Tales of travel fraud have once again hit the press this week with ITC Elize Raath making headlines for allegedly taking payment for and failing to book a group of Krugersdorp school children on a tour of Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
Earlier this year, a bogus travel agent was involved in an online discount air ticket scam and was charged for conspiracy to commit fraud. And in December last year, hundreds of South Africans, most of them expats living in London, were caught in an e-ticketing scam allegedly perpetrated by Kim Robbertse, an independent travel agent in Polokwane.
Travellers’ preferred travel booking methods hinge greatly on the trust they they have in the booking channel they’re using and fraudsters, whether they are posing as travel agents, or are in fact travel agents, bring the entire travel industry into disrepute and weaken the trust that travellers have in travel agents as a booking channel.
In the midst of this bad publicity, now more than ever it falls to ASATA and its members to drive the mantra of ‘Travel with Peace of Mind’ when booking with an ASATA member. Our new slogan and consumer campaign is being rolled out and a new marketing toolkit with collateral will be available on the website for members to use soon.
One must remember that as an unregulated industry, anyone can start a so-called travel agency. ASATA remains a voluntary body and it is therefore crucial that our members stand behind the ASATA brand, promote it and proudly display it in their communications and marking strategies. We need to tell our customers what being an ASATA member means for them.
A key selling point of using an ASATA member is that they comply with a strict code of conduct that enforces proper business practices and it is essential that members use this credibility to communicate that they are a trustworthy booking channel because of the stringent requirements placed on our members to run legitimate travel businesses.
It must be noted that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of enquiries our office receives on a daily basis, asking if the agency they are about to engage is an ASATA member. Our awareness in the consumer space is growing, to the benefit of our members and the consumers.
You’ve memorised all the red flags for fraud, you’ve heeded the warning signs, and still you got scammed. Unfortunately it happens. Fraudsters are becoming increasingly inventive and even the best prepared travel agent can fall into their trap.
What should you do now? Take a deep breath and follow these steps to minimise the damage.
Tell your colleagues
If you found out you’ve been defrauded, it is important to take immediate action to limit the damages and try and recover as much funds as possible.
Alert your colleagues and/or office manager about what has happened. Firstly, they will give you much-needed support and advice and secondly, they should be aware that the company has been targeted to avoid making any further bookings for the fraudster.
In the latest travel scam that occurred, fraudsters targeted the travel agent’s corporate accounts. If this is the case, check with your corporate account and alert them as well of the suspicious transactions.
Also make contact with ASATA. They will be able to assist with advice and support. They will also be able to alert the travel industry about the syndicate or fraudster.
Phone the bank
After you’ve alerted your colleagues, immediately contact the bank and ask for the fraud department. Most banks and credit card companies have specific processes in place to report fraud. They’ll assist you to stop the transaction.
Try to be as specific as possible and provide the bank with all the details you have. Pass on card details, addresses, names and all information you may have on the fraudster.
Contact the airline
Make contact with the airline and any other service providers to cancel all air tickets, hotel reservations and/or car rental bookings. Ask the airline to blacklist future tickets for travel for the fraudster.
If the fraudster is to travel the same day, try to contact the specific airline at the airport and speak to an official to advise that a fraudulent transaction has taken place. Give them the airline ticket details, so that they can stop the passenger from travelling.
Appoint a forensic investigator
For any further action, it is a good idea to appoint a forensic investigator to assist you. Make sure you hire an accredited forensic investigator who is also a certified fraud examiner.
When appointing an investigator, it is also important to make sure he/she has an intricate knowledge of the travel industry, as well as a good working relationship with the SAPS. The police are often unaware of the details associated with travel booking processes and it can be difficult to explain this to them. A forensic investigator who understands both the travel industry and the SAPS can be worth his weight in gold in situations like this.
A trustworthy practitioner will provide you with:
- An upfront quote
- A summary of the amount of hours he/she will spend on the case
- A detailed plan of the action he/she is planning to undertake to recover your funds and mitigate any further risk
A good place to start when looking for an investigator is the Institute of Commercial Forensic Practitioners (ICFP).
Be wary of private investigators, who charge outrageous upfront deposits.
Sign an affidavit
Together with the Forensic or Fraud Investigator, set out a signed affidavit with all the details of all the parties included. The Investigator will assist you in building a strong Prima Facie case by obtaining statements or affidavits from the relevant parties and gathering the relevant information, which will be annexed to the affidavit as proof and evidence. He/she will make sure it is done thoroughly to ensure a good strong case.
Report the case to the police
The investigator will then assist in registering a case docket with the relevant police station. It is imperative to share as much details of the fraudster as possible i.e clear and confirmed copy of passport or I.D, hand written note for handwriting analysis and full contact details. This will be used to trace the alleged fraudster.
Whatever you do: stay safe!
