Charles Brown and his partner booked a villa in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, through HomeAway. Brown’s girlfriend emailed a person claiming to be the “owner” of the villa and eventually agreed on a $6,300 price.
Can you guess what happened next?
Brown’s girlfriend received a rental agreement and invoice, with instructions to wire the money to the owner. Brown had a friend wire the money to the KBC Bank in Belgium, but as he discovered too late, not to the true owner of the villa.
Never, ever wire money for a vacation rental.
Brown had recently completed a decade of medical education and training, and his girlfriend had just recovered from cancer. The St. Thomas vacation was to celebrate two major milestones.
Late that night and shortly after Brown’s friend wired the money, Brown noticed that the “way the email address appeared and the actual email address were different.” Brown became concerned and researched the “owner’s” email address. Brown found a scam alert with the identical email address, for a different property.
Brown “immediately contacted HomeAway and they confirmed over the phone that they were hacked, their property owner’s account accessed, and that we were defrauded.” Brown detected the scam before HomeAway did. Brown said that HomeAway was cavalier about the scam, that their fraud department was closed and that there wasn’t much they could do. Basically, HomeAway disclaimed responsibility for its website security or for safeguarding their owners’ private data.
Brown contacted Chase, the bank used to wire the money, and found them to be “apathetic.” Brown’s friend who wired the money contacted Chase, and, despite the fact that the transfer was in progress and could be stopped, Chase said their fraud department was also closed.
Brown also contacted the KBC Bank in Belgium and found that they were closed, as well. Brown reached KBC Bank a few hours later and was told that the funds had not yet been disbursed, and that if Chase would contact them, they would return the funds to Chase.
Eventually, despite notifying both banks that a fraud was in progress and could be prevented, Brown learned that Chase took too long to contact KBC, and that the money was disbursed to the fraudulent “owner.” Despite Brown’s quick realization that he had been the victim of fraud, and his diligence in trying to prevent it, he couldn’t stop the money from being disbursed to the “owner.”
Brown thought that he was protected by HomeAway’s Book With Confidence Guarantee. The guarantee includes comprehensive payment protection which “protects 100% of your payment against things like listing fraud, phishing, property significantly misrepresented, wrongful denial of entry, or uninhabitable property upon arrival.”
But, in order to benefit from HomeAway’s guarantee, the customer must complete the booking through the HomeAway checkout process. The HomeAway guarantee clearly discloses that:
Only bookings made through the HomeAway checkout and paid for using a registered payment method are eligible for coverage by the Book with Confidence Guarantee. This coverage is offered at no additional cost.
But Brown didn’t make payment through the HomeAway website, and that was an unfortunate and costly mistake. The part of Brown’s HomeAway rental agreement that specifically said that payment must be made through their approved process or the payment guarantee is forfeited was blacked out.
After discovering that he had been victimized, Brown researched the scam and learned that it had been ongoing for several years. In fact, even after notifying HomeAway of the scam, he received an email from a different “owner” in St. Thomas that had the same email address as the “owner” who scammed him the first time. Nothing had been done to protect HomeAway renters from this scammer.
Yet, in an odd way, Brown recognized that he was lucky. He was thankful that he discovered the fraud before arriving at his destination with no place to stay.
Vacation rental scams perpetuated through HomeAway and similar sites are common. We’ve written several articles about such scams, including those published in September 2015, February 2012, and January 2012.
A simple internet search should help a renter detect a possible scam before becoming a victim. The lesson is to do your research before you book a vacation rental and to never wire money or make a payment outside of the established and guaranteed forum.