Help, my Mexican vacation rental pocketed my deposit!

Blue Orange/ShutterstockNancie Thomas had no reason to believe the owner of her vacation rental in Akumal, Mexico, would keep her $1,000 deposit. Her friends had rented the same house on three separate occasions, “and had a great experience each time,” she says.

Alas, the fourth time wasn’t a charm for Thomas.

Her first warning? The method of payment.

“We were surprised when the owner asked for a deposit check rather than credit card,” she recalls. “But we confirmed with our friends that they had always made the deposit by check.”

(Let me stop right here and say it: Always, always insist on paying by credit card. If Thomas had done that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.)

Two weeks before she arrived, she received a second warning.

“The owner emailed to cancel as they had double-booked the house, but assured us they would return our deposit,” she says.

That was in June.

“We have not received the check, the phone number has been disconnected, and they have ceased responding to our emails,” she says.

The rental website she used to make the reservation, VRBO, promised her it would try to help. And here’s where things get complicated.

She explains:

VRBO has opened a case for us, but does not seem to be able to resolve this and despite repeated requests has not provided us with the owner’s address so that we can pursue them ourselves. We have documentation for everything, but are running into a proverbial brick wall in retrieving our funds.

Thomas dug around and learned that the owner lives in Florida. That meant she could sue him without having to hire a lawyer in Mexico. You can represent yourself in small claims court.

We spoke to the Pinellas County sheriff’s office who instructed us to first file a report with the DC police, where we live.

My husband spoke with a detective and met with a pair of officers, but the DC police will not follow up.

We are trying to at least obtain a copy of the incident report from them that we can then share with the sheriff of Pinellas County.

We have also gathered the necessary paperwork to file against the owners in small claims court, but are hamstrung by our lack of an address for them.

We have located property records in their name in Pinellas County, but a reverse search shows a different occupant at the address.

The house is still listed on VRBO, despite VRBO’s knowledge of the problem, thus leaving other consumers at risk.

Well, this is a situation, isn’t it?

Who’s responsible for this mess? Clearly, paying by check was risky, and I would never have advised it. But how much is VRBO liable — particularly if the home is still available through the site?

Another thought occurred to me: Is it possible that the owner’s identity was compromised, and that she sent a check to someone who had pulled a variation of the phishing scam?

It’s difficult to tell based on the correspondence she sent me, but I know the scammers are very clever and adaptable. Nothing would surprise me.

Should I mediate Nancie Thomas' case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    This case is strange on so many levels.

    Multiple friends vouched for the owner. It seems unlikely that such an owner would suddenly change stripes, going so far as to disconnect the phone.

    I’m also not sure why the Sheriff advised her to file a police report. Such a report would not be admissible for any purposes. Insurance companies use them as one of many fraud deterrents (i.e. some people who would lie to an insurance company would be less likely to lie on a police report). And I can’t imagine it’s a prerequisite for filing a small claims case. I’m not surprised that the DC police aren’t following up. This sounds more like a civil matter, outside of the law enforcement, unless there is some evidence that the OP purposely intended to defraud the OP.

    I too thought it might be a scammer, but the OP could simply verify with her friends that she sent the check to the same address.

    Very strange.

  • BillCCC

    I think that you should mediate. It might be a scam but VRBO(which turns up in a lot of these cases) has not said that anything was amiss. VRBO should have helped the OP settle this a long time ago.

  • Cybrsk8r

    One other thing. Was the phone number she had the same one her freinds had? An e-mail account can be hacked. Seems it would be more difficult to mis-direct a phone number, especially if it’s a landline. I expect you would require physical access to the phone to initiate call forwarding.

    As far as the owner changing their stripes, I can totally see this happening. If the property is in foreclosure, then maybe the owner is trying to get a few more dollars out if it while it circles the drain.

    And I have to say it. If VRBO is STILL listing this property, when they KNOW about this situation, then my opinion about VRBO, that it turns a blind eye to these scams, because it profits from them, is totally validated.

  • marie3656

    Perhaps she should try to book the rental again under a different name just to see if she can get in touch with the owner and get the correct phone number. I agree, why is VRBO still listing the property? That makes no sense.

