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Hot topic: Holiday sickness scams

A surge in fraudulent food poisoning claims from our fellow Brits is driving up holiday prices and ruining our reputation abroad. Will the tide turn before we’re banned from European resorts?

Hot topic: Holiday sickness scams
Image: Getty

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I’m in Pondicherry, India. Well, I could be anywhere really because, while my friends are out for the night in the captivating Franco-Indian city, I’m in my generic resort hotel room, lying on the floor, sweating onto the faux-marble ceramic tiles as the ceiling spins. For safety’s sake, I’m only a two-metre crawl to the bathroom. Yes, I’m in India, and I’ve got a stomach bug. How cliched.

Delhi belly, Tehran tummy, the Aztec two-step, the Rangoon runs. Most travellers have had it at one time or another. It happens. The thought of suing anybody never occurs to me, nor would it to most of us.

But, over the past year in Majorca alone there’s been a reported 700% rise in claims against all-inclusive resorts on the grounds of gastroenteritis. It’s not just Spain that’s seeing this dramatic upturn in sickness claims: Portugal, Cyprus, Turkey, and Bulgaria are reporting similar spikes, and the claimants are nearly always British tourists.

“There’s strong evidence to suggest the majority of these claims are exaggerated or fraudulent,” explains Sean Tipton from the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). “Unscrupulous claims management companies have been witnessed encouraging holidaymakers to submit false claims and coaching people on what to say.”

Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) told me: “The ambulance-chasing legal firms that used to advertise their services on a no-win no-fee basis for whiplash injuries had their activities curtailed by a cap on what they could claim in fees and legal costs. They looked for another revenue stream where such a limit did not apply under UK law. As such, one major tour operator [TUI] has seen a 1,400% increase in claims.”

A search online yields scores of legal outfits with holiday-sickness-specific domain names. One suggests claimants can receive payouts of up to £3,000 for ‘mild food poisoning, involving stomach pain, cramps and diarrhoea continuing for several days’, and up to £40,000 for ‘severe food poisoning’.

Initially, holiday companies found it cheaper to pay out rather than accumulate legal costs fighting claims — which was financially sensible in the short-term — but alarm bells started ringing in the industry as sickness claims increased exponentially.

Now the tide is turning and a British couple were recently ordered to pay Thomas Cook £3,700 in costs after a judge threw out their ‘wholly implausible’ three-year-old claim. Another couple’s bar bill showed that, despite claiming they’d been bed-ridden during their holiday, they had still managed to consume 109 alcoholic drinks in the nine days.

“This is why there’s a campaign to persuade the Government to stop unlimited costs in overseas cases,” says Moore. “Once that loophole is closed, the ambulance chasers will move on.”

In the meantime, the reputation of British holidaymakers is taking a battering, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson quipping that British stomachs have “become the most delicate in the world.”

The Federation of Majorca Hotel Businesses recently revealed the cost to their members alone was £42m last year, and it’s only a matter of time before these costs are passed on to the consumer or hoteliers decide to ban Brits. Now that’s enough to make you sick.

Q&A

How do we know the claims aren’t genuine?
Reported sickness levels in these resorts have remained stable, while claims have soared. Were these claims true, says Spanish hoteliers association, CEHAT, ‘a worldwide health alert would have been declared’.

What are the risks of making a false claim?
Sean Tipton from ABTA says: “Making an exaggerated or bogus sickness claim is a form of fraud. You’d be committing a crime, which could of course lead to prosecution in both the UK and the country where you took the holiday.”

What if I’ve actually got a genuine claim?
Derek Moore from AITO says: “Make sure you report any illness to the holiday representative at your resort, and keep hold of any doctor’s bills as evidence.” Tipton adds: “Claim directly through your tour operator, and if you’re not happy with their offer, use the ABTA arbitration scheme or the small claims court. That way you’ll receive the full amount of any compensation awarded and won’t be putting money into the pockets of claims companies.”

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)