidaymakers to free or discounted emergency care and medical assistance while travelling in Europe. 

The GHIC replaces the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which started to be phased out when Britain effectively left the European Union in January. 

The ruse exploits the fact that for most holidaymakers this summer will be the first time they have applied for a GHIC, as so many won’t know that it is available free of charge, and can be applied for directly through the NHS website. 

Copycat websites have sprung up that charge a fee for procuring the GHIC card, typically about £35.

The websites generally claim the cost is a ‘fast-track’ or ‘management’ fee, but in reality they offer nothing better than the free, official method. These sites are not illegal, but result in holidaymakers needlessly forking out. 

You can apply for a free GHIC through the official route online at nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/healthcareabroad/apply-for-a-free-uk-globalhealth-insurance-card-ghic/. 

Another ruse to look out for is fake accommodation listings online. Criminals are taking advantage of rising demand for UK holiday lets as families opt to stay close to home for their summer breaks this year. 

Accommodation scams are some of the most common holiday cons, making up over a quarter of those reported to Action Fraud. Most fake listings are on social media. However, some are even posted on reputable online booking services such as Airbnb and Booking.com. 

The vast majority of offers are reputable, but occasionally a crook slips through the net. 

Fraudsters are also capitalising on pent-up demand for concerts, music festivals and sports events. Music and sports fans are so keen to enjoy live events again that tickets for many are selling out in record time. Tickets for the Reading and Leeds festivals sold out in just two days. 

Criminals have been quick to use phoney social media profiles to sell desperate fans fake tickets. Victims have lost £2.3million to this trick in the past financial year, despite the dearth of events. 

Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, says: ‘Criminals are using more sophisticated ways to trick their victims – which is why it is important that we all do our research when booking a holiday and making travel arrangements.’ 

She adds: ‘Regardless of whether you plan to travel abroad or go on a domestic holiday this year, remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it most probably is.’ 

Fortunately, there are some precautionary measures you can take to lower the chance of becoming a victim. 

Alarm bells should ring if you spot incredibly cheap offers – criminals often use them to lure you in, and a special deal can easily blind you from digging deeper into the details of an offer. 

Before sharing personal details or making a purchase, pause and consider whether a deal could be a scam. Legitimate travel companies such as Airbnb and Booking.com only allow users to interact through the website. 

So if a provider asks you to make a direct payment or to correspond with them through a different channel, watch out. 

You should also be wary of paying by bank transfer – especially if this is the only option given by a provider to make a payment. Be particularly on guard if the money is going direct into a personal bank account and not to a company. 

The problem with direct bank transfers is they are hard to trace, making it more likely you will not get any money back if it turns out you are dealing with a scammer. 

To check a website is legitimate, scrutinise its web address, known as the URL. Fraudsters will sometimes set up copycat websites with URLs very similar to those of official firms to trick their victims. 

But it is impossible to perfectly replicate a URL, so fraudsters will copy the official URL with just a small modification. They may add a hyphen to the URL, or misspell the company name. 

Sometimes they use a different suffix, such as ‘.net’ instead of ‘.com’. Only trust a website if the URL is perfectly correct. 

Also check whether a company is a member of a reputable organisation before making a payment. For travel websites, look for the Abta logo, which demonstrates they are a member of the reputable trade association. You can also check with Abta if you are unsure whether a firm is genuinely a member. Visit abta.com/abta-member-search. 

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at banking group UK Finance, says: ‘Criminals have been capitalising on the pandemic to commit fraud, and the easing of lockdown restrictions provides another opportunity for them to target victims.’ 

Report any scams you see to Action Fraud online at actionfraud. police.uk or phone 0300 123 2040.

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