My interview with Kevin Koskella of www.freedomlovin.com.
A conversation on travels, borders, security and other issues that should matter for those who question themselves about the state of the world today.
Ending up with my endeavor to go to every country in the world and then burn my passports to end #GlobalApartheid and #BirthplaceRacism.
Thank you for listening.
What does travelling the world mean today? What is it to be a woman travelling the world? How comes world travellers do not question themselves about borders and freedom of movement? How does so called security makes our lives less secure and our perspectives as human beings more close to that of a herd of sheep?
These are only a few of the issues I touch upon during this recent interview with Ric Gazarian which I share in the hope that more people can join my endeavor to end "Global Apartheid" and "Birthplace Racism".
Thank you for listening.
So what? Booking.com is hosting fraudulent, or perhaps even worse, -or is it better? It depends on how you look at it I suppose- illegal businesses on its website. Who cares? People will be using Booking.com no matter what as it is convenient. They are used to such things in our world, they keep on using the services of sites which have become habitual. As long as it does not affect them much, they are nonchalant. They do not even notice petty thefts as they do not check their credit card statements, they live in ignorant bliss. (Oh how I wish I could do that too!) If fishy things are brought up to their awareness, they just shrug their shoulders and move on. Welcome to the real world, the world we live in.
I've been using Booking for years for my travels. Perhaps because I'm good at choosing, reading the comments and between the lines, or because most places care about their reputation on Booking, the places I booked generally turned out to be good; so I've been quite happy with the service. However, my last trip to Algeria has turned all my opinions about this giant company around. It's been yet another Customer Service trouble and even though they've compensated me partially, it's just another unethical business, only after profit. Whatever customer service they provide is only to keep you as their customer so you can make money for them, i.e. so that they can keep on milking you. But let me tell you what happened, so you decide for yourself:
I booked a place that was non-refundable. I have no problem with that. After choosing I do not bother to go back and try to change anyway.
The trip was some time ahead. Fine. Then I got my credit card statement. I check my card statements. There was a strange transaction that I had not done. I asked my husband if he bought anything online that I did not know of; he negated. So thinking about what it could be, I figured out the only possibility was this Algerian Hotel, Hotel Samir. Actually, the transaction did not come from neither Hotel Samir nor from Algeria, the merchant name that processed the 78 Euros was El Comparador from Spain. Still, Hotel Samir was the only suspect for me. As it was non-refundable, they had the right to charge my card; plus, the amount was more or less the same. Booking.com quotes you the price in your currency and it was said to be 75 Euros. Yet, this is for reference only. It is clearly stated out on the site:
“Currency & Exchange Rate Info
You'll pay Hotel Samir in DZD according to the exchange rate on the day of payment.
The amount displayed in EUR is just an estimate based on today's exchange rate for DZD.”
So first, I wrote to the hotel. No answer. I wrote to them a second time. Still no answer. Upon which I decided to get Booking.com involved. So I wrote to them too.
They replied saying:
“Hotel Samir takes care of all payments, so if there has been a charge you weren’t expecting, contact them to find out what’s happening.”
I said I contacted the hotel but didn't get an answer.
They confirmed my statement. After all, they can see the messaging between us. “It looks like Hotel Samir wasn't able to reply to your message in time.”
Duh, I told you.
“Would you like to call them instead?”
No, I don't. I call and what do I do? I'm not sure they speak any English. What is Booking.com for if not to help customers in such situations? They are the mediators. That's why we book through them. If the hotel doesn't answer a customer on an important subject, Booking makes them answer.
Instead of pressing the hotel, Booking asked me the details of the suspected charge. It's understandable, I could be just making a problem out of nothing. But that was what I wanted confirmed. To check if Hotel Samir charged me 78 Euros. Anyway... I sent Booking a screenshot of the suspected charge, the date and the merchant name.
They weren't satisfied, they wanted to see my bank statement with the logo and all. Of course, that is work. They say it will be used strictly for that and “we respect your privacy” but I sure am not giving unknown people access to my address and expenditures. So I needed to block out all the rest.
