Do I have the right to privacy in my vacation rental? Maybe not in this one.

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By Christopher Elliott

Does Diana Rojas have the right to privacy in her vacation rental? Apparently not.

When she rented a home on Vrbo recently, she was shocked when her host “invaded” her privacy. 

“We felt intimidated,” she says.

Now she wants a refund for her entire stay.

But does she deserve to get $1,100 back? Her problem raises a few questions:

  • Do Airbnb and Vrbo rentals allow surveillance cameras?
  • If I find a camera, what should I do?
  • Am I entitled to privacy in my vacation rental?

The answers aren’t as straightforward as you might think. But first, let’s point our camera at Rojas for a minute.

“She ruined our stay”

Rojas and her husband rented a lakeside home in Montgomery, Texas, for two days during the New Year’s holiday. Rojas reviewed the rental policies, which stated: “The property features an exterior security camera, attached to a tree, facing the back of the house and the dock. It does not look into any interior spaces.”

Vrbo allows outside cameras as long as they meet several criteria, including that they are primarily used for security purposes.

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But it turns out this host was monitoring more than the outside of the property.

The camera in Rojas’ Vrbo rental was pointed directly into her living room.

Rojas arrived at the home in the late afternoon and started setting up for a holiday dinner. Then she received a text message from the owner. 

Owner: Hi! This is Heather, the owner of the lake house you’re staying at. We noticed on the cameras that the door is open and you have a long table and looks like a possible DJ. We are so glad to have you but don’t allow parties at the house. Only the guests staying and that’s all.

Rojas: You are welcome to come here to check if we have a D.J. This is a family dinner. You are invading our privacy by the camera pointing inside to see what is going on inside. We are not bothering anybody, and no music is being played.

Owner: This is our house and our property. We are allowed to have cameras. We have them because we have too many people who have parties and don’t follow the rules.

That may be true. But was the owner following the rules? Rojas didn’t think so.

“The next day, we called Vrbo,” she says. “They asked us for videos, images and texts from the owner. We sent them all the evidence.”

Rojas says she wasn’t comfortable staying in the rental a second night.

“We felt intimidated by the surveillance camera, by the owner with her texts, by the false accusations. She ruined our stay there and our end of the year,” she says.

So she and her husband left.

Can she get a refund for having cameras in her vacation rental?

Rojas wanted a refund for the second night. So she asked Vrbo.

“Vrbo sent me an email that said we should contact the owner directly to request the refund,” she says. “I contacted the owner and she refused to refund the second night.”

Rojas circled back with Vrbo. This time, she asked it to refund both nights. Vrbo’s response, according to the paper trail she provided, was to “validate” her complaint, but it offered no money back. (Related: “Such a bizarre” rental experience on Vrbo — but do they even care?)

“Was our privacy violated while we were there?” she asked me. “Do we have the right to have our money refunded?”

The short answer is: Yes. When someone violates Vrbo’s camera policy, you get all of your money back.

But did Heather, the owner of the lake house in Montgomery, violate Rojas’ privacy? (Here’s our guide to renting a vacation home.)

Maybe. Privacy laws vary by location. But in the United States, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and that protection extends to temporary rentals. In addition, both Airbnb and Vrbo have privacy policies (I’ll get into them in a minute) that appear to partially protect guests like Rojas.

The real question is, does an exterior camera pointing at a door that could see inside a house constitute a violation of Vrbo’s rules?

Let’s find out.

Do Airbnb and Vrbo rentals allow surveillance cameras?

Short answer: Inside, no. Outside, maybe.

Neither Airbnb nor Vrbo allows cameras inside a rental.

Airbnb ​​allows hosts to have outdoor security cameras and recording devices. But hosts must disclose their locations in the listing. For example, “I have a camera in my front yard,” “I have a camera over my patio,” or “I have a camera over my pool.” Airbnb tightened its security camera policy in April. (It announced this policy with great fanfare while I was advocating this case. More on the awkward timing in a minute.)

