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LJ Idol IX - 18. Disinformation

Attention! Www.booking.com scam with London hotels

"Don't open email attachments in letters from unknown senders, don't click suspicious links. Verify, verify, verify." We all know the phishing warnings, right? And we don't open, and we don't follow, and we verify, and we verify. And then one day cursory checks simply are not enough.

I have just sent quite a lot of money to booking.com scammers, and I am fairly certain there is very little probability of getting any of it back.

The stories of others who were attentive and did not fall into the trap can be found on Tripadvisor forums. My story unfortunately is quite the opposite.

Booking.com is my site of choice when looking for hotel stays abroad because it is easy to navigate, clear, and, most important of all, contains reviews of travelers who have previously stayed in the listed properties, so when looking for low-cost accommodations, it is easy to decide which of the inevitable drawbacks of the place you are ready to tolerate and which are deal breakers.

However, there has apparently been a breech in their security system, and booking data for a number of London hotels (reservation numbers, dates of stay, emails, names and phone numbers of the customers) leaked out, allowing for the three-step scam I fell victim to.

This is what regular booking.com emails looks like, without my personal data:

[Real email in the inbox]Real email in the inbox

[An image of four emails in of gmail inbox, two of them from booking.com]

[Real email when open]Real email when open

[Standard booking.com reservation form containing hotel address, phone number and email; reservation details; reservation cost; a map of the area around the hotel and room details]

And this is how this particular scam works.
At first, you receive a pseudo-booking.com email telling you that due to low occupancy at the hotel, it requires you to pay 100% of your stay in advance through bank transfer. Fishy, but not unbelievable, especially with the political situation such as it seem from Russia.

[Scam email #1 in the inbox]Scam email #1 in the inbox

[Three emails in gmail inbox, the scam one "requiring action" virtually identical to the real one from booking.com next to it]

[Scam email #1 when open]Scam email #1 when open

[First scam email, again, looking at a glance identical to the real ones from booking.com]

The emails are very close, and even though, once again, it is fishy that the actual amount you have to supposedly pay through bank transfer is not mentioned, it is still believable.

[Real email, left; scam email, right]Real email, left; scam email, right. This picture is clickable

[Comparison of the two emails side by side. The only differences are in the hotel email and phone number, and in the no-reply address the emails come from. The real one is customer.service at booking.com. The scam one is noreply at booking-notify.com]

Upon having prepared you by means of the supposedly booking.com announcement, the scammers proceed to phone call you with the same information (I missed the call, and can only say that it came from a British phone number. I certainly can not say anything else about those).

Further, you receive an email from the "hotel itself" with your reservation number and dates of stay in the subject line which is sent from the false email address of the hotel from the not-booking.com announcement.

[Scam email #2 in the inbox]Scam email #2 in the inbox

[Second scam email in gmail inbox]

[Scam email #2 when open]Scam email#2 when open

[Text of the second spam email:

[Text]Dear Elena XXX,

We have called you, but could not reach you.

Unfortunately, due to the large number of cancellations close to the arrival date and in order to increase our hotel’s occupancy, we have decided to request the full payment by bank transfer prior to your arrival.
When paying by bank transfer, your bank will charge you a small fee, which you can deduct from the total price of your reservation.
If for any reason you wish to cancel your reservation, we will immediately refund you the total amount paid.
We very much appreciate you’ve chosen to stay at our hotel and that’s why we will offer you free airport pick up shuttle service.
Please inform us as soon as possible if you can make the payment by bank transfer so as to keep your reservation active.
If you agree to pay by bank transfer, please let us know and we will send you the payment details.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and we hope to hear from you soon.

Kind regards,
Euro Lodge Clapham
Tel +44 287 173 0461 (United Kingdom)
Fax (+44) 20 35144741 (United Kingdom)

The wording of this particular email is slightly awkward; however, the awkwardness can, once more, be ignored because of the "exact" booking details.