Booking wrote back saying they'd be contacting the hotel and letting me know. This was more than a week before my trip. I did not get any answer in three days. So I wrote Booking a second time too, asking them to let me know before my trip. Still no answer from them either. I was getting stressed with this issue, I didn't want to go to a hotel with a shady business. My plane was landing in Algeria late at night and I did not want to deal with finding another place after I got there. I wanted this sorted out in advance so that I knew what I was going to do. Anyway... In the end, I gave it up; it's really hard to nag someone to answer you by email or even the phone, if they don't want to they'll just ignore you or brush you off, give you the runaround. It's so exhausting. Thinking the hotel must be fine, I said “I'll sort it out when I get there. In person.”
So I got there. And I found out that it was in fact them, they had charged me the 78 Euros. I told them they had no right to charge me that amount, I had only authorized 10,200 DZD. I asked them to refund the Euros so that I'd pay them the DZD amount I agreed to pay, in cash. They said “No no no.” They claimed they had a right, that they did this with all other customers. As they did not have the means to process credit cards they worked with a Spanish agency who did it on their behalf and then wired the money to Algeria. Of course there was a cost for this. The hotel said that I paid the agency, I paid the money transfer, I paid Booking and that was the price.
Well yeah (!) ?? Really? And where did I agree to all these costs?? I mean it's the basics of commerce: The merchant quotes a price, if it's in person the customer may bargain, they strike a deal, agree on the price and the merchant charges the customer. Online, there is no bargaining process. The merchants put their prices out there, the customer searches and compares, chooses the one s/he approves and checks it out. What am I missing here?
You do not quote a price in one currency and charge your customer a higher amount in another currency, adding on all kinds of extras s/he did not approve. If you do that, it is generally called cheating. Or it is at least resorting to cheap tricks and it's bad business.
While writing to Booking.com informing them of the situation I came across a comment on their website on Hotel Samir:
"They charge you more then they should and they think it is their right. Their logic is, if you do not pay before you come there, you don't pay the reservation price, but the hotel price, which is higher. They can speak only few words in english. I had to call booking.com and they send me my money back after my stay. Do not expect the receptionists will want to help you..." Ondrej from Czech Republic in April 2018.
So there had been another customer who had been in the same situation and apparently Booking.com had refunded him. I pointed this out to them along with Hotel Samir's explanation about my charge. The answer from Booking:
“We have spoken with the hotel however they did not accept your claim as valid. We have checked your bank statement again and we can see that the merchant name that charged you does not match the one of the hotel (the merchant name is written in Spanish language) and furthermore your bank statement does not specify the currency of the account or of the charge. For these reasons we want to kindly ask if you can please provide a different proof of charge? We look forward to your reply.”
At that point I was really pissed off at Booking! Enough! What kind of an answer is this?? I have provided them the proof of charge and There is only one proof of charge! What other proof of charge can I provide? Besides, I've told them that the hotel accepts that they charged me 78 Euros. The thing they don't accept is that they have no right to charge me that amount and Booking should be able to judge that I am in the right.
“Instead of trying to understand the matter and asking the hotel for proof you ask me another proof. The hotel doesn't accept my claim, you accept their word. I file a claim, you ask proof from me, proof with bank logo, double proof, but you don't ask the hotel for any proof!”
I was really upset. I had written to them, I knew they don't accept my claim but they accept I've been charged 78 Euros and they say I've paid an agency. Apparently that agency is Spanish. I have no other charges in DZD in my bank statement. There is no other proof. That's the proof!
“We have spoken with the hotel however they did not accept your claim as valid.”
Ah! What a surprise! As if I did not know that already! How many wrongdoers admit their wrongdoing without a higher authority?
“We have checked your bank statement again and we can see that the merchant name that charged you does not match the one of the hotel (the merchant name is written in Spanish language)”
Duh! I already stated that to you. And that is the main problem.
I re-emphasized Ondrej's comment and asked them to solve the issue right away so that I could pay the hotel in local currency.
Oh, there is another point to note here: There is a black-market in Algiers and there is a huge discrepancy between the official exchange rate and the street rate. So if I had paid the hotel when I got there, I wouldn't have paid more as the hotel claims. Sure, the walk-in hotel price is higher; but as I'd have paid cash which I exchanged at a much better rate I'd have paid 40 % less.
