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131569 Views 177 Replies Latest reply: Jan 17, 2014 3:29 PM by carol RSS 1 2 3 ... 12 Previous Next
Contributor 33 posts since
Dec 6, 2011
Currently Being Moderated

Dec 7, 2011 10:49 AM

Scam - everyone should read this!

This is a cautionary tale which I am laying out here for the property owners and renters in hopes you won’t fall through the same trap as we did. There is a quite clever Internet fraud going on, and unfortunately we fell for it to the tune of $XXXX.

My husband and I travel a lot and we always prefer to rent apartments or houses as opposed to staying in hotels, so when we decided to go to Florida this December we naturally turned to VRBO, which we used many times over. We found this charming place and emailed the owner, - we got a reply and for few days went back and forth going over price and logistics. Finally we agreed on terms and the “owners” (yes – the quotation marks!) asked for a wire transfer to a bank in London. We thought it was somewhat strange but rationalized it by the fact that there are lots of foreigners who own vacation property in the US, plus we already entered into similar transactions when we rented apartments in Barcelona and Nice. As a precaution, we asked if we can speak with them, but instead of giving their phone number, they called us instead. They sent us a rental agreement that included “Carefree Rental Guarantee from HomeAway” sign and description, which highlights that a wire transfer is one of the safe money transfer methods.  We sent the wire which included a hefty $1,000 “security deposit” and that was the last time we heard from them… Two days later we realized we've been had, - we searched through the web listing again and found the phone number (in Florida) listed for the owner of the property – when we called, the real owner has never received any emails from us, never talked to us, and naturally never got any money.

So here’s how the scam works… The fraudster emails the property owner from the VRBO site an inquiry about a listing; him and the owner begin exchanging emails, and then at some point he plants a software program (lots of way of doing it) that does the following – it sits in the owner’s mailbox and waits for emails from VRBO/HomeAway, once it gets an email – it forwards it to the fraudster’s mailbox while simultaneously deleting it from the owner’s mailbox. That way – the owner never sees it, and fraudster can reply back to the prospective renter representing himself as the owner.

We believe HomeAway/VRBO should be responsible, - we found instances of people telling of exactly the same scam happening few months ago(even using exactly the same email), and HomeAway did nothing except of asking the owners to change the email and reimburse the victims… However HomeAway keeps telling they are not responsible, - it is the owner’s mailbox that got hacked… No money from the Bank – our Bank contacted the receiving bank in London which replied that the funds were withdrawn from that account. Now we are working with FBI Cyber Crimes division and UK Action Fraud and hopefully the fraudster/s will be caught or at least stopped.

 

One positive note – the real owners are good people and let us staying in the property for a half price, so at least our vacation plans are uninterrupted.


Here are our tips for the renters to avoid this trap:

  • never do a wire or any direct money transfer. No matter how beautiful a property looks like, it doesn’t worth the risk
  • always do research (including Googling the email address you are receiving notes from – in our case the same email address was used in scams before – had we Google’d it, we would have discovered the fraud beforehand)
  • always call a phone number on the listing to reach the person, if you can help it – deal with US-based counterparties

 

Tips to the property owners:

  • if you use gmail/yahoo/hotmail accounts – check your spam/junk/trash folders. If you find any inquiry emails that you didn’t personally deleted, you might have this virus in your account => change your email account!
  • state very clearly in you listing that you don’t ask for wire transfers

Property owners, if this fraud happens when inquiring about your property, be aware that HomeAway will ask you to reimburse the money to the victim. So take all precaution you can to avoid this happening to your property.

 

Last note – if there are any other victims of this fraud in this forum, please contact me at VictimOfRentalFraud@gmail.com

  • New Member 15 posts since
    Dec 5, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    1. Dec 8, 2011 11:32 AM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    Wow, I'm terribly sorry to hear you were scammed in that way.  Here in the HA Community, there is a category for Scams in the Owner section but nothing in the Traveler section.  I have heard of this type of scam happening on Craigslist often (the posting is free so scammers steal someone's real listing from somewhere else and throw it up with their own contact info), but the "virus" that hacks your email account sounds a lot more sophisticated.

