Fraud on VRBO strands overseas travelers

By | August 27th, 2016

Like many travelers looking for bargains, Alan and Julie Mitchell were looking for a cheap, convenient place to stay when they made a reservation for their trip. But they ended up with some very inconvenient accommodations that concluded with a credit card dispute.

The Mitchells, who were traveling from Australia to Miami, made an online reservation to stay at a Miami location called The Loft 2 Miami, which was listed as an available condominium on (owned by HomeAway) by someone using the name Javier Sune. As required by the site, the Mitchells paid $1,080 USD as the full balance of the fee stated in the listing.

Then things took a strange turn.

First, the property listing was removed from VRBO’s website. Concerned, Alan Mitchell called VRBO’s customer service. A VRBO agent assured Mitchell that his payment had been applied to his reservation, which was still intact, and that he and his wife would be able to stay at the condominium on the date of the booking.

The Mitchells then flew to Miami on an 18-hour flight and arrived at The Loft 2 Miami after 10 p.m., hoping to check in and go to bed. But they found that The Loft 2 Miami is a long-term rental apartment building and condominium, and that none of its apartments are available for short-term rentals or owned by a Javier Sune. They tried to call Javier Sune at the telephone numbers provided by VRBO in its confirmation, with no success.

The Mitchells were the victims of fraud.

They had to drag their luggage through the streets of Miami to look for a hotel for the night, and finally found an available room at the Sun Hotel for $180, which turned out to be “a dump.” They then rented another condominium at One Broadway, in Miami’s financial district (an area far from where the Mitchells wanted to stay), for the rest of their trip for $1,200.

The Mitchells wanted to know: Who is responsible when a property listing on a vacation rental site turns out to be phony? And could they get their money back?

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Alan Mitchell sent several emails to VRBO’s customer service department, repeatedly sending its agents copies of all the email exchanges and other documentation they had regarding the transaction. VRBO responded that in a case of fraud, the Mitchells could expect to see a return of all their money. But after more than a month had passed, the Mitchells had not received a refund.

Mitchell then contacted Brian Sharples, the CEO of VRBO, and posted on VRBO’s Facebook page, requesting that VRBO escalate his case. (Contact information for HomeAway, VRBO’s parent company, can be found on our website.) He threatened legal action against HomeAway if he didn’t receive a refund of the payment, which may have contributed to VRBO’s lack of response.

Mitchell finally contacted our advocates, who reached out to VRBO on the Mitchells’ behalf.

Even then, VRBO was not helpful. An agent of VRBO told Mitchell to contact his credit card company and ask them to pursue Javier Sune. Mitchell was also told that VRBO was “dumping him” and to have a lawyer of his own contact VRBO’s legal department.

But did VRBO have any responsibility to help Mitchell at all?

Certainly, as a matter of customer service, it has an obligation to help protect its legitimate customers from fraud by not allowing crooks to post phony listings on its site. And it could have helped Mitchell by returning his payment and pursuing Javier Sune itself while filing a claim on its own errors and omissions insurance policy, rather than blowing him off with repeated requests for documentation and “Tell your lawyer to get in touch with ours.”

Legally, it gets murky. VRBO’s terms and conditions contain a good deal of legalese that absolves it from any liability arising out of whatever is posted on its site:

We are not a party to any rental or other agreement between users. This is true even if the Site allows you to book a rental or provides other ancillary products or services, as the Site may facilitate booking a rental or other tools, services or products, but we are not a party to any rental or other agreement between users. As a result, any part of an actual or potential transaction between a traveler and a member, including the quality, condition, safety or legality of the properties advertised, the truth or accuracy of the listings (including the content thereof or any review relating to any traveler or property), the ability of members to rent a vacation property or the ability of travelers to contract for properties are solely the responsibility of each user. …

[W]e cannot, and do not assume any responsibility for, the confirmation of each user’s purported identity. …

We have no duty to pre-screen content posted on the Site by members, travelers or other users, whether directly contributed by the user or contributed by us or a third party on behalf of the user (including, without limitation, property listings, reviews of a rental property or a traveler)…

All property listings on the Site are the sole responsibility of the member (who may be the owner or a property manager or duly authorized agent of the owner) and we specifically disclaim any and all liability arising from the alleged accuracy of the listings, reviews or any alleged breaches of contract on a user’s part. …

We do not represent or warrant that any of the copy, content, traveler or property reviews, guest book entries, property location, suitability, pricing or availability information published on the Site is accurate or up-to-date even in the case where travelers have searched for specific dates or types of properties. …

All other user-contributed content is the sole responsibility of the user who contributed such content, whether such user contributed the content directly or through a third-party website. Users are solely responsible for their user-contributed content and we specifically disclaim all liability for user-contributed content. …

In no event will HomeAway, or its parent company, subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, consultants, agents and/or employees (collectively, the “HomeAway group”), or any third-party provider of a service or tool offered on any site of a member of the HomeAway group (each a “third-party provider”), be liable for any lost profits or any indirect, consequential, special, incidental, or punitive damages arising out of, based on, or resulting from (a) our site, (b) these terms, (c) any breach of these terms by you or a third party, (d) use of the site, tools or services we provide, or any third party provider provides, related to the business we operate on the site, by you or any third party (e) any user-contributed content…

There’s a great deal more of the same in the terms and conditions, all amounting to: We’re not taking responsibility for it. Go away.

