Hundreds of holidaymakers have been conned into paying thousands of pounds in a bid to secure huge -- but bogus -- savings on luxury holidays.
The six companies involved in the scam have now been wound up by the High Court following a Department of Trade and Industry investigation, but not before up to £3m had gone into the coffers of the conmen.
The companies, based in the UK and various overseas locations including Spain and the Bahamas, were all in cahoots and offered online discounts for luxury holidays over a two-year period.
Members of the public were lured to sales presentations by the offer of a "free" holiday which they subsequently found difficult -- if not impossible -- to obtain. At the presentations they were persuaded to purchase a so-called "key" -- a user name and password -- giving them access to Web sites that were said to offer massive savings on holiday accommodation.
The initial asking price for these keys was £6,000, although that figure could be reduced to £2,000 if members signed-up to the scheme in perpetuity or for a fixed number of years (usually 25). There were no cancellation rights.
Much of the information given to potential clients was false or misleading. For example, one of the companies, Travelmasters Limited, falsely claimed to be both ABTA and ATOL bonded and to have originated from the former well-known holiday chain Intasun. The holiday savings did not match those promised at the sales presentations.
The money raised from the 1,200 or so victims of the scam was traced to the bank accounts of a company called CCH International Limited, based in Gibraltar and Spain. Nearly £414,000 went to Gibraltar, of which some £234,065 was paid to a Mr Paul Charleston -- a director of several of the companies linked to the scheme -- who resides in Majorca. It is not known what happened to the money sent to Spain.
Consumer minister Melanie Johnson said: "Many families have had their holiday dreams ruined. People need to beware of unscrupulous holiday clubs that promise a lifetime of impossibly cheap holidays in exotic locations. This is a lesson to unscrupulous operators that we will take legal action to close them down."
The other four companies wound up by the High Court were Mediterranean Marketing Limited, Callmasters UK Limited, Intersun Limited and Leisuremasters Limited.
Potential clients were initially told to go to www.qualycon.net. Subsequently the following URLs were used: go-travelmasters.com; travelmasters.com; intersun.co.uk; leisuremasters.co.uk; and leisuremasters.net.uk.
By virtue of the winding up orders the government's official receiver is now the liquidator of all six companies and has a responsibility to investigate why they failed and the conduct of the directors.
Any enquiries should be made to: The Official Receiver, Public Interest Unit, 21 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3SS, or by phone on 020 7637 1110.