     

    As an aside, I'm working on a product called RentWithTrust to help verify renters and owners, and we're looking for beta testers.  In this case, you could have seen that the phone number in the listing (if it was present) had been verified by the person with whom you were emailing.  Anyone can message me if they want to try it.

     

    Again, I'm really sorry to hear you got ripped off.  The more popular big purchases like vacation rentals get online, the more this sort of thing is going to pop up.

  • Currently Being Moderated
    2. Dec 8, 2011 11:33 AM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    I'm so sorry you had such a bad experience - it is certainly enough to put you off renting forever!  However, not all of us "foreign property owners who accept payment via direct bank transfer" are crooks.  Though I understand your point of view, it's simply not fair to generalize, and doing so only breeds distrust and hurts our business.

     

    Direct bank transfer is a very common way of doing business in many foreign countries.  Though not yet common in the US, it will no doubt be available in the near future.  Remember the initial distrust of "automatic payments"? Though wiring funds through third party systems is not advisable (Western Union, etc.), since anyone with a false ID can intercept the money, direct bank transfer involves no middleman and is a protected transaction.  It is important, however, that you validate the identity of the Owner/Manager before sending funds.  It is unfortunate that you did not do this, and I'm sorry that you had to learn the hard way.  Many Owners do not accept credit cards or PayPal-type payment systems.  There are various reasons for this: protection usually extends to the Purchaser and not the Seller, high fees, etc.  For some of us, direct bank transfer is the only sensible method, since all our bills are paid in this manner.

     

    You raise some good points that prospective renters would be wise to practice.   By all means, do a background check on the Owner - many of us check out our Renters!  Doing business in cyberspace is risky - it is best for both sides to be cautious.  Most of us are listed on several social networks, such as FaceBook, LinkdIn, etc. Though many Owners/Managers prefer to remain anonymous and do not complete the "Owner's Profile", I personally never rent from these listings.  I want to know who I'm dealing with, and figure my guests do too.  Though not a guarantee, it is a step in the right direction.

     

    If a phone number is not listed, request one via email, as well as a convenient time to place the call - the time difference between France and the US is 7 hours, for example.  Since my cable service offers free long-distance service, I always offer to call the Renter, or at least call them back after they validate my identity.  However, if an Owner/Manager was not amenable to a phone call, I would look elsewhere for a rental.

     

    As far as dealing only with "US-based counterparties" - this provides no guarantee of legitimacy or performance.  I rent frequently, for myself or friends, and have had the misfortune of renting from several different US-based Owners/Managers whose foreign properties were in terrible condition.  ( The last one was so awful that I requested a refund - the Manager admitted that the property had not been inspected in at least 10 years!  An inspection followed, and I received a refund and an apology.  I was fortunate in this case. )  I live in my rental, but many Owners do not.  Ask the Owner how often (s)he visits the property.  Some people are lucky enough to have great support staff - others, not so much.

     

    Unfortunately, "hacking" and "phishing" are becoming commonplace.  The Internet is a criminal's playground.  Many of us have suffered a scam of one kind or another.  As consumers and service providers, we should all be on our guard.  But please don't assume the rest of us are dishonest, just because we prefer a certain banking method - credit card fraud abounds, as well!

     

    Be careful, out there...

  • thaxterlane Active Contributor 779 posts since
    Jul 27, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    3. Dec 8, 2011 11:35 AM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    My advice for avoiding this type of scam is to do careful research to determine (1) the rental property exists and (2) the person representing the property is authorized to rent it as either the owner or the property manager.  For many properties in the US there are town or city databases of records such as property assessments, tax payments, etc that allow you to determine ownership.   If you can't establish the legitimacy of the property and the representative you are dealing with, move on to another property. 