What follows is a bank transfer, preceded by an exchange of a couple more slightly fishy emails (it's strange they make a typo in the account number. And it is also strange that they don't know at first to give you the full name of the recipient. Come to think of it, it is also strange that the recipient is an individual.) All the strangeness though is one last time pushed back, because the contact is easy and regular, and you intend to stay there anyway, so it does not really matter if you pay upon arrival or 10 days early, right?

Wrong. Do not do what I have just done. If anything at all feels fishy or strange, especially where money is concerned, stop, and check, and re-check, and check again. Better safe than sorry? That is right.

I have a very bad feeling about this money. While it is definitely the fault of booking.com that my data was leaked out, and it is their fault as well for not informing me and other possibly affected customers about this scam as soon as it was discovered, it was I who did not check the data properly, and it was also I who chose to accomplish the money transfer.

There are venues open to me, such as contacting booking.com (which I have just done), and going to the police, or starting legal action, but the road will be difficult, and it will likely lead nowhere. We shall see.


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2014 03:55 pm (UTC)
Oh no. I'm so, so sorry to hear this. How absolutely sickening. It seems these days that we must not trust anything or anyone at all. I hope that this does not entirely ruin enjoyment of your holiday and that you can find a way to reclaim the money somehow. :-/
Aug. 18th, 2014 05:40 pm (UTC)
It seems these days that we must not trust anything or anyone at all.
Absolutely true. :(

I will not let it ruin my holiday, but I highly doubt it is possible to reclaim more than a fraction of that money. We shall see.

Thank you.
Aug. 18th, 2014 04:53 pm (UTC)
Terrible! I'm so sorry the creeps caught you. Thank you for the warning and taking the time to show so much detail. I hope you will get your money returned and that you are able to enjoy your trip.
Aug. 18th, 2014 05:41 pm (UTC)
You are very welcome to spread the word (I guess booking.com site is too widely known and used not to).

I will not let this ruin my holiday, but the return of the money is doubtful. I will give it my best try though.

Edited at 2014-08-18 05:42 pm (UTC)
Aug. 18th, 2014 05:45 pm (UTC)
ConCrit is welcome.

I've tried to balance enough detail and a somewhat literary way of relaying them, but given that the situation is happening right now, I think this might be too emotional.

[Follow-up thoughts on the situation]I have been thinking about the situation, and as a layman, I see a lot of pain for little gain here.

Scam is difficult to do anything about even if it's perpetrated by someone in your own country. The more time passes, the more difficult it is to do anything. It has been five days. Even if (a big if) that account is still open, an action from British authorities is required to investigate it and its holder. And the time it will likely require for such an action to even start is long.

Now, where booking.com is concerned, the situation seems twofold.

First, they did leak my personal data, and there is a law about data protection, and they can possibly be fined, but it's still such a grey area. Also, Internet forums indicate booking.com had been informed about the scam a while ago, yet they did not inform me (and other possibly afflicted customers) in turn. So maybe the fine can be raised because of this.

But second, the money transfer itself, it was all me. And they couldn't be held responsible for my actions. Caveat emptor most likely (the buyer takes on the risks caused by the purchase) over whatever customer protection laws. Poop.

Conclusion: need to seek legal council.
Aug. 19th, 2014 01:28 am (UTC)
Oh man, that sucks. I didn't like the looks of "Prepayment: 100 percent of booking price" - I would expect them to just reprint the price itself (unless that's what they did and you were purposely stripping those values from the entry). An alarm also goes off when they require a bank transfer and must be paid early...but that's also coming from a position of knowing the email is a scam. And having your account number right there is especially misleading.
Aug. 19th, 2014 01:59 pm (UTC)
I have no reason to strip that here, at least, not the entire line, just the amounts like I did in the original booking.

The amount of data they had to use against me was what mislead me, yes. Well, this is a lesson to be much more careful.

Thank you.
Aug. 19th, 2014 09:12 pm (UTC)
Holy crap, what an elaborate scam. And here I thought I was getting good at identifying stuff like this! You've gotten me scared!
Aug. 20th, 2014 01:19 pm (UTC)
I thought so too! Better scared than scammed.

