French tourists fall victim to Dublin holiday rental scam

Group lost €1,400 after they booked accommodation through fake company

Florian Coulan (c) and friends from France, who fell victim to a sophisticated online accommodation booking scam.

Florian Coulan (c) and friends from France, who fell victim to a sophisticated online accommodation booking scam.

 

On a Monday evening in the middle of February, Florian Coulan started searching Google from his home in Paris for a holiday in Dublin.

Four days later he was robbed of more than €1,400 in an elaborate scam which has tentacles spreading throughout Europe.

Coulan and four friends wanted to be in Dublin for eight days around St Patrick’s Day but they left it late, a little too late.

When he went in search of somewhere for his group to stay, he was alarmed by the high prices and low availability.

“I was looking for accommodation for three single people and a couple for a reasonable price,” he tells The Irish Times this week.

“This was certainly lacking as it was the St Patrick’s Day period which is attractive and makes cheap accommodation scarce.”

Eventually his search threw up a site with the name www.360travelonline.com.

It had holiday rentals listed in countries across Europe with three properties available in Dublin.

One, a three-bedroom Georgian townhouse in the city centre, caught his eye. It looked amazing, but not as amazing as the price: €180 a night. It was a steal.

He contacted the company through an online booking form and inquired about availability.

The response he got was almost immediate. He was in luck. Or so he thought.

“First of all let me thank you for your interest in our properties,” the mail from a customer service representative who identified himself as “Marcus Westerlind” began.

“I will be taking care of your inquiries. I am delighted to inform you that ‘Wonderfully Elegant Dublin Accomodation’ [sic] is available and ready to book, the rental price is 180 Euro/night.

“We require the total booking value via bank transfer. Towels and bed linen is provided, housekeeping is included in the price.”

Urgency

Coulan and Westerlind exchanged a couple more emails. To secure the booking, the French tourist was asked for some personal details and “a copy of any photo ID”.

He delayed sending the details for just two days after which Westerlind contacted him asking about the deposit.

There was an urgency to his tone and it seemed like the too-good-to-be-true apartment rental could be slipping out of his grasp.

Coulan immediately transferred the money from his French bank account and within a day it had hit Westerlind’s Italian bank account.

He confirmed receipt of the €1,440 and said the booking was secured. That was the last Coulan heard from him.

The five friends travelled to Ireland five days before St Patrick’s Day and went straight from the airport to their short-term Georgian townhouse. There was no one there to give them their keys.

“I am house-sitting for a friend, and I was there on the Saturday afternoon when I looked out the window to see a group of people looking in the letterbox,” the person who actually lives in the house says.

Asking not to be identified, the man adds: “Then they knocked on the door and told me they had booked the house for eight nights. I immediately thought: ‘Uh-oh’.”

Good Samaritan

The house-sitter explained that the house was not on the market.

Standing on the street in the rain, Coulan tried to call his 360travelonline contact at the landline and mobile numbers listed on the site. No joy. “The phone numbers did not work.”

The house-sitter then turned good Samaritan.

“Their phones were nearly dead and needed recharging so I invited them in. We called the guards who came very fast,” he says.

“They found some accommodation in Tullamore for the most of their holiday but they had nowhere to stay on the first night so they stayed with me.

“I wanted to make sure they didn’t have an entirely negative impression of Ireland after what had happened.”

What had happened was a carefully executed scam which has been perpetrated on innocent tourists before.

On the surface 360travelonline.com looks legitimate. It lists a landline phone number and a physical address.

Websites set up with the stated aim of uncovering scam operations do not recognise it as dodgy. But it is.

When The Irish Times visited its listed address, this week we found the building had been demolished eight years earlier.

The landline phone number went to an answering service which invited callers to leave a message or hold for an operator. Anyone choosing to hold for more than 90 seconds is automatically disconnected.

Cybercrimes

The Garda Síochána is aware of the details of the case and is investigating it.

However, officers say cross-border cybercrimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute even with details of a real bank account in a European country as a lead.

Criminals can easily buy dormant accounts on the black market and once the money is transferred into them, it can be wired anywhere in the world after which the trail effectively runs cold.

Last week, we contacted the company first through the same channels used by Coulan.

We said we wanted to book the accommodation for May and, like Coulan, Marcus Westerlind had good news for us.

The property was available. He asked for the money upfront after which we told him we were from The Irish Times and had some questions for him.

That was the last we heard from him. Yesterday the website was taken down. Another version will probably go up today.