  • ddjwms

    Did she send the check directly to the owner? VRBO has a process in which you pay through them which should be more secure. We rented from VRBO last year with no problem, but after all the things I read about scams with their properties, I held my breath until we were actually there! But I insisted on paying by credit card through VRBO for a little more assurance. I, too, wonder if someone hacked this owner’s account, but surely he would have said something by now…


    I voted for mediation. Something is not right here. Did the OP check with friends about where the cash deposit was sent? If it varied from what the friends did then possibly she has been scammed. And, given the problem and complaint to VRBO, why is this house still listed? I think VRBO needs to step up and help the OP located the owner or, since they still have the house listed, reimburse the clients themselves and try to get the deposit out of the owner themselves. And if scammers did get control of the listing, then the owner or VRBO is responsible because of lack of security either on the website or on the listing itself.

  • Helio

    Stupid question: if she paid directly to the owner by check, how was VRBO paid?

  • Christopher Elliott

    Not a stupid question. The owner pays VRBO for the listing. It’s like a classified ad — at least that’s how VRBO sees it.

  • Annie M

    I agree you should mediate, especially if VRBO is still listing the property. However if anyone actually reads VRBO’s Terms & Conditions before booking anything, it states they aren’t responsible for ANYTHING that goes on with their website- they don’t verify anything, they aren’t responsible for anything, and don’t warrant anything – users can buy insurance to protect themselves for transactions, which I bet will be VRBO’s response.

    If I read the T&C I would never rent from anyone on this site

  • omgstfualready

    My first thought exactly. Get a free yahoo email and sign up like someone new.

  • Helio

    Thanks, but I have other question ;-)

    Does the owner also need to pay commission for each renting, or he just pay the listing?

  • Christopher Elliott

    My understanding is that it’s just for the listing.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I use VRBO frequently and have never had a problem. (However,I would never, ever pay with a check, but that’s a different topic.) But I think VRBO really dropped the ball on this one.They’re getting paid in some manner (either just for the listing or that plus a percentage of rentals) and for a relatively small sum like this deposit I would think they should have means of doing reparations. Instead, the listing is still up and it doesn’t sound like VRBO really did anything to resolve it.

    I can see why some disputes would be tough for VRBO to mediate, like when the complaints are over the quality of the stay. (Renter thought the place would be nicer or cleaner, so they want X amount back, etc.) But this person never even made it to the property due to the owner canceling. This is very cut and dried. The OP even has messages where the owner is saying they’ll get the deposit back. If this isn’t enough to get VRBO directly involved and yank a listing, what exactly would?

  • Mel65

    I say mediate for sure. Most often when I read the letters in your column, my thoughts are along the lines of “greedy,” “entitled,” “dumba$$,” etc.. But in this case, the OP did her due diligence (yes she paid by check, but first ascertained that it had been done successfully by friends before) and kept a paper trail, etc… I really hope you manage to get her money back for her, Chris!

  • omgstfualready

    Agreed, I’d be most curious for a follow up on how this turned out.

  • lucy

    As a VRBO owner, I take CCs and checks. But with checks, I generally speak personally with the guest. I just prefer that personal contact. As owners, we are the targets of scams, just as guests can be. The reason we do take checks is that with the CC companies, we lose 3% or so of the total cost of the charge. If you consider the cost involved to us before we actually have a profit, that percentage is a huge bite out of the income portion. I would advise always calling the number on the ad, and then looking at the ad a couple of times. I would be a lot more cautious about renting through Craigslist. Scammers have been known to copy everything from an ad listing on VRBO, create a Craigslist ad, and then pocket the $$ and run.

  • lucy

    We buy a yearly ad, but must provide verification that the property actually exists.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    FYI: You don’t necessarily need physical access to the phone to initiate call forwarding. My mother used to have the “Remote Call Forwarding” service available on her phone, which I used several times so that calls to her phone at her house were sent to the phone at my house. You did have to know the 4 digit PIN, but so many people leave it at the default, or choose 1234 or 4321.

  • JenniferFinger

    I was wondering about that too.

    One thing I’m wondering is if the “owner” now is the same person who rented to the last three people. Someone could be posing as the owner, or it could have changed hands…and wouldn’t it be VRBO’s responsibility to check on that?

