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