     

    Much of this information can be found with a google search.  It's not complicated.  Most properties and people have an online record  or footprint.  And if you can't find online information you must ask questions and get specific verifiable answers.  If an owner or property manager doesn't provide detailed, specific answers to your satisfaction, move on to considering other properties no matter your interest in that particular property. 

     

    I would caution against wiring money.  I understand it is common overseas and the majority of users are legitimate.  I have wired funds myself for rentals in Europe, but it was several years ago before vacation rentals became such an object of interest for scammers.  I think I would inquire about other forms of payment, especially for large sums of money or rent through a well established company, which I realize is not always possible in out of the way locations.

     

    An email account can't be assessed as a sign of safety nor risk.  Anyone can open any number of accounts, use an account for a period of time and abandon it for a new one.  Googling an email may not produce any useful results.  

     

    I think verifying a rental property and owner/manager is essential. 

     

    Best of luck in getting this sorted out!

  • New Member 4 posts since
    Dec 7, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    4. Dec 7, 2011 11:04 AM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    Dear all, I was sent an email yesterday from VRBO simply telling me that an inquiry was sent to a property in London and the account of this property was hacked, so the were telling me that they have great concerns that a safe issue regarding this could jeopardy my trip and advise not go on and instead go to the page again and submit again the inquiry.

    But this was done 10 days after I made the inquiry. And it was too late because a payment was made already, via bank transfer. In the email VRBO sent me, no reply email was given, no phone number was given, showing they don't care much about the travellers.

    I phoned the owner and he confirmed I was a victim. I sent an email, yesterday, to VRBO and they did not reply me. Given how serious is this issue that jeopardy the entire system, I really expect more attention from VRBO to solve this problem.

    So, I warn all travellers NOT to trust in the system, while they don't give all the guarantee of safety system.

     

    I contacted Karry today at VRBO and now Im waiting for a contact of VRBO security team. I did the Carefree Guarantee, so I hope I can have my money back, but lost any confidence on this.

  • New Member 4 posts since
    Dec 7, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    9. Dec 7, 2011 2:14 PM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    All I know is that VRBO still did not make any contact with me. And if Carefree Guarantee did not cover, I expect a movement from VRBO, together with the owner, which account was hacked, to propose an agreement. Otherwise, I will search my rights using the law and also, as I am a journalist, telling this story at the internet at Tourism and Vacation specials and denouncing how fragile is the system and how their operators are not responsible and do not warn enough their clients about threatnings. I think that the victms, unite, can impact a loss to the system, the size of the loss I, and others, had.

  • meredith HomeAway Employee 384 posts since
    Nov 18, 2010
    Currently Being Moderated
    10. Dec 7, 2011 3:14 PM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    Hi victimofrentalfraud,

     

    I removed the exact email address of your scammer because it violates the terms of our Community site to share the personal information of others. However, I am glad that you are sharing your experience here.

     

    I am passing on the information you have shared to our Trust and Security Department to investigate.

     

    The best way to report scams is use our support forms

     

    HomeAway Support

    VRBO Support

     

    Thank you,

    Meredith

    Online Community Coordinator

  • Contributor 145 posts since
    May 12, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    11. Dec 7, 2011 4:16 PM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    Victimofrentalfraud thank you so much for posting the terrible Scam problem you encountered.  This is shocking to read and very scary to think that VRBO/HA websites are becoming very dangerous for homeowners to advertise on.  Instead of buying up all the competion you would think they would put more effort security.  To read that Craig's list has a safer system was pretty alarming.  To get the message out to a much broader spectrum of homeowners you might want to consider posting your story on the Site Jabber website.  Homeaway already has a pretty low rating and the story you just shared with us is really going to scare the daylights out of both the renter and the homeowner  http://www.sitejabber.com/reviews/www.homeaway.com#conversation-tab

