Scammers have fooled thousands of British consumers into paying for non-existent summer holidays online, the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has warned.

The Metropolitan Police has launched an investigation into at least five UK-based websites pretending to sell package holidays to European destinations.

Reports suggest as many as 3,000 people have been duped into buying deals on the sites – and many may not get their money back, according to ABTA.

Many people paid by credit card, so they will get their money back from their credit card company, but some will have used cheques or debit cards and won’t,” said a spokesperson.

The Met said five websites have so far come to notice – sunmedresorts.com, unbeatableholidays.com, holidaysforunder200pounds.com, holidayrez.com and holidayez.com. All trade under the names Fleetwood Holidays Ltd or Sun Orient Ltd, it said.

In a statement, it said: “We believe that the companies are being registered and run for a short  length of time and then replaced by newly named companies when the first company stops “trading” in order for the fraud to be continued. There may be several thousand customers who may be victim to this fraud.

The ABTA spokesperson urged consumers to check sites for symbols from recognised trade bodies, and to ask for a confirmation receipt from the tour operator that agents claim to represent.

He also said that tougher measures should be taken to crack down on internet scams. “Travel is a fairly easy industry to target for fraud, as you pay a large amount of money up front for something fairly tenuous. We’ve been pushing strongly for a long time for the police to actually prosecute these people.