Digital travel scams are a growing “systemic and global” problem, according to the World Travel Organization, an arm of the UN. Dozens of Brazilian women have found out the hard way, after paying for a luxury vacation for a man whose Instagram account sparkles with opulent hotels and exotic locales.
Last December, Maria (pseudonym) decided to get away from the heat of the Australian summer and take her family on a ski holiday in Europe.
It was her first trip since the pandemic and she wanted it to be special. So she paid $20,000 to a travel agent, Rafael Bessa, a fellow Brazilian who had been recommended by a friend, and made the long flight north.
To begin with, everything was perfect, but when Maria left the third hotel, the manager told her that the room had not been paid for.
Two other shocks followed one another quickly. When Maria contacted Rafael Bessa for help, she noticed that he was unable to speak to the hotel manager in French, despite claiming to have attended an exclusive boarding school in the Alps. Then, when the family boarded a train to their next destination, there was a problem with the tickets: he had provided two tickets with the same purchase number, meaning only one was valid.
At the next hotel, it was the same story: Maria had to pay the bill, even though she had already paid in full.
Initially, she had assumed that Rafael Bessa was simply incompetent. “Then I said, ‘No, it’s not a mistake, it’s on purpose. It’s in bad faith. “”
In total, Maria says she paid $30,000 for the vacation — the $20,000 she paid up front, plus an additional $10,000 for just one of the hotels. Maria says that in addition to telling her he paid for the room, Rafael Bessa said he offered her a free upgrade – but he didn’t, and the hotel charged the full price amazing for the super deluxe room.
Rafael Bessa’s money-back promises have come to nothing, says Maria. Although he sent her various “proofs” of money transfers, the money never arrived in her account.
Then, when she posted about her experiences on social media, she said her lawyer contacted her, offering to pay her back $20,000 on the condition that she sign a nondisclosure agreement. She refused.
The BBC has asked Rafael Bessa to comment on Maria’s allegations. He replied that there had been an unspecified “problem” with the price of one of the hotels, and that the room at that price had not been included in the package. He also sent copies of the train reservations – which, as Maria said, both had the same purchase number.
Another Brazilian, Ana Jalenna, has booked an alpine skiing trip and also a summer vacation in Italy with Rafael Bessa, after he arranged a “fantastic” family vacation for her in Brazil.
She paid part of the bill in cash and the plan was that he would put the rest on her credit card. Some time later, she was surprised to see a payment to British Airways appear on her card account and called him to tell him about it.
It was payment for his Italian hotel, he told her. Finding it hard to believe, she emailed the hotel and was told that no payment had been made.
Ana decided to ask Rafael Bessa for proof that he had at least made the reservations at the ski resort. He gave her two reservation numbers, but the hotel told her they weren’t valid.
“I lost the money, the dream, the trip. I lost everything,” she says.
Later, she spoke to other dissatisfied customers of Rafael Bessa and noticed a trend.
“The first trip was fantastic and everything is going well,” she says. “And then he takes a longer trip, a better trip with expensive hotels, and he does that to people.”
Rafael Bessa pressed the BBC for booking the Italian hotel. He said Ana canceled the ski trip and he refunded her the money.
But Ana said she didn’t cancel it — and didn’t get a refund.
The Holiday Swindler: The Rise of Digital Travel Scams
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Watch on BBC iPlayer (UK only)
Maria and Ana were angry and scarred by their experience, but neither suffered financial hardship as a result.
For Adriane Trofin, a Brazilian mother of two who lives in London, the failure of her dream family vacation in Greece this year has been more traumatic.
She first met Rafael Bessa on Facebook, captivated by his posts in Beautiful Places, and struck up a friendship online.
She explained that she couldn’t afford this kind of vacation herself, but he replied that there were trips for all budgets, and she ended up booking a dream vacation in Greece for 14 people. in total – members of his family and a number of friends. .
They had prepaid Rafael Bessa for the stay at a four-star Club Med hotel, but the cars that should have met them at Athens airport did not arrive.
Adriane messaged Rafael Bessa for help. He reassured her that everything had been booked and gave her three phone numbers for the car company, but she could not reach any of them.
The group was stuck for hours. Eventually, Club Med airport operations manager David Doepfer came to their aid. He quickly established that there was no reservation at Club Med in Adriane’s name. Rafael Bessa had once booked rooms, he learned, but did not pay for them by the expiration date.
David called the travel agent and asked him to book another hotel in Athens for the group, which he agreed to do. But David says when he called the new hotel to check that Rafael Bessa had kept his word, he was told the rooms had not been paid for.
In the end, Adriane’s husband paid for the whole group to stay at another hotel, at a cost of $12,000.
“I spent this week, these seven days, chatting with Rafael day and night on the phone, trying to get him to send at least some of the money. He started laughing at me,” Adriane says. He also harassed other members of the group, she says, convincing some of them that the problem was Adriane’s fault and that she owed him money.
“I was in hell. I had never faced a worse situation in my life, I have never had anything worse in my life than those seven days in Greece.
“My marriage is still very shaken by this. For me, it’s a lot of money, you know? But it’s not just about the money anymore.”
She says the experience left her “emotionally destroyed”.
Although he assured Adriane, as she waited at the airport, that everything would be fine, Rafael Bessa told the BBC that he canceled the hotel reservation because Adriane had not paid everything she owed him.
But Adriane showed the BBC evidence of money transfers made before the trip covering the full cost of the hotel. She had agreed with Rafael Bessa to pay for three plane tickets in instalments, and was up to date with those payments – which Mr Bessa confirmed in screenshots of messages he sent to the BBC.
The BBC spoke to 10 other clients of Rafael Bessa. Along with Maria, Ana and Adriane, they say they paid her $90,000 for services that were not provided.
We also spoke to Brazilian lawyer Victor Penido Machado, who is suing Rafael Bessa on behalf of nearly 50 clients. They paid a total of $183,000 for hotel reservations and other services that were not provided, he says.
A similar pattern repeats itself over and over again, the lawyer says. Clients arrive at their destination, find that a hotel hasn’t been paid for, and fail to convince Rafael Bessa to refund them.
Approached by the BBC, Mr Bessa denied the claims of his former clients, saying he was “shocked”.
“I’m really surprised by the number of errors, 90% of your facts are wrong,” he wrote.
The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) says social media is increasingly being used by travel agents to persuade customers to buy dream vacations – vacations they too can hope to post on social media.
“Because they are displayed on social media, tourists may feel that these services are more reliable than if they found them on any ordinary website,” says Alicia Gomez, legal counsel for the UNWTO.
At the same time, digital travel scams are on the rise all over the world, says Ms. Gomez.
“It has become a global and systemic problem. Many consumers and national authorities are reporting an increase in online scams, and the number could be even higher as the shame and guilt of tourists falling in love with them discourages reporting. .”
UNWTO has developed a code for the protection of tourists, which it says clarifies the responsibilities of social media companies, governments and consumers and outlines how governments and private companies can work better together.
So far, seven countries have signed the code, incorporating it into their national legislation, while others, including Brazil, are in the process of doing so.
Meta, owner of Instagram and Facebook, told the BBC: “We do not allow fraudulent activity on our platforms and work closely with law enforcement to support investigations and prevent scammers from walk in.
“We continue to invest in new technologies and spent approximately $5 billion last year on safety and security.”
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