How to avoid this vacation rental wire transfer mistake

Margot Rowland and her husband just wanted to take their grandchildren on a memorable journey to Paris. So she scoured the HomeAway site and found the perfect vacation rental for the family. But as their travel plans were coming together, she made a wire transfer mistake that the bank could not reverse. And now the trip and their $3,000 are in jeopardy.

Is there anything Elliott Advocacy can do for her?

Rowland’s experience illustrates how easy it is to find and self-book rental homes around the world. However, it also shines a light on the dark side of this mode of vacation planning. Unfortunately, there are high-tech thieves out there just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting, novice users of these self-booking sites.

Many warnings leading up to this wire transfer mistake

Rowland explained that after she selected the apartment, she sent a message to the owner through the HomeAway system. He accepted her reservation; however, he wanted her to make the payment quickly. He told her that he needed to close this deal because he was about to leave on a cruise.

Warning #1

If an owner asks you to send a wire transfer quickly, you should always proceed with caution. In this case, “The owner” created a sense of urgency in Rowland, and she let her guard down. Her thoughts were of the wonderful time her family planned to spend in Paris — not getting trapped in a wire transfer scam.

After the next interaction with this person, Rowland’s instincts told her something wasn’t quite right. So she contacted HomeAway to verify the property.

“When the request came, it asked for a wire transfer to a bank in Finland,” Rowland recalled. “I called HomeAway to confirm the property and ask about the payment method.”

Rowland said that HomeAway confirmed the property. But the representative advised that the owner typically takes credit card payments — not wire transfers.

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Warning #2

The fact the owner is not known to accept wire transfer payments should have set off another alert for Rowland.

Whenever possible, travelers should book their vacation homes using a credit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act provides credit card users protection against this type of fraud. It’s challenging for an anonymous internet thief to steal your money if you stick to credit card payments.

Warning #3

The request for Rowland to quickly send a wire transfer to a bank in Finland for a vacation rental in France. It’s worth a closer look when an owner asks you to send money to a country that is not the location of the property. This fact combined with the other oddities should have caused Rowland to run. But she didn’t.

Despite these irregularities, Rowland continued with the reservation process. And that’s when the final warning came.

Warning #4

The “owner” asked Rowland to circumvent the HomeAway system to make the wire transfer payment.

And she did. She sent the entire vacation rental fee to a bank in Finland outside of the HomeAway platform. And that’s when her wire transfer mistake became irreversible.

Doesn’t the HomeAway Book with Confidence Guarantee protect renters?

Yes. And no.

HomeAway has recently updated its HomeAway Book with Confidence Guarantee. If you choose to use HomeAway/VRBO to book your next vacation home, it’s important to familiarize yourself with these terms.

The Book with Confidence Guarantee provides travelers with following benefits

  • Comprehensive payment protection that protects your full rental payment against listing fraud, phishing, property significantly misrepresented and more.
  • Premium customer service that is available 24/7 to help you if you have issues or questions regarding your stay.
  • Rebooking assistance to help you find another vacation rental should your booking be canceled by an owner or manager at the last minute.
  • Security deposit protection to help you recover your deposit if it is wrongfully withheld.

That guarantee sounds great. But it’s critical to stay within the bounds of the HomeAway/VRBO payment system when sending money to any vacation rental owner. If you don’t, all bets are off with this guarantee. And that’s true even if the HomeAway website provided the introduction to the thief that duped you.

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A common vacation rental scam: attacked by a “Phish”

It would appear that Rowland was a victim of a phishing attack, or more specifically, the thief likely phished the owner’s account. The scammer redirected her email to himself from HomeAway.

All correspondence between an owner and a renter should go through the HomeAway system. But at some point, this criminal was able to send emails directly to Rowland. And having never used HomeAway before, this didn’t seem unusual to her.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) points out that wire transfers can be a perfectly safe way to transfer money to people you know. However, sending a wire transfer to a stranger in a foreign country who wants you to do it quickly is never a good idea. It’s the same as handing a pile of cash to that person. And if they aren’t really who they have portrayed — you’re out of luck.

It’s critical to do some additional investigation before asking your bank to send your cash to an anonymous person in a distant land. As Rowland discovered, once the bank sends your money it has no way of retrieving it.

If she had made the wire transfer inside the HomeAway payment platform, she would have had the protection of the HomeAway Guarantee.

Mitigating her wire transfer mistake

We receive frequent pleas for help from self-booking novices who fall for this type of wire transfer scam. And many of these fraud victims have lost much more than Rowland.

Last year, my colleague Abe Wischnia wrote about another consumer’s wire transfer mistake that I tried to advocate with HomeAway/VRBO.

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Meir Horowitz contacted our advocacy team in a panic after he sent over $17,000 to a scammer. Although he had made the acquaintance of the thief through the VRBO system, he sent the money outside the platform. In that case, I asked our VRBO executive contact if the company could do anything for Horowitz. He pointed me to the HomeAway Basic Guarantee.

The HomeAway Basic Guarantee allowed for a payment of up to $1,000 to a fraud victim who initially found the property (and the scammer) on the HomeAway platform but who made the payments to the thief outside the boundaries of HomeAway. In Meir’s case, he was able to recoup $1,000 of his loss using the Basic Rental Guarantee.

I hoped for the same for Rowland. When she contacted our advocacy team, HomeAway still had the Basic Rental Guarantee in place. I encouraged Rowland to apply for the partial reimbursement.

The (somewhat) good news about this vacation rental fiasco

Several months after Rowland’s saga began, she sent me the good news that HomeAway granted her partial refund request.

Thank you so much for your help with my HomeAway claim for Basic Rental Guarantee.

It took a long time, but, it was successful! I never would have known of this recourse without your help!!!!

The online reimbursement form was a challenge for me. I submitted forms 5 times, but in the end, we received $1,000 of our $3,000 loss. The big hold-up was getting the bank letter stating that the wire transfer could not be returned and that the file was closed.

Although Rowland is pleased with the outcome and the family will soon take that anticipated trip to Paris, she hopes others can learn from her rookie wire transfer mistake. It’s important to listen to your instincts, and sometimes, in unfamiliar circumstances, it’s better just to let a travel professional handle your vacation plans.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, SEO-lady, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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