  • anja Senior Contributor 1,554 posts since
    Aug 9, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    12. Dec 8, 2011 11:34 AM (in response to manouche)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    manouche:   excellent response, IMO.  I am VERY GRATEFUL to 'victimofrentalfraud' for posting the warning.  My sympathy to you. Your post is a VALUABLE warning.  It sent a chill through me.  Everyone has to be so careful and do whatever possible to "foster The Trust" between us.  But, "generalizations" made need to be challenged, and I thank you for doing it {because I was about to....you saved me the effort}.  The recommendations to be suspicious of and reject Owners who use "bank wire transfers"....and to "deal with US-based counterparts" are generalizations.   To imply that US-based counterparts would be more trustworthy to transact with, is.... niave.  Please...there are crooks everywhere....USA is not without  "bad-guys".   I'm an Owner based in the USA {and American born}, and offer several methods of payment and ONE method I use often is via bank transfer....and I'm very grateful for it because there have been so many instances where other methods were limited, by the Guests' side...so it was their preferred method.  And, it has been easy and secure for both parties.  I do whatever possible for my prospects to give them the assurances they need, if they are insecure, in the beginning. And, there is a "footprint" online for me, a history, County records where my business is registered, etc..   So, I think Owners need to think about how they are organized for doing this business....what evidence for legitimacy can they offer prospects when asked....and we all need to be careful when we are traveling ourselves.   Actually,  I have had more problems with credit card misuse {maxed out and even fraudelent} and deposit checks bouncing when I cashed them! {But, I still accept credit cards and checks, as well.} I am currently based in the USA after having lived in Europe for many years ... I have had absolutely NO problem with bank transfers from either within the USA  {I get a few each year in US},  or with  overseas guests {European and South-East Asia locations}.   To get money hand to hand:  the bank transfer originates from "my guests' bank account directly into my business bank account"....handled  by our banks {no third party}. And...for my own business security, I use a bank account that is only for those transactions...the money I receive I transfer over to another account. If a "scamming guest" wants to try to empty the account...there is nothing for them to steal.

  • Contributor 42 posts since
    Nov 3, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    13. Dec 7, 2011 7:22 PM (in response to victimofrentalfraud)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    This scam is terrifying. Can we expect the portal of the problem (HA/VRBO) to remedy the problem? Or alternatively what can an owner request of a technician to check to determine if his email for vacation rentals has been jeopardized? Has HA/VRBO provided any technical assitance to owners?  Is there something on line that HA/VRBO has created to be downloaded by owners?  This is a travesty for both the traveler and the owner and if one thinks bad press came about from the review system, my bet is we ain't seen nothin yet!!!

  • thaxterlane Active Contributor 779 posts since
    Jul 27, 2011
    Currently Being Moderated
    14. Dec 8, 2011 11:34 AM (in response to anja)
    Re: Scam - everyone should read this!

    To manouche and anja:  perhaps you can explain how a renter would use a wire transfer with confidence?  (If anyone else wants to respond that's fine.)

     

    I understand that an owner feels secure with a wire transfer; the owner is receiving funds, not sending funds.

     

    My understanding of a wire transfer is that, the buyer is sending cash, and once it leaves the buyer's account it's not retrievable.  The money is deposited, transferred, or collected on the other end of the transaction by the recipient.  It's a quick process and the money, once transferred, can not be retrieved.  If fraud has taken place; a lengthy and difficult investigation would follow and it's unlikely the funds will be recovered. 

     

    Why would a renter want to use a wire transfer when a credit card offers protection?

     

    I understand an owner might prefer a wire transfer, but it seems a poor chioce for a renter. 

     

    How does the renter verify the identity of the owner? 

     

    Am I overlooking a piece of the process?

     

    I've read several posts about the use of wire transfers in Europe and some suggest we just don't get it here in the US.  How do people in Europe protect themselves?  Is there not any fraud?   I've used wire transfers in my work and understand the process from an institutional perspective (large university), but how does an individual perform their due diligence before wiring funds to someone they have little information about?   How do you detect fraud? Identity theft?  

     

    Shouldn't renters be cautioned against wire transfers?  Informed of the potential for risk?

     

    Thank you!

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