When I talked to the hotel, they confirmed it was a Spanish agency. They even confirmed that the Euro exchange rate is 210 DZD. That would make my charge 48.57 Euros. (10200/210=48.57) So they have actually charged me 60 % more (78/48.57= 1.60) 60 percent more, 60 %!
Even so, that is not the point. My bank would have converted the DZD charge to Euros for me to pay and that would have been more or less a similar amount, 70 something Euros. The point is... They cannot charge me an amount I have not agreed to in a currency I did not agree to. Simple as that.
Ok, I know this is Africa. I mean it is patronizing and belittling to even say this, but I am very well aware how things work in the world. Their work ethics might be different here in Algiers but I'm sure the Spanish agency Comparador knows, or should know that you don't do this, you never charge a customer secret amounts. I tried to explain this to the hotel. I said “You are doing wrong, I will get this money back. So, you give me the Euros back and I pay you the Dinar.” They did not care, insisted they were in the right; the man even showed me all the customers who paid using Booking.com. Ok, as they wish; I tried my best. Obviously, I couldn't explain them, Booking would. The man said “No no, Booking is very good with me, we do good business together.” Okay then, what more can I do?
What makes the situation worse is the fact that Hotel Samir has been working like this with Booking for a long time and apparently only one person before me has filed a complaint. I assume that people either
a) don't notice,
b) don't care, or
c) don't bother to file complaints and go through the process.
Which I agree is a very time consuming process and is certainly not worth the amount of money involved. However, if people, when people go on with this mentality, frauds take over and they make huge amounts of money with the little extra they get from a large number.
I asked Booking to refund me the money and also asked what action they'd be taking with El Comparador. I wrote: “To be honest, I have not read your terms and conditions but I use Booking with full faith and trust that you protect your customers from any kind of fraud or wrong charge. We wish to keep on using your services in the same full trust as a family.
Thank you for your time and care.”
The automatic reply said: "I just sent that to Customer Service, someone there will get back to you within 24 hours."
More than 72 hours passed and I didn't hear a reply.
Wrote again: “I'd appreciate a response please.”
When they finally answered, they gave me the classic bs (sorry for the expression but it really is, the language these big companies use.)
“I am sorry to hear about your experience at Hotel Samir. I appreciate you taking the time to tell us about this situation.”
Then they put a drop of honey in your mouth:
“As a token of our dedication to customer satisfaction, I'd like to offer you compensation by refunding you 30 EUR. Please confirm your acceptance of this offer by replying to this email, and we'll arrange the refund as soon as possible.”
Ending it with the standard bs:
“Again, we’re very sorry your stay at Hotel Samir didn't meet your expectations and apologize for any inconvenience. We value the feedback you provided because it will help both us and Hotel Samir improve the quality of the services we offer.
We look forward to hearing from you.”
This is their sandwich technique to lure you in and trap you. Honey sandwich. Obviously you are angry. Who knows, you might be walking away. We need to keep you here!
In the meanwhile, I checked Booking.com. Hotel Samir was still advertised on the site, which implies that they are doing this just to get rid of a nuisance and not out of any business ethics. I was pissed off at their insolence. I answered:
“I really believe you should be issuing a complete refund because this shouldn't have happened at all in the first place, especially after Ondrej drew your attention to the issue. Once you were referred to this issue, you should not have allowed it to go on. It shouldn't have happened to me. Ondrej has written you back in April, seven months ago. It shouldn't be happening to anybody else again. As Booking, I believe it's your responsibility to keep your site as an honest place. Is it not?
Apart from customer satisfaction, I'd have hoped that Booking would have done this out of a 'good business' rule. I understand it's business for Booking, it's business for the Spanish agency El Comparador, it's business for Hotel Samir. And most customers do not seem to notice or mind anyway. But this cannot be a reason for you to accommodate this kind of “murky” business.
