Business Maverick


Flights of fantasy — avoid falling victim to a travel swindle

Flights of fantasy — avoid falling victim to a travel swindle
(Photo: Unsplash / Pietro de Grandi | pngegg)

A year after Hello Darlings was accused by hundreds of victims of scamming them, another ‘travel’ agency, Priority Escapes, has closed overnight, leaving clients high and dry.

With the global travel rush in full swing in 2023, analysts at the Economic Intelligence Unit predict a 30% rise in international tourist arrivals in South Africa. This means many millions of tourists and plenty of cash, which offers an abundance of opportunities for fraudsters.

The Association of South African Travel Agents, Asata — has now warned consumers to be on their guard and deal only with accredited travel agents, so they have recourse.

Asata, a voluntary association with no regulatory powers, represents about 90% of the SA travel sector. It cannot, as CEO Otto de Vries explained, take any action against non-members. But it does hold sway over its own members, who are properly vetted.

Travel is not a regulated sector, De Vries said. “You need to think very carefully about working with a trusted travel partner. Our members get reviewed on an annual basis. If at any stage I have concerns around anyone’s financial situation, I can ask them for a special-purpose audit, which has to be delivered to me within 10 days. They sign up to our constitution and our code of conduct. We have a charter that all the major groups have signed.”

Easy target

TransUnion data suggest that the travel and leisure sector was one of the industries most affected globally by digital fraud attempts, which rose by 156% in 2021.

The recent reports of the Priority Escapes scam comes barely a year after the founder of Hello Darlings, the “Holiday Swindler” Tasneem Moosa was accused of conning more than 2,000 South Africans out of about R100-million, before abruptly liquidating her company and going into hiding. About 400 fraud cases have been opened with the police.

The Citizen reported about a Johannesburg-based travel agency, Priority Escapes, whose “managing director”, Francois Swart (who is apparently the sole director), has been accused of swindling a substantial number of victims.

Victims claim that he sold them holiday packages, but instead of providing clients with a dream holiday, he has now apparently made a run for it.

Priority Escapes — professing to be for the traveller who expects more — claimed to be the only South African Maldives travel specialist, with tailor-made exclusive deals that will take you “Direct To Paradise”.

The “agency” had offered affordable holidays (alarm bell one), which included direct flights to the Maldives (alarm bell two).

Direct flights to Maldives from Johannesburg have been unavailable since December 2022.

On 12 August, Swart mailed his clients, saying “…we find ourselves in a position whereby we are unable to meet our financial obligations in respect of Priority Escapes clients and service providers… We have had no option other than to cease trading with immediate effect.”

Despite Swart inviting his clients to e-mail [email protected] and saying, “We are doing everything possible for the clients affected by this and will communicate with you in due course”, the company’s website has been taken down, the telephone lines disconnected and the office in Fourways closed.

Swart (39) appears to have had some success with customers, as Priority Escapes received praise on social media (particularly HelloPeter) and celebrity endorsements from actress and DJ Thando Thabethe as well as Zozibini Tunzi, a former Miss South Africa.

Complaints on HelloPeter

But the cracks started showing back in May last year, with the first complaint on HelloPeter.

“Jacqueline A” described booking with Priority Escapes as “the most stressful, unprofessional travel experience from booking to travelling.

“Will never recommend or use it again. From lying about cancelled Air Seychelles flights to failing to book and confirm our transit seaplane and resort, to blaming Radisson for sending mails on a day when a particular agent doesn’t work as an excuse for not replying to mails from the resort trying to confirm us, Priority Escapes was unprofessional in the extreme.

“The entire experience demonstrated that their priority is what is convenient for them and taking any kind of accountability was never on the agenda — every error on their part was someone else’s fault (Air Seychelles, Radisson Blu — they were all blamed).

“The fact that they had clients stranded in Male for a day due to their incompetence (an apology or offer of assistance never in sight) and were quite happy to take no responsibility at all and let Radisson Blu clean up their mess says it all.”

In October, Tshilidzi M said on HelloPeter that Priority Escapes had made her hate travelling. After describing the poor after-sales service and horrible flight experience, she wrote: “Every experience with this agency was a mess… Nobody after the trip called us to apologise.”

“Louise”, whose family holiday to the Maldives in December-January was booked and paid for in October 2021 and then postponed because of Covid, complained on HelloPeter that their hotel had informed them that payment had been received only hours after they had arrived at the airport desk.

Addressing Swart directly, she described a stressful, humiliating four-hour wait for their transfer to the hotel, after a nine-hour flight.

“Your behavior [sic] then and now is disgraceful, it may, in fact, be criminal and we are seeking legal advice. We have told everyone we know — there are ethical, responsible travel shops out there but Priority Escapes is not one of them.”

Air Seychelles

Those who planned their trips to “paradise” with what Swart called his “escape artists” (consultants) this year didn’t know that last August, Air Seychelles, which had been operating the direct flights from Joburg to the Maldives’ capital, Malé, announced that it would no longer fly that route from the end of December 2022.

Many Priority Escapes clients were told by Swart just weeks or days before their departure that their direct flights “to paradise” — for which the agency had issued them vouchers — were not available.

Victims had paid substantial deposits upfront — some in full, months in advance.

Swart is uncontactable and could not be traced for comment.

Google is your friend

There were many warning signs, and De Vries said one of the sure ones is a cheap price — especially compared against a few other quotes.

Another big neon warning sign is when an agency/supplier refuses to accept credit card payments.

“It might seem a little odd, but it’s actually very, very important, because when you use a credit card, you have chargeback protection in the event of undelivered services within a window of 180 days. When an operator says, ‘No, we don’t accept credit cards, you must send an EFT,’ you’re basically paying cash and that should be a red flag instantly.”

Google is your friend; always do your homework. There are simple checks and balances that anyone should conduct before dealing with a supplier and especially before handing over large sums of money.

As De Vries says, “Get a quote from another travel agency. And if they say, ‘Sorry mate, but those flights no longer exist’,  and you still go ahead with the booking, that’s on you.”

Tips from Asata on shielding yourself from a scam 

  • The “too good to be true” deals: Jaw-dropping prices, exclusive deals, and limited-time offers can make even the savviest traveller click “book now”.
  • Bogus booking websites: Behind polished designs and breathtaking destination photos lurk fraudsters waiting for your clicks.
  • Phantom flight tickets: A sudden deal to popular destinations catches your eye. After payment, the airline ticket either never materialises or is a fake.
  • High-profile event scams: Major events, such as sports tournaments or religious pilgrimages, are a gold mine for scammers.
  • Holiday accommodation ccandals: A serene villa by the beach, listed at a seriously low price.
  • Email traps: That seemingly innocent email from a “reputable” travel company might just be a phishing scheme. They’ll coax personal details out of you, often under the guise of “confirmation”.

If you suspect you’ve been scammed:

Contact your bank’s fraud department and request the chargeback option, which is only available if you’ve paid by credit card, not EFT, and report the case to the police. DM


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