Scammed couple forced to cancel dream wedding in Venice
An engaged couple will have to cancel their dream wedding abroad after falling victim to a cruel internet scam.
Debbie Powell and her fiancé Kieran Murphy planned to get married in Venice in September.
Through the website Airbnb they booked a house for themselves and friends and family to stay in for the big day.
But the Belfast couple, who have been together two-and-a-half years, had their dreams dashed and were left feeling "sick to their stomachs" when they discovered the £1,600 (€2079.21) they paid for the accommodation did not go to a legitimate property owner.
Instead, it appears it was transferred to internet fraudsters.
Airbnb said it was investigating the incident and providing the couple with support.
But Kieran, a civil servant, said he and his fiancée will have no option but to cancel their wedding after losing the money, and were speaking out to warn others.
Airbnb, which lists around 800,000 properties worldwide, provides an online marketplace for property owners to rent out spare rooms or whole properties.
Property listers can specify the type of accommodation and booking periods, set house rules and upload photos of their home.
However, despite security measures, some people have been duped by fake home owners.
Kieran (34) explained: "We got engaged last June on Debbie's birthday. We travelled to Venice last September and went to St Mark's (Basilica) to book where we were getting married.
"I had never heard of the website, but it was recommended to us, so in September we booked a house in Venice through Airbnb. We thought everything was fine."
Debbie, a theatre nurse, clicked a link that took them off the website and onto the site of the person who claimed to own the property.
The host confirmed the booking was available and provided bank details, after which Debbie paid the money directly from her account via a transfer.
Kieran explained they found out just this week they had been duped. "I hadn't been well and Debbie said we should just check any cancellation policy in case we had to cancel last-minute in September - but the emails kept bouncing back," he said.
When Debbie (38) was contacted by Airbnb she was given the devastating news they had fallen victim to an internet scam.
"She was left in tears on the phone when she realised what had happened," Kieran said. "We were told by the company our booking did not exist. Their site can be hacked and we have been scammed out of £1,600 (€2079.21)."
Debbie added: "God knows who we were exchanging emails with and have transferred this money to. Everything looked completely legitimate. We had no idea we weren't talking to Airbnb."
Debbie also told how the only good thing was that they found out before turning up in Venice with a group of people and nowhere to stay. But she added: "We are just sitting here now completely sick to our stomachs."
And Kieran said: "We could have been in Venice with our friends and family for our wedding but with nowhere to stay. It isn't worth thinking about."
The couple, who are contacting the police and Trading Standards, said the fraud "should never have happened" and that the company should have tighter security. "We have now no other option but to cancel our wedding," Debbie added. "My fiancé, myself and all our friends are distraught."
"We want others to be careful," Kieran said. "We don't know if we will get our money back, so we are in limbo. It looks like if we do get married, it will be something here. Debbie is so upset."
A spokesman for Airbnb said customers should only pay via the website and no other page.
It added: "Airbnb protects hosts and guests by handling all payment and communication through our secure platform.
"When you keep your payment and communication strictly on the Airbnb platform, payments are accurate and your account is secure.
"It's one of the reasons that so many hosts and guests book through Airbnb. In the interest of providing excellent, outstanding customer service, we are in contact with the couple and are providing them with our support."
The company also told how its system automatically screens out personal information until a reservation has been booked, which helps keep accounts secure. Recently, it also implemented an anonymised email addresses system and a new security tab.
Report any similar crimes to Action Fraud, the UK's national fraud reporting centre, by calling 0300 123 20 40 or by visiting www.actionfraud.police.uk. For more general advice on how you and your loved ones can stay safe online, visit www.getsafeonline.org