The rental villa on the French Riviera that Sonia Guillaume found online looked picture-perfect. It featured an impeccably manicured garden, spacious living areas, a pool and stunning views of the medieval village of St. Paul de Vence.
And there was the price: 10 percent off the weekly 1,700-euro rate in August, a time when pretty much all of France is on vacation.
You know what happened next, right? Guillaume says she contacted the owner through the Web site, which is owned by the U.S. vacation rental listing site HomeAway, and wired him the money. Then she discovered that she wasn’t dealing with the real owner, but with someone who had fraudulently obtained the owner’s e-mail password, a crime known as phishing.
“It was a scam,” says Guillaume, a subcontracting manager who lives in Poissy, a suburb of Paris.
I’ve been following similar incidents since the fall. In a report that I wrote in January, HomeAway promised to crack down on phishing and to work with victims to save their vacations. But since then, more defrauded renters and homeowners with listings on HomeAway have come forward to tell their stories.
Rental owners complain that they’re being unfairly blamed for the phishing. And customers allege that the company’s attitude is dismissive, that it’s showing little interest in rescuing their ruined vacations or bringing the scammers to justice.
HomeAway, which also operates VRBO.com and has a commanding share of the vacation rental market, says that nothing could be further from the truth: It hasn’t been contacted by any law enforcement officials about a phishing case, but if it were, it would fully cooperate with any investigation. The company has added phishing warnings to its sites and recently posted a job notice for a director of global fraud prevention to help manage its efforts to “detect, prevent and mitigate fraud and other undesirable events.”
I tried to reach the victims. One of the customers, Guillaume, says that no one from HomeAway has contacted her with a resolution. (I brought her case to HomeAway’s attention March 16, and the company says that it has tried to reach her but that she hasn’t responded.)
Another would-be renter, Tania Rieben, says that the company hasn’t helped her, either. HomeAway says that the property manager has offered her a resolution that she hasn’t accepted.
Kathryn Bowden, an artist in Sorrento, Fla., who says she lost $3,800 on a vacation rental in Kissimmee, Fla., that HomeAway listed, told me a story that matched many details of Guillaume’s case, including the location of the fake homeowner, the size of the discount and the way the scam was perpetrated. I contacted HomeAway on her behalf in mid-February.
“The only thing I have heard from HomeAway is that they expect the owner of the property we tried to rent from to resolve any issue,” she says. “It makes it sound as though they feel the owner is somehow to blame and must make restitution. That’s their choice of words, not mine.”