Paying and forgetting would have been much easier and less costly for my time (even with a full refund you won't be compensating the time I spent on this issue); however, that would be rewarding wrong behavior and I do not like to do that. Thank you for publishing my comment without censorship, I appreciate it. However, I really believe you should be sanctioning Hotel Samir and/or putting them on hold until they fix their payment method or put it written clearly. I really would like to know your stand on this issue as Booking.”
I was very disillusioned with Booking Customer Service. I noticed this charge long before my trip, I contacted them. Nothing. I went to Algiers. Wrote to them with more information. Still nothing. I wrote to them so many times, each time detailing it more and guiding them to investigate the matter. I got no reply.
“We will not be able to process a full refund as you indeed stayed at the property. However we are willing to refund you 30.00 € for being charged in the wrong currency.”
Anyway, they refunded me the 30 Euros. But I realized I was still not fine with this issue. Because it wasn't about the money in the first place.
“Please tell me why it is acceptable to you that Hotel Samir charges your customers a higher amount in a different currency than is advertised on your site and why this is fine with you, why you allow them to do this using your website?”
On the phone, an agent had told me “Someone who knows the local customs will be talking to Hotel Samir, if there are more customer complaints the property will certainly be taken off the site, that not all properties stay on Booking.” However, this was NOT enough.
It had been ten days since Booking.com had the knowledge for certain that Hotel Samir was overcharging the guests, what's more, illegally! I knew they couldn't charge me in a different currency than DZD but had not thought of it being illegal until the agent pronounced it out loud. So Booking.com was, and still is, literally aiding and abetting an illegal transaction on their website! Knowingly! It seriously is UNACCEPTABLE!
I wrote this to them and told them what they should be doing as, obviously, they did not know:
“What you should be doing RIGHT NOW; WITHOUT LOSING EVEN A SECOND, is calling the hotel, asking for PROOF of charge from them. As they cannot give you any proof of charge in DZD, you should suspend their account on your site IMMEDIATELY!
And this should have happened before I wrote to you. Tell me, please, I beg you, tell me in writing, what is it that takes you so long? Why are you not taking an action against this illegal transaction??”
I got no answer. You know, no answers make me even more furious and I have a need to go on more:
“Hotel Samir has been welcoming Booking.com guests since Feb 24, 2018. There are 41 guest reviews. I know there have been many more customers as they showed me the file with bookings from Booking at the hotel. It says on your site 'In High Demand' for the hotel. All these people are being robbed! And you are letting the hotel go along with this cheating.
And I'm still expecting you to inform me of Ondrej's case. What has happened and what action have you taken? Because, apparently, you have just paid him back too, like you did with me and done nothing further to prevent this from happening again. I accepted your offer, but that is not hush money. Yes, you have a reputation to lose. And this is a scandal if you ask me. Ondrej wrote to you 7 months ago. 7 months! Nothing has been done!
Ah, you say “if there are more customer complaints...” There won't be more customer complaints. Not too many at least. Because most people are sheeple. Tell me how many people have booked Hotel Samir through your site and I'll tell you the percentage of your sheeple customers! 100x divided by x+2 %. That's how many. You do not act right because customers complain, at least a good company does not, a prestigious company like Booking does not. Yes, your reputation has gone under the carpet for me. I am still in waiting for an update from you on the issue to restore it back.
Look... I'm not claiming Hotel Samir is a cheat, but this has nothing to do with local customs either. They certainly do not know, yet I am sure the Spanish agency El Comparador doing this transaction for them should know the internationally acceptable credit card charge rules. If not, they shouldn't do international business; simple. I will be asking a chargeback from my card. This should have an effect on their business. And I certainly believe you have a responsibility towards your customers to provide honest and transparent service. I am looking forward to see you live up to your big name.”
I am so bothered with having to do the customer service of these big companies for things that I shouldn't have had to spend my time on. I told them too:
“In the meanwhile, please consider paying in an advisor fee for me.
As I battle with these big companies, I battle with myself too. I say to myself: “I really must have been someone very unfair, done something very bad in a previous life. It seriously is not possible that I keep banging on this same type of issues constantly.”
Then I reason: “Or of course it's because I pay attention to detail and there are a lot of people out there who are trying to steal money from your pocket furtively. And I notice. Carlo does not notice, so he is fine.”