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We’ve written a number of stories about VRBO’s brush-offs of renters who discovered that they were cheated out of their money with fake listings. And unfortunately, VRBO and HomeAway continue to take the position that they’re not responsible for anything posted on their sites. They refuse to do any vetting of listings to establish that the posters are legitimate property owners or managers with decent reputations. It’s the ultimate caveat emptor.

Even though VRBO refused to help the Mitchells, their story does have a happy ending. Their credit card agreed to issue a full refund of all the fees paid to VRBO for the phony listing, as well as the extra costs incurred for the subsequent hotel room and condo in Miami when they learned that they had been defrauded. And it may also issue a chargeback against VRBO, which would force VRBO to disgorge the fees it collected from the Mitchells.

Update: Following publication of this story, we heard from HomeAway that it did reach out to the Mitchells.

  • mbods2002

    Wow, kudos to their CC company! I really hope they issue a charge back against this sham of a company. If I were a legitimate person with a condo/house to rent I would withdraw my property ASAP as VRBO’s reputation will eventually stop people from using them. I’m sharing this to warn my FB friends NOT to do business with VRBO and HomeAway. Clearly they don’t care about their customers.

  • AJPeabody

    And Expedia owns VRBO, does it not? And we know how responsive Expedia is.

  • Fishplate

    Seems like the simple way to run such a service is to not release funds until the renter has successfully checked in. that should eliminate 100% of this type of fraud.

  • Jim

    Yeah really! What credit card company because I want a card with them!

  • If VRBO told Mitchell that he had a valid reservation, they have to take responsibility for fraud. All of these B & B reservation sites are targets for scammers, so they have escrow and validation arrangements that are supposed to verify that renters are connected with real owners registered with the site.

  • MarkKelling

    VRBO is telling the OP to let the lawyers talk it out. Well, that is the only response you are going to get from a company after you “threatened legal action against” them. Lesson learned is never threaten that until all other options are exhausted and you actually have a lawyer willing to take the case.

    But who collected the funds from the credit card? If it is VRBO, then they are responsible for the delivery of the product no matter what their contract says. At least the credit card company agrees. But this might be built in travel insurance on the card.

  • James

    It is probably an Australian bank and card — almost every country in the world has better consumer protection laws than the US (or, enforces the ones they have better,) That sounds pretty normal for what my Scottish credit card would do…

  • MF

    Nice when a business like VRBO helps landlords defraud renters. Perhaps the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should take a look at their business model. Holding the renter’s money in an escrow account until given the ‘all ok’ by the renter would go a long way towards eliminating this kind of fraud. But then VRBO would actually have to spend time & money doing the right thing. Perhaps they should start a second service where they did this, for an additional fee?

  • cscasi

    Nice thought. But, I guess they don’t have to. I am not sure if anyone has tried suing them over something like this. Then, there would be precedence.

  • NVskier

    We rented a condo in Puerto Vallarta through VRBO in Dec/Jan 2014-15. The picture posted on their website of the view from the balcony showing an ocean and beach view was NOT from this condo balcony. We complained to the owner who did nothing. We reported it to VRBO that is was totally misleading and should be removed but nothing happened. The owner of the condo has in his contract that any renter is not allowed to publish any comments about the condo without approval of the owner. That should have alerted us! He also advertised that it had wifi but it did not work the entire time we were there. Does not appear that VRBO does any policing of its offerings!

  • joycexyz

    Well, so much for trusting VRBO and HomeAway. Apparently, scammers are okay with them. What a way to do business! This should be plastered all over the Internet. I’m so glad their credit card company stood up for them.

  • sirwired

    VRBO makes a secured payment option available to owners, and makes it pretty clear to renters that if the owner chooses to operate their own payment system outside of VRBO, that they are just a classified ad, and have similar liability.

    They COULD go the route of AirBnB, and require that all payments go through their system. But I’d be remiss not to mention that when AirBnB did that, Chris published an article complaining that they had the temerity to charge for it.

  • Excellent news from the credit card company!

  • Tracy Larson

    The problem with this idea is that the renter could check-in and then falsely claim the rental is not what was promised, even if it is. A customer of mine had this happen when he rented his property through TripAdvisor. They hold the money for 24 hours after check-in and need to hear from the guest that everything is ok. All it takes is a serial complainer to say it is not a good rental and then the owner gets nothing. But now there is someone in the condo and they can’t be made to leave because they have a rental agreement that the owner accepted. The owner is forced to go through an eviction and by the time that is possible, the renter has had a nice free stay and is now long gone. I know this to be accurate because I saw it happen.

  • Tracy Larson

    I’m a Realtor and I have a house listed for sale. Supposedly there was a long-term renter in place and I would have to work out showings with their schedule. The tenant never wanted me to show the house, which really isn’t that surprising. Then one day I get a call from someone saying that he was going to be renting the house for a week for a vacation and he had a few questions. He had found the same photos of the house on a real estate site and found my name and called me. I told him that there was a long term tenant in place and the house was not zoned for short term rentals and asked if he was sure he had the right house. He told me the VRBO number and sure enough, it was my listing, being offered as a vacation rental by the long term tenant. The owner had no idea that the tenant didn’t actually live in the house and was using the property as an illegal vacation rental. Despite many requests to VRBO that the listing on their site is fraud, the listing is still there, many months later. We did an eviction process with the help of the local police. I still get calls from vacationers that booked and paid for a vacation rental but don’t get access to the house. Shame on VRBO for being part of that when they have proof that the listing is fraud.

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