Britain’s government will place a cap on fees charged by solicitors who handle sickness cases for clients who have been abroad in a bid to clamp down on the lucrative ‘fake food poisoning’ fraud which is crippling hotels and holiday resorts along the Mediterranean.
The number of claims against tour operators – which are passed on to the resort owners – for illness allegedly suffered by UK holidaymakers has increased 500% in just three years.
Spain is not the only victim – typical sun, sea and sand destinations across southern Europe including Portugal, Greece and Cyprus have also fallen victim to the scam – but Spanish hotels appear to be the main target, especially in the Canary and Balearic Islands, the Costa del Sol and Costa Blanca, particularly Benidorm.
Justice minister Rafael Catalá says the cost to hotels and holiday complexes in Spain runs into millions of euros.
Claim touts have been seen patrolling tourist belts in vans designed to look like ambulances, approaching Brits on the street and asking them if they would like ‘a free holiday’.
They tell them they only have to show a receipt for the purchase of over-the-counter diarrhoea medication, and can wait until they return home to file a claim.
Lawyers, who often get clients through agencies making cold calls, say holidaymakers have up to three years after their trip to sue the resort and do not have to show they have reported the matter to its staff or management – in fact, the number of official complaints directly to hotels by guests on site about the food or suffering illness has remained the same in the last three years, or even gone down.
So far, only a handful of offending holidaymakers have been caught, tried and fined, despite the fact the scam is very visible to hoteliers: huge numbers of British guests sue them after becoming ill from the food served due to ‘poor quality’ or ‘lack of proper hygiene’, yet no other nationality gets sick.
The UK’s justice ministry said in a recent letter to travel association governing body ABTA that solicitors would no longer be able to charge ‘exceptionally high’ fees for representing tourists in these cases.
ABTA boss Mark Tanzer said he is ‘delighted’ with the decision to cap solicitors’ fees, as ‘unscrupulous lawyers’ will no longer be able to get rich by helping their customers invent claims.
Tanzer also wants the UK government to outlaw cold calls encouraging householders to file claims for alleged food poisoning suffered within the last three years – calls which are now becoming as frequent as missold PPI or ‘car-crash chaser’ compensation touting.
As well as damaging Spanish hotels – many of which are family-run businesses – hitting their pockets as well as their reputation, the fake sickness scam is costing the British tourism industry dearly, Tanzer reveals.
And it has also thrown genuine cases of sickness on holiday under suspicion.
ABTA says if any tourist becomes ill whilst at an all-inclusive resort, they should tell the tour operator or hotel immediately and seek medical attention while they are still unwell.
In the vast majority of holiday food poisoning cases, the cause is merely the different bacteria in the water or ingredients served, which tourists’ digestive systems react to because they are not used to it – a situation that could just as easily affect natives of the holiday destination themselves if they were to visit the UK.
Where this happens and any expense is incurred, it should be covered by the travel insurance taken out at the time of booking, and emergency treatment needed in EU countries will be covered for British tourists through their EHIC cards.