  • omgstfualready

    What is the difference between Craigslist and VRBO? Both are classifieds supposedly just connecting buyer to seller. The history of how Craigslist came about makes it a known that it is buyer beware but VRBO is apparently just a fancy Craigslist.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Ah VRBO…yes, mediate. You should also publish the name of this scam artist owner so others can avoid them. No reason to do them any favors by protecting their identity.

  • omgstfualready

    I’ve never done this; I was looking at the site and saw they naturally offer insurance. Would you mind me asking if you buy it and how much it is relative to the cost of the trip?

  • bodega3

    Was the vendor offering the insurance? If so, don’t get it. Look away from a vendor at companies like Travel Guard or Travel Ex or if you are a member of AAA look at their coverage.
    Also, depending on your state, you might have protection on something like this through their consumer protection travel laws.

  • emanon256

    I was about to write that, glad I read the comments first. Great Idea!!

    My only thought on VRBO still renting this is that the owners could have been hacked, and the hackers got the deposit and then fake canceled it, and the legitimate owners are still listed.

  • Jason Hanna

    I voted no just because it’ll probably wind up being a complete waste of time. Seems like that’s how all these VRBO things turn out.. “Oh you were scammed? Sucks to be you, we just list them”

  • Cam

    People who pay for these vacation rentals with anything but a credit card after all the warnings are probably last in my queue for help.

  • Mark Carrara

    yes mediate. I see multiple issues. Why do you need a police report to file small claims? You are asking for civil relief, not criminal. Don’t talk to the sheriff’s office talk to the courts. If you can document VBRO is still listing the rental after being informed of the issues they are negligent at least. That said all I would expect is for them to pull the ad. Your only recourse is going after the owner. I don’t see this being a case of sending the money to the wrong owner. You would think VBRO would have tried to contact the listing owner and discuss the issue that would have come out real early.

  • emanon256

    I voted yes, and I agree with the others who said there is no point filing a police report, its a civil matter. My initial thought is that the owners e-mail was hijacked, and the OP paid a scammer, and the owner now have everything worked out, but the scammer still has the money. Although I voted yes, I am not sure what Chris can do to help. I think the OP should peruse it in small claims, and if it was in fact the owner, then hopefully they will win. Its just a matter of getting their address, and Marie posted an easy way to get it. In the event the owner was hijacked, then they may still be legally liable and a judge will decide that.

    With this happening, I am shocked that VRBO is still listing them. Then why I think the owners account got hacked, and they have resolved it. I am shocked if VRBO is still listed.

    I use VRBO 1 to 2 times a year, and have never had an issue. I have also had a few people only accept checks, but I went into it knowing the risk, and after speaking to them on the phone decided it was a risk I was willing to take. I have never been scammed by VRBO, but I am sure scammers are out there, but I believe them to be the minority, and the majority of rentals will be successful.

  • pauletteb

    I understand that many people have booked through VRBO and similar groups without problems. But it seems that when things DO go wrong, they go horribly wrong. The tales of woe are becoming more frequent, as are the complaints that the “protection/guarantee” these companies offer has more holes than a sieve. The fact that VRBO is still listing this property doesn’t set them high on my confidence list either. To me, it’s simply not worth the risk.
    If the OP were the victim of a phishing scam, wouldn’t VRBO and/or the property owner let her know that was the case?

  • Helio

    Thanks, Chris & Lucy!

  • lucy

    I agree that they are both classifieds; however, Craigslist is free and anyone can place an ad for anything with a fair amount of anonymity. VRBO, on the other hand, while still a classified ad, is not free. It requires an investment and effort to write copy, load images, and create a history.

  • Zod

    This is clearly a phishing scam and this person got hit by it! This is why I do not use VRBO. I only go with direct-to-owners rentals…..

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    In the event the owner was hijacked, then they may still be legally liable and a judge will decide that.

    99.9% not. One might be able to contrive such circumstance, but unlikely.
    Consider, If I steal your identity and fraudulently take out a bank loan, which of course I never pay back, you’re not liable for the loan, even if you were totally negligent in not protecting your identity.

