Fraud on VRBO strands overseas travelers

By | August 27th, 2016

Like many travelers looking for bargains, Alan and Julie Mitchell were looking for a cheap, convenient place to stay when they made a reservation for their trip. But they ended up with some very inconvenient accommodations that concluded with a credit card dispute.

The Mitchells, who were traveling from Australia to Miami, made an online reservation to stay at a Miami location called The Loft 2 Miami, which was listed as an available condominium on (owned by HomeAway) by someone using the name Javier Sune. As required by the site, the Mitchells paid $1,080 USD as the full balance of the fee stated in the listing.

Then things took a strange turn.

First, the property listing was removed from VRBO’s website. Concerned, Alan Mitchell called VRBO’s customer service. A VRBO agent assured Mitchell that his payment had been applied to his reservation, which was still intact, and that he and his wife would be able to stay at the condominium on the date of the booking.

The Mitchells then flew to Miami on an 18-hour flight and arrived at The Loft 2 Miami after 10 p.m., hoping to check in and go to bed. But they found that The Loft 2 Miami is a long-term rental apartment building and condominium, and that none of its apartments are available for short-term rentals or owned by a Javier Sune. They tried to call Javier Sune at the telephone numbers provided by VRBO in its confirmation, with no success.

The Mitchells were the victims of fraud.

They had to drag their luggage through the streets of Miami to look for a hotel for the night, and finally found an available room at the Sun Hotel for $180, which turned out to be “a dump.” They then rented another condominium at One Broadway, in Miami’s financial district (an area far from where the Mitchells wanted to stay), for the rest of their trip for $1,200.

The Mitchells wanted to know: Who is responsible when a property listing on a vacation rental site turns out to be phony? And could they get their money back?

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Alan Mitchell sent several emails to VRBO’s customer service department, repeatedly sending its agents copies of all the email exchanges and other documentation they had regarding the transaction. VRBO responded that in a case of fraud, the Mitchells could expect to see a return of all their money. But after more than a month had passed, the Mitchells had not received a refund.

Mitchell then contacted Brian Sharples, the CEO of VRBO, and posted on VRBO’s Facebook page, requesting that VRBO escalate his case. (Contact information for HomeAway, VRBO’s parent company, can be found on our website.) He threatened legal action against HomeAway if he didn’t receive a refund of the payment, which may have contributed to VRBO’s lack of response.

Mitchell finally contacted our advocates, who reached out to VRBO on the Mitchells’ behalf.

Even then, VRBO was not helpful. An agent of VRBO told Mitchell to contact his credit card company and ask them to pursue Javier Sune. Mitchell was also told that VRBO was “dumping him” and to have a lawyer of his own contact VRBO’s legal department.

But did VRBO have any responsibility to help Mitchell at all?

Certainly, as a matter of customer service, it has an obligation to help protect its legitimate customers from fraud by not allowing crooks to post phony listings on its site. And it could have helped Mitchell by returning his payment and pursuing Javier Sune itself while filing a claim on its own errors and omissions insurance policy, rather than blowing him off with repeated requests for documentation and “Tell your lawyer to get in touch with ours.”

Legally, it gets murky. VRBO’s terms and conditions contain a good deal of legalese that absolves it from any liability arising out of whatever is posted on its site:

We are not a party to any rental or other agreement between users. This is true even if the Site allows you to book a rental or provides other ancillary products or services, as the Site may facilitate booking a rental or other tools, services or products, but we are not a party to any rental or other agreement between users. As a result, any part of an actual or potential transaction between a traveler and a member, including the quality, condition, safety or legality of the properties advertised, the truth or accuracy of the listings (including the content thereof or any review relating to any traveler or property), the ability of members to rent a vacation property or the ability of travelers to contract for properties are solely the responsibility of each user. …

[W]e cannot, and do not assume any responsibility for, the confirmation of each user’s purported identity. …

We have no duty to pre-screen content posted on the Site by members, travelers or other users, whether directly contributed by the user or contributed by us or a third party on behalf of the user (including, without limitation, property listings, reviews of a rental property or a traveler)…

All property listings on the Site are the sole responsibility of the member (who may be the owner or a property manager or duly authorized agent of the owner) and we specifically disclaim any and all liability arising from the alleged accuracy of the listings, reviews or any alleged breaches of contract on a user’s part. …

We do not represent or warrant that any of the copy, content, traveler or property reviews, guest book entries, property location, suitability, pricing or availability information published on the Site is accurate or up-to-date even in the case where travelers have searched for specific dates or types of properties. …

All other user-contributed content is the sole responsibility of the user who contributed such content, whether such user contributed the content directly or through a third-party website. Users are solely responsible for their user-contributed content and we specifically disclaim all liability for user-contributed content. …

In no event will HomeAway, or its parent company, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, consultants, agents and/or employees (collectively, the “HomeAway group”), or any third-party provider of a service or tool offered on any site of a member of the HomeAway group (each a “third-party provider”), be liable for any lost profits or any indirect, consequential, special, incidental, or punitive damages arising out of, based on, or resulting from (a) our site, (b) these terms, (c) any breach of these terms by you or a third party, (d) use of the site, tools or services we provide, or any third party provider provides, related to the business we operate on the site, by you or any third party (e) any user-contributed content…

There’s a great deal more of the same in the terms and conditions, all amounting to: We’re not taking responsibility for it. Go away.

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We’ve written a number of stories about VRBO’s brush-offs of renters who discovered that they were cheated out of their money with fake listings. And unfortunately, VRBO and HomeAway continue to take the position that they’re not responsible for anything posted on their sites. They refuse to do any vetting of listings to establish that the posters are legitimate property owners or managers with decent reputations. It’s the ultimate caveat emptor.

Even though VRBO refused to help the Mitchells, their story does have a happy ending. Their credit card agreed to issue a full refund of all the fees paid to VRBO for the phony listing, as well as the extra costs incurred for the subsequent hotel room and condo in Miami when they learned that they had been defrauded. And it may also issue a chargeback against VRBO, which would force VRBO to disgorge the fees it collected from the Mitchells.

Update: Following publication of this story, we heard from HomeAway that it did reach out to the Mitchells.

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