Amy Hutt is no beginner when it comes to the vacation rental game. She’s booked several homes through VRBO.com, a site owned by HomeAway, in the past, and she felt confident about turning to it for a trip to Bali this fall.
But this time, she lost.
At first, the rental in Rumah Cinta seemed routine. The reviews were all positive. The property contact responded promptly and acted professionally.
“The person corresponding with me signed her emails as the owner,” she says. “I didn’t think anything was amiss.”
Then came the first red flag: The owner insisted that she wire the money for the rental.
I protested, but she said that because I was coming in less than four weeks, this was at “their convenience”.
The bank details that she sent me included the name “Ketut” which is the name of someone listed on the VRBO.com site that watches over the property.
With trepidation I transferred the full amount from my bank to theirs.
Then came the second red flag. She heard nothing from the property owner.
It didn’t take long for Hutt to conclude she’d been scammed.
Fortunately, she’d purchased VRBO’s heavily-advertised Carefree Rental Protection policy, which she was certain would protect her against this fraudulent rental.
Had she read the agreement carefully, she would have seen yet another flag. But VRBO was good enough to explain it to her.
Internet Fraud is defined as a deposit or payment by a Registered Traveler for a vacation rental that is listed on a HomeAway Site where such listing is subsequently determined to be, in HomeAway’s reasonable discretion, fictitious or illegitimate in that the vacation rental property (i) does not exist, or (ii) was advertised by the advertiser with the intention of defrauding travelers and with the general aim of making the victim believe in the existence of a non-existent rental property.”
Additionally, Section 3 of those same Terms and Conditions of the Carefree Rental Guarantee from HomeAway provides specific examples of items that are not protected by the program:
“Any loss of funds that is caused by the takeover or “phish” of a property owner’s or manager’s email account or the property owner’s or manager’s account on a HomeAway site.”
I didn’t quite understand why Hutt wasn’t protected, so I asked VRBO for clarification. If I’d paid an extra $40 for a policy that didn’t work, I’d be unhappy about this rejection.
A VRBO representative explained that she’d been the victim of what’s called a “secondary” phish — that is, the property owner’s email account had been hacked. After breaking into the owner’s personal email account, the scam artist communicated with Hutt and diverted her payments into his bank account.
There’s no way VRBO could have known or prevented that kind of breach.
But why isn’t this covered?
“The Carefree Guarantee covers things we can control or influence,” a VRBO representative explained. “For example, we control who is listed on our websites and remove advertisers who consistently provide poor service or bad experiences. We take responsibility under the Carefree Guarantee when a traveler is confronted with property that is not as described, does not exist, or when unforeseen circumstances cause the property to be unavailable and the traveler is denied entry upon arrival.”
Moral of the story: Never wire money when purchasing something over the Internet. Ever. (But you already knew that.)
And when anyone offers a product with the word “carefree” in it, be worried.
Be very worried.
Update: Turns out this case had a “happy” ending after all. After I wrote this story, I received a note from Kemp.
I wanted to let you know how my case got resolved because I believe your interest may have gotten them moving.
The real owner of the property in Bali just surfaced this week. She had no knowledge that this had happened to me.
VRBO “encouraged” her to make good by allowing me to stay in the property and she agreed.
She felt ripped off too since this was forgone rental income for her. However, she’s been really gracious with me and understands how bad I got scammed.
She still believes that the security breach is tied to VRBO and not her Gmail account.
I think she might be right. Check out this recent post on TripAdvisor from an owner. EXACTLY what happened to me.
VRBO needs to get aggressive with this. They have the corporate means to track this thief down.
(Photo: Marm ontel/Flickr)