  • emanon256

    Even in small claims? I say that because back when I was in charge of A/R we always took people to small claims and many of them claimed their identity was stolen and they never did business with us, and therefore don’t owe us. We alway won those cases.

    Also, what about the credit cars when people don’t report them stolen and then become liable for fraudulent charges? Ive never experienced that first hand at least.

  • Justin

    Identity theft is a growing problem, but one will never know the source of the problem until courts intervene. Unfortunately, they’ll probably direct her to small claims and call the fraud a “contract dispute”. Chalk it up to a lesson learned. Unless she’s going to fork out the cash for a private investigator, I don’t see a happy ending.
    The only recourse available MIGHT be contacting the Attorney General of Florida, her home state, and that of the rental company. I’ve had some success on that avenue.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    All good questions

    With regards to the identity theft cases, just because the debtors claim that their identity was stolen doesn’t mean that they are telling the truth. Identity theft is an affirmative defense which means the burden is on the asserter (i.e. the debtor) to prove that the identity was stolen. I have successfully defended clients in such cases but I had to prove that my clients were not the ones who took out the credit cards.

    Regarding credit cards: You’re not liable for fraudulent credit card charges which occur before you knew that the card was stolen. Even then, you have 2 days (I believe) to report it. It’s only after you have knowledge of the theft and failed to report it after the grace period are you liable for the charges. Basically it’s as if you are giving consent to the criminal to use the card.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    For it to be a criminal matter the OP would have to convince law enforcement that either it’s a)identity theft or b)fraud. Fraud is very hard to prove. She would have to show that at the time the owner took the money, he/she had no intent to deliver possession of the premises to the OP. Failure to return the money is step one. Much more evidence is needed.

    A criminal case has a myriad of problems. I don’t see an AG being interested in this case, unless this is a particular problem within Florida.

  • Justin

    Hello Carver,
    Not necessarily true. The AG will often get involved if the act of deceit is ongoing. Two items here might motivate intervention.
    1) Woman paid for a product not received
    2) Product is still being advertised and owner is unreachable
    Number two is her leg to stand upon. Criminal or not, I’d still put forth the effort to complain. At this juncture, there’s nothing to lose.

  • omgstfualready

    We won’t agree; I think the differences are minute at best. It isn’t hard to take images off the web and use another listing’s write up and tweak it so people read what they want to read (remember fraudsters are masters of psychological manipulation). If you are being legit I can see the effort, when you are not – still a fancy Craigslist, or worse because the buyer’s guard is down thinking it has more legitamacy than an old fashioned classified.

  • omgstfualready

    I’m trying to think like VRBO. If they know they have a bad listing but people aren’t buying the insurance, they have nothing to lose by leaving the listing.
    Also they are going to protect their money, which is the listing people and not the renter. Remember the original ebay when the buyer was always wrong and they catered to the seller? Then they bought paypal and changed their entire fee structure and it is now much easier to be a buyer than a seller.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve never bought insurance through VRBO.

  • emanon256

    Thank you. Sometimes I wish I had gone to law school, I find it fascinating. I took a few open law classes when I worked for the university.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Unlikely it’s a phishing scam, given the OP knows people who rented from this owner successfully under the same terms. More likely just a dispute with the actual owner.

    And I don’t see how a direct-to-owner deal would have helped the OP in this case. They were renting from somebody who had been recommended to them. Certainly VRBO hasn’t yet done much to help them, but that could eventually change with Chris’ intervention. In a direct-to-owner case, their only hope would be suing the owner.

    Better advice would be warning people to avoid paying anything via check, even if they know people where that worked out fine.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Where is there any indication this case involved identity theft? Seems like a simple dispute with the owner. Contacting the AG isn’t a bad idea because there’s some chance this owner has defrauded others. (But it doesn’t really sound like it was an ongoing scam, given the OP knew people who had rented without any problems.) But the odds of the AG getting involved over a single dispute are essentially nil.

