The Holiday Swindler: How woman’s dream holiday became $30K scam

A Brazilian woman has told of how her dream holiday turned upside down when she discovered her travel agent had scammed her out of $30,000.

Maria (not her real name), living in Australia, shared her story in BBC documentary The Holiday Swindler, available to stream on Flash.

Last year, Maria decided to take her family on a skiing trip to Europe. She booked with Rafael Bessa’s travel agency, Rafael Bessa Signature Travel, and paid him $15,000 to organise the vacation.

“Usually what I spend is half of what he was quoting,” she told the program.

“But I said to myself, ‘I haven’t travelled for two years. OK, let’s go’.”

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Maria and her family planned a tour around the continent and have two blocks of skiing.

At first, everything was fine, but when Maria left the third hotel, the manager informed her that the room had not been paid for.

“The manager said: ‘Look, we didn’t receive anything from your travel agent’,” she said.

Maria contacted Bessa for help and he explained it was a “misunderstanding”. She said that the agent promised to reimburse her but she was never paid.

“Summary of the story: we pay, we pay and we continue the journey,” she said.

When Maria got to her next hotel to check out, she had to pay the bill, even though she had already paid it in full.

In total, Maria said she lost $30,000 on the holiday: $15,000 of the money she had paid in advance, plus an additional $15,000 for just one of the hotels.

Maria later posted about her experiences on Bessa’s social networks, saying that he owed her money.

She said that the agent was annoyed with her and deleted her messages

“He said he was going to sue me,” she recalled.

Maria received a message from Bessa’s lawyer saying that he would give her a partial refund if she signed a nondisclosure agreement. She turned it down.

“The guy hasn’t paid me so far, and then I’m going to sign a contract saying I’m not going to say anything and then he’s going to pay me? It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

The Holiday Swindler investigates Bessa and interviews a trail of his unhappy clients around the world.

Brazilian lawyer Victor Penido Machado represents a group of 50 people who claim they were scammed by the agent.

According to Machado, the clients paid almost $183,000 for hotel bookings and other services that were not delivered.

The solicitor said there is a pattern of customers finding that a hotel has not been paid for, and cannot get their money back from Bessa.

Machado noticed that many of the contracts signed by the agent’s clients had a confidentiality clause with a hefty penalty if they spoke publicly about him.

“It’s one of the clauses he uses to threaten customers,” the lawyer said.

“If they happen to expose him on WhatsApp or social media, he invokes that clause to say that they will be prosecuted.”

Bessa declined an interview with the BBC but he sent several messages denying the claims.

“I am shocked by your allegations,” he wrote to the program.

“I am really surprised with the amount of errors in this documentary … even false allegations.

“If this documentary airs, we will file a lawsuit against the BBC.

“Be careful before [you] put this documentary [out] because 90 per cent of your facts are false.”

According to the BBC, the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has developed a code of conduct to protect tourists.

It states that private and social media companies and governments can do more and better work together.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, told the broadcaster: “We don’t allow fraudulent activity on our platforms and spent approximately $5 billion last year on safety and security.”

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