A stunning luxury six-bed holiday home for rent in the heart of Verbier. The catch? The SFr12,300 ($11,400)-a-week house, Chalet Lumière, does not actually exist.
This was the bad news that greeted the tourist victims of a recent internet letting scam in the popular Swiss ski resort. Police warn visitors to check carefully when booking via the net but say little can be done to prevent such incidents.
“The site was very well done, very professional with pictures of a chalet and lots of information,” Valais cantonal police spokesman Vincent Favre told swissinfo.ch. “It’s easy to see why people were conned.”
According to the police and the Verbier tourist office, several groups of foreign tourists have fallen victim to the rental scam on the site “skichalet-verbier.com which was eventually shut down last weekend.
Local tourist officials got wind of the ruse late last year when a tour operator tipped them off about the mysterious holiday home. Things began to snowball after concerned holidaymakers who had paid deposits started ringing the tourist office with questions about the chalet.
Then in mid-December a British couple arrived in the mountain resort with their skis and luggage only to discover that the spectacular Chalet Lumière, which they had booked and fully paid for by internet, was just a pile of snow.
The unfortunate British pair was later put up in a hotel by the tourist office, which persuaded them to lodge a formal complaint against the site with the British and Swiss police.
Since then other victims of the “ghost” chalet swindle have emerged - the latest being a group of Norwegians at the end of January 2010.
“Three cases involving this chalet are known to the police, but there are certainly more,” said Favre. “The problem is that people don’t always let us know.”
Pierre-Yves Délèze, deputy director of Verbier Tourism, claimed he had heard of around five such incidents involving the same chalet this winter. “It was almost a professional site. The only suspect thing was that there was no address and only a contact fax number in England,” he said.
Verbier tourist officials gave the site owners an ultimatum to shut down but received no reply.
According to the Valais police, the website was hosted in London but was registered under a company’s name in Canada, which for commercial reasons guarantees anonymity.
“There is nothing illegal in that,” Pierre-Antoine Lengen, head of financial crime at the Valais force, told Le Matin newspaper.
The site was shut down twice last month, but by changing host servers it managed to be reactivated. The site appears to have again closed.
Yet the police admit that investigating the scam will be complicated due to the anonymity issue and the fact that it is not easy to trace money paid over the net into a bank account.
Opening an account with a London bank using a false ID is fairly simple, said Lengen. “The victims have pretty much no chance of recovering their money once it’s been paid,” said the inspector.
This is not the first time criminals have tried to rip off tourists by offering non-existent holiday accommodation in Switzerland.
Véronique Kanel, spokewoman for Switzerland Tourism, told swissinfo.ch that several similar incidents had occurred in Swiss resorts in the past, but they remained “exceptional”.
The first such scam in Verbier was reported two to three years ago, explained Délèze. He added that the latest was an “isolated incident” and played down any possible damage to the resort’s reputation, which enjoys one million overnight stays per year – three-quarters in winter.
“This has limited actual impact,” he said. “It’s not very pleasant in terms of image for Verbier, but we are obliged to inform people so they don’t get caught out.”
But Verbier is not taking any risks. It has posted information about the scam on its website and has informed all relevant parties, including the police and Switzerland Tourism in London.
Following the recent incidents, the Valais police have also issued their own recommendations for people renting holiday accommodation in Switzerland via the internet.
These include researching the rental company, reaching a contact person by other means than the internet and always calling the tourism office to check the accommodation. They said it was also worth contacting the beneficiary’s bank, which should provide written confirmation about the customer.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
The mountain resort of Verbier in canton Valais is part of the Four Valleys ski area, encompassing the resorts of Verbier, Nendaz, Veysonnaz, La Tzoumaz and Thyon.
It is best known for its high challenging runs, powder snow and lively après-ski, attracting hundreds of thousands of skiers from across Europe. Skiing extends from the town at 1,500m to the peak of Mont Fort at 3,300m.
Tourists spend one million nights in accommodation in Verbier each year, three-quarters during winter.