  • omgstfualready

    Okay, thanks for posting that. Glad you haven’t had a problem too!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Respectfully, no. I’ve litigated against both the AG and DOJ. A single case of a low amount ($1000) won’t even get on its radar. It would take multiple complaints or large amounts. I doubt even the local county or city attorney would be interested. This just smacks of a civil matter unless she has some evidence to make a prima facie case.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Trust me. You dodged a bullet. Law school is evil. :)

  • Emanuel Levy

    Excuse me for this stupid question but who was the paper check made out to and what address was it sent to? That is where I would start with a lawsuit.

  • emanon256

    My friend who is a water rights attorney keeps telling me the same thing.

  • Justin

    I assume you are a lawyer, so I’ll trust your advice. However, I’ve complained to the Ohio AG on low dollar matters and have had decent luck.

    I guess it might depend upon how many complaints are lodged against a company and the backflow of cases.

    She might have luck if the company advertising properties has a history of refusing to take down “deceitful or untruthful” ads once notified.
    What I don’t understand here is why her friends had such luck and suddenly the woman ran into trouble.
    Moral of the story, NEVER RESERVE anything with a irrevocable method of payment.

  • Justin

    With all due respect Joe,

    Identity theft was mentioned by Mr. Elliott within his article. To quote, “Another thought occurred to me: Is it possible that the owner’s identity was compromised, and that she sent a check to someone who had pulled a variation of the phishing scam”

    Thus, I mentioned in brief passing that while identity theft is a problem, we’ll never know if that’s the issue here. Most likely, she just got bamboozled.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    Multiple complaints drastically changes the landscape. It shows a pattern which can prove intent.

  • Justin

    True. A little due diligence on the part of customers proves wonders.

    Paying in cash or irrevocable method of payment is ill advised.

  • Chris Johnson

    Please post an update on this one! I’m very curious about what happened.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Also, respectfully, it seems clear it wasn’t phishing because there’d be absolutely no reason for a thief to email the OP and promise the deposit would be refunded. It’d also be pretty odd for the thief to handle things in precisely the same manner the real owner did. (Because, remember, the main reason the OP went through with doing a deposit by check was they knew people who’d had a good experience with this owner.) Also, they’d have certainly heard back from the owner now if it had been a phishing scam. In fact, that’d be a great defense for the owner to use even if it wasn’t true, yet they haven’t claimed that.

  • Justin

    Might I ask where a refund was offered to the woman? I may be overlooking that statement in Mr. Elliott’s article.

    Second, I’m not convinced identity theft is the culprit here either. However, the subject was raised in the story and I gave brief mention in my reply. I have a funny hunch there’s either more than meets the eye (who pays by an irrevocable form of payment on a deposit?). Either this woman is very unlucky and a once reputable person has bamboozled her or she’s trying to get a refund over a disagreement that has soured.

    Too little detail is given to determine which of these instances hold true.

  • MarkKelling

    “The owner emailed to cancel as they had double-booked the house, but assured us they would return our deposit ,” she says.

    I think this qualifies as an offer of a refund.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “who pays by an irrevocable form of payment on a deposit?”


    People like her friends who had rented this same place on three separate occasions “and had a great experience each time,”. (That’s the second sentence of the article.) Clearly, she got burned, but if a person was ever going to pay a deposit essentially in cash like that, it would be in an instance like this where you had friends vouching for the owner.

  • IrvingFeldspar

    The information on the back of the cashed check should be very informative. Find the bank where it was deposited and validate it was the owner of the property, then sue them. If it was not the owner it is most probably fraud and one can reverse a check based on that, there is a trail of payment that can be traced back to the original depositor. Time is of the essence as both federal and state laws address the time period for notifying the bank of a fraudulent check.

    I am in Pinellas county, I could take my dog to their lawn if that would help.

  • Justin

    Reference or no reference, there’s not a cold chance in hell I’d pay someone in cash. Credit Cards are king during disputes. Payments can be easily reversed. Just my sentiments. Maybe I’m less trusting, but it pays off in the long run.

  • Justin

    Thought I’d read that in the article, but didn’t see the statement when I looked again. Promise or no promise, the woman is left empty handed. I guess that’ll be the last time she pony ups a deposit that doesn’t involve a credit card. Even if your friends have had no trouble, one never involves cash in a trip or rental. Anything goes wrong and you are out of luck with no backing.