In prepping for my trip to England, I've seen many posts from people who had a bait and switch on rooms/rentals from online providers. They'd arrive and then be told the specific apartment/flat they rented wasn't available (occupied, dirty, etc) and be moved to another location of the owner which wasn't what they wanted. My question is -- what can you do if this occurs? Is there a governmental body in England to direct complaints to? Go to Police? Since payment is required prior to rental, they have your money. I'd welcome suggestions and just want to prepare for the worst (while hoping for the best!). Thanks.
Rebekka, I usually deal directly with the hotel on their website, rather than using online providers. I also primarily use hotels listed in the Guidebook, and so far, I've never had a problem with "bait & switch". Happy travels!
I'm not sure if there is any governmental body that will intervene in a situation like this, hopefully someone from England will be able to answer that question. The one online company I've rented from and feel comfortable recommending is AirBNB. They work as the middle man and handle the monetary part of the transaction. You do contact the owner/provider initially, once you agree on renting a particular room or apartment the transaction is then handled through the company. Stay away from Craigslist or anything similar, too many ways for things to go wrong, no controls, from what I've read problems exactly like you describe happen there.
The police won't be interested in what is basically a civil dispute - the only way they might get involved would be if it were an outright fraud where the flat didn't exist and the person took your money and vanished. Unfortunately I don't think there's any regulatory body - it's just the risk you take when you go for private rental rather than a hotel.
You can sue your provider for loss of value, loss of enjoyment etc, but experiencing the British court system is not usually what a traveller wants to do, and of course the case would take some time to be held. In the UK you could also go after your credit card provider as being equally liable for provision of service, but that would require a similar provision being available in your jurisdiction. As to reporting the trader somewhere if it is UK based you could do that to Trading Standards. This is run by the city or county council, but you can do it via the Citizens Advice Bureau on 08454 04 05 06, or via their website. This is not a good route for getting compensation though.
I don't work for them, but the airbnb system should protect buyers from such scams since your deal is with the company rather than the apartment owner. Supposedly, the money for the rental is held but isn't released to the apartment owner until both sides are satisfied. That should keep everybody honest. On VRBO, your deal is with the apartment owner. They have your money. In case of a problem, complaints to VRBO would probably be the solution if the owner doesn't fix the problem.
Your best protection is probably with your credit card company. Long story short, friends of ours who came for a visit fell victim to a scam in Paris. I tried to help them out (because I spoke French), but got nowhere and they had to dispute the charge with their credit card company. One thing they learned is to never make payment via the web to a website you've never heard of. Don't assume it's "European" - even the Europeans use PayPal.
If this is a real concern of Rebekka's, then I suggest she book a hotel, and forget about apartments.
I think you can't be overly picky when you're trying to save money - even hotels don't guarantee a certain room (unless it specifically says "water view" and you're paying a lot for that water view - then you have a right to get what you pay for). I find that as long as I don't overpay for the room, I can tolerate almost anything as long as it's clean and functional. I don't pay a premium for accepting a certain level of uncertainty, so if you operate that way, you're probably less likely to be disappointed or have complaints that require 3rd party intervention.
Really I haven't seen much about bait and switch on this site. Stick to a place that people have recommended here and I think you will be as safe as booking a hotel room. Vacation in Paris you do all the cash transaction here in the states and your key is sent to you. I only have good things to say about them and many others have posted positive about many other agencies.
I'm not sure exactly what all it covers and/or how to collect, but VRBO and Homeaway.com offer insurance at an additional charge (not much, about $39-69 depending on total cost/length of rental) and I do know one of the things covered is "rental not as represented" so I would assume that if you got shunted to a place other than the one you paid for it would cover that. I think at least you would be able to get some kind of compensation. As with all insurance be sure to read the fine print about coverage and claims. It's something to consider when deciding who to rent from.
I agree with Michael that you don't see much about bait and switch schemes on this site. Like with anything else, do your due diligence and check out each place thoroughly. Consistently good reviews are no guarantee you won't wind up disappointed, but it's more likely your experience will be good. Try to pay by credit card if you can when making advance payments, but if you find a good apartment rental you feel comfortable about it might be worth the risk if you have to pay some cash in advance. I've done that as was more than happy with what I got.
Make it easy on yourself, and simply use a very reputable rental site, such as any of the ones already mentioned. Swan mentioned airbnb.com...I've been using their services all year and have nothing but positive things to report. They have many safeguards in place...you can go read about them on your own. As for payment, although your credit card is charged at time of booking, the apartment owner does not get paid until 24 hours after you check in...plenty of time for you to know if there's a problem. And just like you want what was promised, owners want what was promised, too, so they may charge a security deposit. A hold will be placed on your card right before check-in for whatever amount is required (e.g. could be $300). It will automatically be refunded right after you check out. But if you trashed something, the owner has some recourse. I've stayed in places with no security deposit and others with a deposit as high as $300. Just go to their website and read up on how it all works. It's totally legit and completely safe.