Take care and spread the word even about fishy affairs that are seemingly obvious :-)
Aug. 19th, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)
What an awful thing to go through, but I can see how easy it was to do. This was a very elaborate scam, not like a Nigerian prince email. Too bad it happened, but it fit in with the topic nicely.
Aug. 20th, 2014 01:47 pm (UTC)
It did, did it not?

And the slightly uplifting thing about the situation was that while I was thinking it through and about to do the final check and learn whether it was scam or the real thing, I also realized that it fit the topic either way.

Even if it were an honest sitation, I would have written about it "suspect scam, fishy details, fishy details, but, *hugh sigh of relief* it was all real". Alas for the second scenario :-)
Aug. 20th, 2014 12:22 am (UTC)
Ow, that sounds really frustrating! Good luck with getting your money back!
Aug. 20th, 2014 01:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you :)

It's interesting though. Many of my Russian friends have recognized the site immediately and told me that they and/or many of their friends use it quite often, while the comments from Idolers and other foreign friends indicate that it is not quite as well-used abroad.
Aug. 21st, 2014 02:33 am (UTC)
That's awful. Good luck! Have you reported it to your bank? This might be a US thing, but some banks have investigative departments for things like this, and they'll take on the work of getting your money back for you.
Aug. 22nd, 2014 10:59 am (UTC)
I have, and I have written a request to return the money, but seeing as it has already been received at the other end, chance of a positive outcome are slim.

I do not think we have such departments in the banks, they advised me to report to the police instead, and I might, but I do not see much point. On the other hand, if I do something, there is a chance of success, however small, and if I do not, then that's it. :)
Aug. 21st, 2014 04:43 am (UTC)
Oh, gosh, I'm sorry this has happened.

And your samples show how authentic-looking the scam emails are, making it even harder to be as suspcious as you now would have liked. :(
Aug. 22nd, 2014 12:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I was getting careless with the easy-to-spot scams I kept receiving (you know, the long-lost millionaire relative ones).
Aug. 21st, 2014 11:03 am (UTC)
So sorry to hear this happened to you, hope you manage to get at least some of your money back *hugs*

And thank you for pointing out that it's the little details we have to look out for, the fake and real are scarily similar.
Aug. 22nd, 2014 01:13 pm (UTC)
I am glad to be able to at least warn others and show what to look for.

Thank you :)
Aug. 21st, 2014 12:50 pm (UTC)
Aw. Well that sucks.

I've never heard about a circumstance where if you book your room you suddenly have to pay the entirety of the stay though. Maybe this is something that is more common where you are?

But you're right. If you get that "gut feeling" that something isn't completely right, you really have to move slowly and carefully... especially if they say you have to move immediately or lose!

Good wishes for at least some of your funds to be returned!
Aug. 21st, 2014 11:09 pm (UTC)
Sometimes hotels will offer a better deal on a room if you pay upfront. But you'll KNOW that WHEN you make the booking.
Aug. 22nd, 2014 10:23 am (UTC)
I usually never pay upfront, in case my plans change, so this is new information for me, thank you.
Aug. 22nd, 2014 12:53 pm (UTC)
The problem is, I do not, or rather, did not, know that hotels are not supposed to do that. Ours often do not even require a credit card for the booking, a phone call is enough (or at least it was until a few years ago when I started mostly vacationing abroad).

And another side to it is group tours, where you pre-pay hotels and get "vouchers" for the stay.

I did not know that the in-between, being first told that you are going to pay upon arrival then "being asked" to do so before was not done. I certainly know that now!

Thank you!
Aug. 21st, 2014 07:56 pm (UTC)
How horrible. And I hate that we find out weeks or months later when a company has been hacked, there needs to be some way of making them own up as soon as they know so their customers can better protect themselves.

I hope that the money lost is returned, and that you're still able to take and enjoy your upcoming vacation.
Aug. 22nd, 2014 02:47 pm (UTC)
I am not sure about the money, but thankfully, this will not cancel the vacation.

As for the company, this situation is a black mark against them: they've known for a while about the scam, and they did nothing. They did not inform us about it.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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