Although it is better to have as much information as possible on the fraudster, always first consider your safety and that of your staff. Don’t ask the fraudster to come into the office in an attempt to obtain more information from him/her. Don’t get involved in any way with the fraudster without the help of the police!
If you’re faced with the fraudster
If you are making a booking for a client who is either in the office or on the phone, and you suspect something is wrong, don’t make the transaction. Instead, call your bank and ask for a CODE 10 authorisation. If possible keep the client’s credit card in your possession. You will be asked a series of yes/no questions that will reveal to the bank that you think you’re dealing with a fraudster but won’t raise suspicion for the client sitting in front of you that you’re ringing the alarm bell.
The best way to avoid fraud is to memorise the red flags that could indicate a scam and double-check any customer who shows ‘red flags’.
However, here are some tips and tricks that you can use as a travel agent to dodgy those dodgies:
Google is your friend
Although not foolproof, Google Maps will help determine whether an address is real or just an empty lot. The information might not always be 100% perfect, but at least a review of the cardholder’s information can assist in your review of whether or not the transaction may be suspect and require further investigation.
Credit Card must-dos
- Never process payments on a credit card without having the card/s present at the time of the transaction
- Check signature against original card/s
- Obtain required authorisation
- Take an imprint of the card – A FAX COPY IS NOT AN IMPRINT
- Ensure validity of expiry date and check that security features appear on the card
- Please be warned: Any invalid expiry dates entered for approval through one of the Global Reservations Systems that results in a fraudulent transaction, will be charged back to the agency
- A great way to check whether the card is valid is to check the issuing bank of the card on https://www.bindb.com/bin-database.html
Authorisation alone is not enough
Although travel agents should always obtain an authorisation code for a credit card transaction, this code only indicates that the cardholder is in good standing with the bank (and is usually supplied automatically) but is no guarantee of payment.
It simply verifies that there are sufficient funds in the account. It can’t confirm the identity of the cardholder, or guarantee that the card and/or transaction are genuine.
Having said that, travel agents should always get an imprint of the credit card as well as obtain an authorisation number. Failing to do so will result in charge backs and the travel agent will then be liable to settle the loss due to fraudulent transactions.
This warning extends to the larger travel agencies issuing on behalf of agents who do not have IATA licenses. Failing to comply with the above will also result in the issuing agent being held liable for any loss incurred.
Don’t skimp on the paperwork
Never get complacent when it comes to paperwork. It could safe the agency a lot of money. Travel agents should always ask for an identity document or passport and take a copy of the document.
The ugly face of fraud continues to rear its head from time to time in the travel industry and this time it appears to be in the form of a host of scammers posing as staff from international offices of South African corporates contacting their respective TMCs for travel arrangements.
Concerning is how these fraudsters know which TMCs are linked to the corporates they are pretending to work for, but there are many other examples of fraud that can hit your agency, no matter what size, or how vigilant you remain.
Never fear though. There are definitely some red flags you should be watching out for:
Know your client
Agents report receiving emails and telephone calls from unknown persons requesting airline tickets and using credit cards as the form of payment.
Mostly, the email sender or caller requests tickets for someone other than himself. They identify themselves as a large corporation wanting to establish a corporate account with you.
Beware of departure and destination
Fraudsters tend to opt for a departure airport that is not local to the travel agency or is an international departure. Destinations will often include high-risk airports such as Accra, Lagos, Abidjan or even Sao Paulo.
When it comes to domestic-only itineraries, the caller will often use a story to entice you to want to provide the service (i.e., grandchild just born, death in the family, etc.).
Timing is everything
Requests for immediate travel or travel within a few days of the reservation from new customers should always raise a Red Flag and agents need to be careful about issuing tickets for these types of bookings.
Don’t trust jargon
Double-check customers who use travel agency lingo like “JNB” rather than Johannesburg in their emails rather than the name of the city.
When price is not an issue
Fraudsters are usually quite casual about price of the flights, no matter how exorbitant, or about the price of the service fee.
Free e-mail addresses
Don’t trust travel demands made from a free, web-based, email, address, which is also often not traceable. Often when dealing with demands from web-based e-mail addresses, the name on the e-mail address is totally different from the name signed at the end of the e-mail.
Scammers tend to use poor English. Their e-mails are often badly written with numerous spelling mistakes and tend to be short and to the point.
It’s all in the name
Fraudsters often create email addresses similar to legitimate corporations and dupe agency staff into believing they work at the corporation. As an example, fraudsters can create an email address like xyzcorp-us.com, while the proper corporate client address is xyzcorp.com to make the agent believe they’re dealing with legitimate employees.
Check the card
Most fraudulent customers will opt for 3rd party credit cards, and will rarely be the actual cardholder. The same card will also be used for different passengers and routings.