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'We don't need to explain': Investigating a travel deal that looks like a scam

'We don't need to explain': Investigating a travel deal that looks like a scam
A screenshot of a conversation with sales consultant "Issac" from purported travel company Travel Key.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – Days after travellers reported an online travel agency to the police for allegedly swindling them of more than $1 million, another purported tour company has emerged with a similar ruse.

“Travel Key” (translated from Chinese) pushes colourful ads on Facebook promoting trips to Kundasang in Sabah, Malaysia, at discounted prices of $436 for a four-day trip.

Travel agencies in Singapore typically price similar trips at $500 to $700, according to itineraries available online.

The Straits Times posed as a customer and contacted Travel Key, and was soon greeted cheerily by sales consultant “Issac” via WhatsApp.

Speaking persuasively in Mandarin voice messages, Issac fielded concerns about Travel Key’s legitimacy. He claimed the company is based in Malaysia but operates as an unregistered agency to evade taxes. Issac said this helps to keep prices low.

In the messages, Issac also sent screenshots of bank transactions purportedly made by other customers, as well as a “guest list” with 39 names, claiming these were people who had already booked the tour package.

He also applied pressure tactics to close the sale for an $872 trip for two. He said payment had to be made within 15 minutes to secure the limited slots available.

“If you keep deliberating, you’ll never be able to go on the trip,” he said, adding that the 11 slots left were selling fast.

Between March and May, at least 48 victims paid for purported travel packages with a sham travel agency that had posted similar ads on Facebook.

The victims were cheated of $1.7 million in total, said the police on Thursday.

ST understands that the online travel agency involved is FL Holidays.

The agency is now uncontactable and its Facebook page has disappeared.

Ms Cheng, who fell victim to the scam and made a police report on May 13, said she was scrolling through Facebook on May 19 when she saw a familiar travel package offer.

“It felt like the same tactics, just with a changed name,” said Ms Cheng, 52, adding that the new advertisements appeared on her Facebook feed several times a day.

Victims had given ST a copy of the guest list FL Holidays sent them in April. The list was to convince the victims that they had to act quickly to secure the trip.

When this list was compared with the one Issac provided, ST found that 37 out of 39 names on the lists were identical.

Thirty-seven of the 39 names on the guest lists of Travel Key (left) and the now uncontactable FL Holidays are identical. PHOTOS: The Straits Times

Even though the file was renamed as Travel Key’s, the original title “FL Holidays.xlsx” remained.

Both agencies listed their address in the same street: Jalan Hospital, in the town of Semporna, Sabah.

After he was confronted, Issac denied any links to FL Holidays.

“We’re a legitimate business,” he said. “I’ve never heard of FL Holidays before.”

Checks by ST show that the original file title of Travel Key's guest list is "FL Holidays.xlsx". PHOTO: The Straits Times

He claimed that fake agencies might have taken Travel Key’s information to cheat others. But there were other red flags.

Although Travel Key claimed to have started business in 2014, checks showed their Facebook posts were all added from May 2023 and backdated several years.

Issac clammed up after a few minutes and said he would speak to his supervisor.

He called back minutes later and said: “My boss said he doesn’t need to explain all these.”

Travel Key claims to have been founded in 2014, but its Facebook posts were added in May and deliberately backdated. PHOTO: Screengrab/Facebook/Travel Key

Five men and two women, aged between 24 and 59, are currently being investigated by the police for their suspected involvement with FL Holidays.

One of them, July Izaak, 29, was charged on May 26 over giving out his Singpass details. An unknown person later allegedly used it to control his DBS and OCBC bank accounts and open other bank accounts.

A spokesman for the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) said the public should book tour packages via a Singapore Tourism Board (STB) licensed travel agent.

The public can verify the legitimacy of travel agencies via STB’s travel agent directory or Natas’ membership listing.

Signs of a travel package scam:

  • If the offer is too good to be true.
  • If you are asked to make urgent funds transfer.
  • If you are asked to reveal your one-time pin.
  • When the identity of the vendor is dubious.

Source: Natas

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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