Nicole Johnston was watching COVID-19 cases climb toward a new high at home and wanted her son back in Thailand, where he had previously lived and attended university.

Last month they began the process of booking what’s known as “Alternative State Quarantine” for his first two weeks of isolation upon arrival from South Africa. Her son, Thabo Thusi, completed a travel site’s online inquiry form and soon heard back via email from several hotels. He reached terms with one, but after paying THB35,000 (USD$1,170) to book the room, Thusi was surprised by an email from the hotel requesting another transfer of the same amount.

“This caution fees came to stay as a result of some Guest can damage some of the hotel properties and they go, and some Joiner will visit friend on hotel might do some little damage, with this, our management have decided to implement caution fees,” the email said.

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Thusi and his mother rightly balked and refused to pay. As they scrambled to book another hotel in time for his Jan. 15 arrival date, came the horrifying realization that they – along with others, they would learn – had become victims of scammers preying on travelers during the pandemic.

“I was devastated,” Johnston said yesterday. “When he phoned me and said they wanted another 35 grand, the hair on the back of my head stood up. I’m retired. I’m on a retirement visa. We spent a lot of money to do this. … The fact that this happened, I cried.”

The hotel staff they were corresponding with in a vain attempt to obtain a refund were scammers.

Hope Land, the real hotel chain whose Soi Sukhumvit 8 branch they were trying to book, told Coconuts that it was aware of the scam. Sithinun Phomthong from its IT department said Monday that they have been aware for a few weeks now and went to file a complaint at the Lumpini Police Station on Jan. 27. He said the scammers hadn’t hacked or intercepted their emails but rather had “imitated” the hotel.

Sithinun said they had gone to the trouble of registering a similar domain name – a bogus hopelands8.com vs. the legitimate hopeland8.com – but there was nothing currently at the site this week, and none of the emails reviewed was sent from the domain.

The scammers used a Gmail account – [email protected] to contact Thusi after he completed the online inquiry form at the Wander Thai site, one of many similar directories of quarantine hotels.

The email came amid other responses from hotels indicating whether they were full or available, all of which included an in-line reply to his original message and probably headers and addressing information. Such a discrepancy appears now to have been a red flag in the clarity of hindsight.

It still leaves open the question of how the scammers got Thusi’s email and responded as quickly as the other hotels.

WanderThai.com, which appeared to forward his inquiry to multiple hotels in good faith, has since deactivated its Hope Land listing. And attempts to find similar scam versions of domain names for about 20 other listed ASQ hotels failed to locate any.

After first speaking with Hope Land about the issue, we wanted to ask them if they suspected an inside job involving one of its current or former employees, but the hotel did not return further calls.

Thusi found a Reddit thread posted Jan. 7 to the Thailand subreddit warning people of the scam and naming the same branch of Hope Land.  The suspect hopelands8.com domain name was registered Dec. 13.

Both Thusi and Johnston expressed frustration that the hotel had been aware of the issue for some time without any apparent effort to warn guests.

“But it seems that they haven’t done anything to alert people about it, so more people could fall prey to this,” Thusi said in a message.

They note that amid the complaints, the hotel scrubbed the email from its contact information. Later, on Jan. 28, Hope Land did post a warning about how to avoid scams on social media. A similar message has been added to its website’s contact page.

Coconuts saw at least three other similar complaints and confirmed the details with a fourth.

“To be honest I don’t understand how I fell into the trap. I thought I had contacted the hotel (hope land) through their email found on the website and brochures,” Sabina Perondini said in a message. “When I paid they asked me to pay a deposit and I knew something was wrong. I contacted the hotel via Facebook, they checked and realized it was a scam.”

Perondini shared multiple emails nearly identical to those received by Thusi from the same Gmail account.

Sithinun, from Hope Land’s IT office, said those who think they were scammed should file complaints at the Lumpini Police Station, though he noted hearing from a number of Thai guests who were scammed that were turned away by the police for some reason. A station representative who refused to give her name said the victims might have “misunderstood” what the officers told them.

After several calls to the station over three days this week, officers as of Wednesday were unable to find a record of the hotel’s complaint.

Pattharaphon Srisaard, a receptionist at Hope Land’s Soi Sukhumvit 8 branch, said payments should be made to the account of Nirun Nova Co., Ltd. only. She said once payment is received, guests will get a hotel confirmation and there will be no additional charges at all after that. The price, as advertised, already includes everything from airport pick-up to the room and health services.

To avoid being scammed, travelers should either book directly with hotels or through officially authorized booking agencies such as Agoda, Locanation and Ascendtravel. Transactions conducted solely by email may not be secure.

That’s too late for Jonhston, who has accepted that she’s unlikely to get her money back. Still, she wants to help other people from falling for the con. And she hopes the authorities will take action to protect others as well.

“I cant believe Thailand would let this happen,” Johnston said. “Like Thabo, we love Thailand.”

And she’s glad to have him around. Johnston just found out this week that four of her relatives died back home in Africa.

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