Edinburgh Fringe: Web scam warning after flats con

Cameron Shiels believed he was renting a one-bedroom flat in Richmond Place, but the booking website has since vanished. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Cameron Shiels believed he was renting a one-bedroom flat in Richmond Place, but the booking website has since vanished. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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FESTIVAL-goers have been warned to be vigilant against accommodation scams, after scores of visitors were caught out by a website falsely offering prime flats in Edinburgh for the peak season.

Hawick civil servant Cameron Shiels lost £280 after paying for a one-bedroom flat on Richmond Place, near Haymarket, only to find the website where he made the booking had disappeared.

More than 50 other customers are believed to have been taken in by the scam, with an unlucky group of Fringe performers losing £1420 after booking a plush flat through the same site.

The festival period is a boom time for scammers, when more than two million visitors descend on the Capital for the world’s biggest arts festival.

The huge influx and our revelations about the fake site has prompted police to issue a warning to anyone booking accommodation via a website.

That, however, is of scant consolation to Mr Shiels.

He has been forced to shell out hundreds more than he bargained for to enjoy a five-day festival getaway with his Australian girlfriend after being tricked out of his original down payment.

The 46-year-old booked the one-bedroom property listed on www.fringeflats.co.uk on June 18 after being impressed by the website’s “professional” presentation.

He swapped a series of e-mails and calls with someone claiming to be the site’s operator to check availability. Mr Shiels was then asked to make a bank transfer – a transaction that ended in every tourist’s worst nightmare.

“The alarm bells should have started ringing when he asked for a bank transfer,” he said. “But he said the flat was available and that there was car parking available.

“I paid my money straight away. I was told he’d received it and he’d get back to me nearer the time.

“Weeks later I e-mailed him and there was no reply. It came back as e-mail failed. I looked up the website, but the website was gone. He had a 0131 house phone number. It was ringing when I phoned him the last time, but now I never got any answer.”

The lavish website carried a photograph of Princes Street on its home page next to a fancy logo and was interspersed with details of attractive-looking city centre flats.

“You could go into each flat and have a look at them,” Mr Shiels said. “It showed you pictures of the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom.” The flat Mr Shiels liked “wasn’t right upmarket – it was middle market”, but it would do.

He added: “The website looked quite professionally set up. Someone’s obviously spent some time on it.”

The numbers he tried are likely to be a rented landline and a pay-as-you go mobile that will now have been 
discarded.

Mr Shiels made a direct complaint to Police Scotland about the scam on July 19.

Police, however, are temporarily hamstrung. The matter cannot be considered as fraud until the date of the booking has passed, limiting the efforts of officers to investigate the case until after August 9.

A Police Scotland source said sophisticated scamsters typically went to great lengths to defraud people out of their hard-earned money, but nearly always left clues in their wake.

The plain clothes officer said: “Electronic clues and traces are the sort of things we can go after to see if we can track down the people responsible for this type of thing. For example, if people have made Bacs payments for goods that later don’t transpire, then that often provides a positive line of inquiry our forensic accountancy experts can later get into. Payments like that require details – be they fraudulent or real – to be given, which in turn puts us on the trail.

“Invariably we find these things are always pretty slick. They are always professional enough to take in people who would consider themselves web-savvy shoppers. But when it comes to covering their tracks there’s always some sort of detail the culprits overlook, giving us a way into it.”

The financial loss has soured Mr Shiels’ first visit to the Festival.

He said: “I just wanted to make everything nice for my girlfriend. To find out this has happened, it’s a bit of a pain.”

Anne Goring, co-director of established and reputable booking service Festival Flats, which leases up to 300 flats during the Festival, said the company had been approached by three people who had been scammed in the past six months alone over Edinburgh Festival bookings.

She said: “I think it’s rather a lesson to deal with established companies. Recently we’ve heard of people who have paid money and found there’s no flat there. They come to us afterwards asking for help because the flat we thought we’d booked doesn’t exist.

“Usually the reports are related to [website] Gumtree. Paying to an individual is dangerous. You have to find out who you’re dealing with. You want to deal with a company and get some references – get some proof of 
existence.”

City festivals and events champion Councillor Steve Cardownie believes the clamour for well-priced flats during August causes people to take online booking risks. He said: “I understand this website has been reported to the police and so that is now a matter for them, but I would urge people only to use trusted websites when booking accommodation, travel or any other aspect of their trip.”

VisitScotland echoed his comments. It said visitors should “use a common sense approach when booking accommodation” and make sure they use “reputable sources during peak periods”.

“If visitors are unsure about the accommodation they are booking, please contact us through our website or speak to us in person at one of our information centres,” a spokeswoman said.

A Police Scotland spokeswoman said: “Police can confirm we received a report in relation to this matter. We would advise people to be careful when booking accommodation online that they make sure it’s a genuine website.”

How to fight your way through the web of deceit

A LIST of tips on how to beat internet scams has been published by the Citizens Advice Bureau.

The bureau warns: “The internet is a cheap and easy way for fraudsters to con people out of money. If you suspect an e-mail or something on a website is a con, you’re probably right.”

Online shoppers should stick to the following rules to keep their cash safe:

• Pay by credit card if they buy something over the internet. If there is a problem with the product, the credit card company may be responsible as well as the trader;

• Make sure it’s a secure website before submitting credit card details – look for the padlock icon on the site;

• Recognise that if anything sounds too good to be true, it probably is;

• Report any problems with rouge traders to the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0845 404 0506.

Police issue pickpocket warning

Visitors and residents are being warned to be alert to Festival pickpockets, as in past years many thieves have taken advantage of the large crowds and general party atmosphere to rob people of their possessions.

Chief Inspector Gavin Phillip, of Police Scotland, warned: “We have noticed a trend where people are leaving their bags or other belongings lying unattended while they are socialising, allowing a golden opportunity for thieves. We want people to be aware that there are individuals who are attracted to the city centre by the high number of visitors offering the potential of easy pickings. It is important that people remain vigilant when it comes to looking after their items.”

Last year, Lothian and Borders Police deployed undercover officers after warning revellers they were “easy pickings” for bag snatchers.

Vroom with a view for drivers

VISITORS to this year’s Festival can guarantee a car parking space through a special booking service – but it comes at a cost.

NCP is providing special Festival parking spots at Castle Terrace for the whopping sum of £30.

However, for that, parkers get a meet-and-greet service and a dedicated fast-track entrance on top of their guaranteed space.

Customers can book up until 10pm the day before to secure a spot and the £29.99 cost covers a 24-hour stay.

Roger Ashley, NCP head of operations for Scotland, believes the central location will appeal to people in town to make the best of everything the Capital has to offer.

“We have created this special Edinburgh Fringe Festival offer in the hope of making parking easier and more convenient for customers. Many of the people attending the Festival won’t be local, so may not know the surrounding places to park if the first place they arrive at is full.

“We hope that by offering customers the opportunity to pre-book parking at our Castle Terrace car park it will make the whole experience even more relaxed and

enjoyable.”

The parking offer is not the only service launched specifically for the Festival rush.

A personal shopper service that matches people’s tastes with events has been launched by an entrepreneur Carol Hayes.

Online portal CulturePie plans a person’s perfect day at the Festival.

People are asked to log on to a website and tell the team about themselves and the type of day they want.

CulturePie scours thousands of shows, books tickets and restaurant recommendations to come up with an itinerary.

The service is designed to help visitors intimidated by the Festival’s sheer scale or those looking for the next big thing.

Last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe spanned 25 days, with more than 2695 shows across 279 venues.

The website for the shopper service is at www.culturepie.co.uk.