No answer from Booking.com, here goes another mail from me:
“I am still waiting to hear about your stand on the issue of Hotel Samir charging their customers and what you have done, if anything, on this issue. I do not wish to take this to social media to smear your name as I've been using Booking with confidence all these years. But I want others to be spared the trouble I had to go through and I do not wish illegal, non-transparent transactions to be rewarded; so if you do not take any action, I just wish to spread the word. A prestigious site like Booking allowing such illegal business is unacceptable. I seriously do not understand how you allow it even after my insistent mails. Please, I would like a written explanation.”
Two days later, I again receive the standard bs:
“Thank you for choosing Booking.com.
We are writing to you regarding your reservation 1278724230 at Hotel Samir, check-in date 2018-11-24, and check-out date 2018-11-26.
This issue has been reported already and is being investigated.
Thank you for accepting the refund covering the error made by the property and commercial gesture from Booking.com for the inconvenience. The refund should be on your account as soon as possible. No further compensation will be added and we consider your claim settled.
Once again please accpet our sincere apologise.
Please feel free to contact us with any additional questions.
Every time these companies deny their part and try to brush-off the issue I get more fuelled:
“In case you do not get it, and which obviously you did not, I am NOT making a further claim; that was a tongue-in-cheek remark to state that as I feel you are not doing your job and I have to spend time to make you do it, you should actually be compensating me for it. Not that I don't believe you should pay me as an advisor, but I am not stupid enough to think you actually would!
Let me be clear on this: The refund does NOT cover the error made by the property. The property is NOT making an error, they are systematically and consistently overcharging their/YOUR customers and performing an illegal transaction with every single customer booking through your site. The damages this has caused me is far beyond what you can cover with 30 Euros. And it is not a “commercial gesture from Booking.com for the inconvenience”, it is a convenient commercial gesture from Booking on behalf of Booking. As you have made and plan to make profit out of us as a customer, it pays you to give back a bit to satisfy customers. It is solely a smart business move, not got anything to do with customer satisfaction or your caring about business ethics.
The refund is already in my account, but I do NOT consider my claim settled until I see Hotel Samir REMOVED from your site or until you provide me proof that they have updated their working process and are doing the charging in DZD now. I would have loved to state that I hold the right to sue you demanding further compensation for the damages caused by your company's negligence on an illegal transaction; however, being an ordinary individual, that would only make me laughable. And I hate this feeling of powerlessness as an individual over such companies like you. I wish I had the social media following to take this out to, who knows, maybe some person will pick it up when I post it.
I know this case has been reported! “It's under investigation” is NOT good enough. When I check and see that you are still hosting Hotel Samir on your site it upsets me so much. So much! Please answer my questions:
1) What has been done after Ondrej alerted you to the issue back in April? Sorry, I actually know the answer to that question. You just paid him and brushed it away. So the actual question is, why did you not investigate the issue and take precautions that this doesn't happen to your other customers?
2) What has been done for the investigation in the two weeks that I have made the case beyond any doubt? Did you ask for PROOF of charge in DZD from the hotel? As they obviously cannot provide it, why are you still hosting them?? Why are you still hosting a business that does illegal transactions through your website? What are you waiting for to take precaution that this does not happen to any other customer? As you obviously are not taking any precaution, this just shows you are an unethical business not really caring about your customers or any business principle. Please explain me how I am wrong.
3) When someone is doing an illegal business, stealing, yes sorry but it is stealing as they are overcharging their, that is YOUR customers, you immediately put a stop to the business so as to prevent them from stealing more. Then, ONLY THEN, do you investigate further, you make sure they abide by the rules FIRST and then let them back into the business. Am I wrong? What am I missing here?”
At this point, I changed my mind. Until recently, even a couple of days ago, I was thinking I must have done something very wrong in a previous life, that's why I keep coming across such people. But no. Seriously NO. That is not the explanation. I've got a better one. The default of people and institutions is “Fuck others as long as you can,” “Grab what you can while you can.” And I have an issue with that. First of all, I see these things. I notice. And I don't like it. It's not me coming across these people all the time. 80-90 % of people and institutions are like this; naturally, I see the same rate of crooked people in my interactions. And as I do not like it and care about justice and the “right thing” it bugs me.
