When you read articles such as the one published in The Guardian on 23 August, it's easy to come away with the impression that booking directly with an owner is a dangerous game. I'm actually writing this with one boot on each foot, because not only am I an owner who takes bookings directly from my guests, but I always book my own holidays that way too. As you'll know if you've stayed with us, or even glanced through our website, the personal touch is hugely important to us (indeed it's the crux of our way of working), so when I go on holiday, I like to stay at the homes of real people that I've come to know something about - that way I can almost feel as though I've arrived before I've arrived, and already have a sense of the holiday home and its context in the local area. And I know from our guests that I'm not alone - very many of you have told me that you always choose your accommodation from the listing site Owners Direct for that very reason.
communicate ... communicate ...
- Choose your holiday home with care on the listing site. Look for one that's described in very personal and non-corporate language (we believe that makes listings less attractive to scammers), and one that contains useful and interesting information about the surrounding area. That shows that the owner knows their stuff and can later be asked pertinent questions that a scammer wouldn't be able to answer.
- Make sure that the listing contains the owner's full name and a landline phone number. Then use Google to run a search on the owner, and if you can look up the phone number. Don't be nervous about phoning them, either - a genuine owner will be only too delighted to talk with you on the phone.
- Don't book anywhere without its own website. Be aware that some listing sites refuse to include details of an owner's own website (because they charge commission to both owner and guest and therefore insist that all bookings are done via the site), but it's easy to find a site by running a few details in Google.
- If you're enquiring directly through a listing site, try to duplicate your enquiry directly to the owner via their own email address, and/or a contact form on their own website. Again, be aware that listing sites don't usually allow an owner to include their email address, so Google will be your friend once again! If you find the home listed on other sites, send an enquiry through that site too.
- Be very wary of sending any emails to a Hotmail or Yahoo address. Most scammers use these, while most owners will use an email address attached to their own domain.
- Look for a responsible holiday home owner who's clued up about possible risks and is happy to help you verify that they're real. If you're uncertain, ask for proof of ownership: a responsible owner won't be offended. Ask the owner whether you can be put in touch with previous guests, or (better) whether another owner is willing to vouch for them - many responsible and professional owners are part of like-minded communities of owners, formal or informal.
- An owner who directly addresses the issues of booking safety on their listing or on their website is, we believe, less likely to be interesting to scammers, so look for some evidence that the owner has taken this on board.
- Before you book and especially before you pay a deposit, ask the owner a number of very specific questions about the home and about the area to which only they (and not a scammer) would know the answer.
- Payment via bank transfer into an account that matches the name and address of the owner is likely to be safe. Payment into an account in a different name, or in a different location, or via Western Union or other anonymous transfer service, may not be. Be very, very wary if you're asked to do this.
- Finally, remember that booking scams form a tiny percentage of all holiday bookings made directly with a home owner. Statistically, you're very, very unlikely to be affected ... and with your wits about you and your brain engaged, you can remove the risks almost completely ... then all you need to do is to concentrate on having a fantastic holiday!