Institutions and people do not do the right thing but go after their own interests if there is no threat from a higher power or a threat to their reputation and financial interest due to public outcry.
Eight more days passed. Booking.com did not answer. I wrote again. I know... I am irredeemable. But one day I'll be changing. I've had enough of this suffering and it is getting unbearable.
“I see Hotel Samir is still being hosted by your website. I still haven't got an answer to why you are allowing your customers to be ripped off or why you are allowing illegal transactions to be done through your website. I haven't got PROOF of Hotel Samir having updated their transaction method in DZD either.
Also please, I'd like to know how many people have booked Hotel Samir each month since it has been hosted by Booking.
Waiting for your reply”
The bs answer came the next day:
“Dear Zeynep Gulin De Vincentiis,
Thank you for choosing Booking.com.
We are writing to you regarding your reservation 1278724230 at Hotel Samir, check-in date 2018-11-24, and check-out date 2018-11-26.
Thank you for your feedback and concerns. We are not able to provide answers to any of those questions, as this is sensitive company information.
Aaah, what an opportunity for me to shoot back!
“Can you please be specific and tell me which questions can you not answer as it is sensitive company information?
You referring to how many guests have booked Hotel Samir after my stay or since Ondrej notified you their overcharge or the total guest number? There's something called transparency. I don't know if you've ever heard of it.
Or are you referring to providing an answer to what actions you have taken with Hotel Samir after my notification? That would be called accountability. Have you heard of that?
Or are you referring to why you are still allowing Hotel Samir, a business that is executing illegal transactions to be hosted on your site? There is something called business ethics and principles. Ring any bells?? You must have heard those somewhere; no?
I believe you OWE me an explanation why I have had to deal with this trouble when Ondrej had notified you of the overcharging of Hotel Samir seven months before my stay? Why did you not take action against this illegal ripping off of your customers? And why are you still not taking any action against it?
Don't thank me for choosing Booking again. I thank you for your services that I have used until now, but I definitely will not be choosing Booking from now on if you do not compensate for your ineptitude at dealing with a serious customer and business issue. I am waiting for you to show some proactive leadership and make a respectable business move.
Hosting a business doing illegal transactions is not something light, this is not staying here. I do not know who to go up to but I will definitely be posting this ordeal on social media and searching for somebody to take up legal charges against all parties involved.
Please pass this on to a responsible manager who can deal with the issue professionally. In addition to answers to the questions above, I am waiting for your message informing me 'We have done ..... (fill in the blanks here) for the investigation of Hotel Samir and .... (fill in the outcome.)'
The moment I sent the above email, I regretted one part. So I had to write a second note:
“Sorry, I take back the 'Thank you' at the end of my last email. (I do not thank you for your non-answers to me. I do not thank you; on the contrary, I loathe that you make me waste more of my time.) That 'Thank you' was in the hope of getting a proper answer and a respectable move from you, but I shouldn't have given it in advance, I'll be thanking you when you have taken the right action.”
You bet I didn't hear from them again, so I do NOT thank Booking.com. I just checked: Hotel Samir now has 79 reviews. So it's going strong.
I believe nothing has changed, Hotel Samir is still charging customers through El Comparador. There is a review in February 2019 by Bryan from the US saying “Dishonest staff, lied, ZERO customer service, I WOULD RECOMMEND NO ONE TO STAY AT THIS HOTEL.”
As Bryan did not give any details I cannot know for sure but I highly suppose that he had the same experience as me and Ondrej; the “prestigious” giant Booking.com has done nothing about it. Same story goes...
Who will protest Booking.com with me? Who will pass this on?
Important Notice: Even if you do not care about illegal businesses being allowed by Booking.com, please... if you use Booking.com, I strongly advise you to read the reviews from the Review section and not depend on what they show on the main page of the hotels because Booking.com displays only the positive comments there. And unfortunately, most people are so easily fooled into thinking they have the whole picture reading those positive comments, not noticing these tiny trade tricks. Read the negative comments!