Vrbo’s policy, which I’ve already mentioned, also doesn’t allow cameras inside a rental. But it does permit outdoor surveillance devices, including security cameras and smart doorbells, which may record audio, but only under certain conditions. Owners have to disclose the location and coverage of devices on the property listing. They must also take “reasonable measures” to limit access to surveillance data. (Related: If the host tells you to leave, shouldn’t you get a refund?)

The Vrbo policy suggests that Heather, the owner of the lake house, was allowed to have a camera on the tree pointed at the house. But she was not allowed to use the camera to monitor the inside of the house — that’s where she crossed a line.

If I find a surveillance camera in my vacation rental, what should I do?

If you find a hidden camera or spy cam in your vacation rental, that’s definitely a violation of your platform’s policies. And it happens more often than you would think. One in four travelers say they found a concealed camera in their vacation rental last year, according to a survey by property investment firm IPX1031. 

Here’s how to handle a spy cam in your vacation rental:

Don’t panic

Maintain your composure and resist the urge to call your host to complain. Gather your thoughts. You’re going to be fine! 

Don’t touch the camera

Avoid tampering with the camera. And whatever you do, don’t remove it or disconnect it. You may need to take more pictures of the camera for evidence. Besides — it’s not your property.

Document the surveillance 

Take clear photographs or videos of the camera, ensuring that any identifying features are visible. This evidence will be important if you need to report the incident.

Contact the platform

This is one of those rare times when you’ll want to contact the platform first. Contact Airbnb or Vrbo and report the issue. Provide them with the documentation you’ve collected and follow their instructions.

Leave the rental

Don’t stay in a vacation rental with a spy camera — or even an outside camera pointed at the house or apartment. You should find safe and private accommodations and leave as soon as possible.

Can you sue a vacation rental owner for having a camera?

Yes, if it’s in a bathroom or a bedroom, you might have a strong case. But you might want to wait until you’ve received a refund from your platform before filing a lawsuit against the owner. If you think you might go the legal route, make sure you file a complaint with the local police department.

Am I entitled to privacy in my vacation rental?

Of course, you’re entitled to privacy when you rent a vacation home or apartment. 

But how do you define privacy?

On the subject of security cameras, there’s a patchwork of laws across the United States. For example:

  • Georgia allows owners to use video surveillance cameras in public and private settings as long as the cameras are in plain sight.
  • Tennessee, Michigan, and Utah require a resident’s consent if you’re installing cameras in places that would be considered private, like a bedroom.
  • In New Hampshire, Maine, Kansas, South Dakota, and Delaware, owners must apply the “reasonable expectation of privacy” principle and require a tenant’s consent to use surveillance equipment.

Although the word “privacy” never appears in the U.S. Constitution, some legal experts believe that the Fourth and Fifth Amendments grant citizens a right to privacy. Other countries have similar (but often equally vague) laws that basically say you have a right to privacy in your own home.

However, the law does not say you are entitled to a refund on your vacation rental if you find a camera or if your privacy has somehow been violated. That’s up to you to negotiate.

Will she get a refund after her privacy was violated? 

Vrbo’s response to Rojas was unacceptable. It regretted the “inconvenience” that the camera caused, but left her to negotiate with the defiant owner. And you can probably guess how that went.

And the owner continued renting her Texas lake house while denying Rojas any refund. (Related: She left her “unsafe” Vrbo rental. Can she get her money back?)

By the end of January, Rojas had reached out to my advocacy team, and I had contacted Vrbo.

Vrbo’s response? Silence.

So a month later, I asked again. This time, a representative got back to me and said she had not received my original message. She promised to look into the case.

In mid-March, Airbnb changed its policy on hidden cameras. I received an email from one of Expedia’s publicists (Expedia owns Vrbo):

Today, Airbnb announced updates to a policy that Vrbo has had in place since 2022 – prohibiting the presence of cameras inside vacation rentals. Trust and safety are part of Vrbo’s legacy and are reflected in our policies against shared spaces, commitment to upfront pricing and the assurance provided by our Book with Confidence guarantee.

We are glad to see our competitor on board with what we consider a base level of privacy for customers. Plus, our policy goes a step further to prohibit any cameras that capture the inside of a property (whether they are indoors or outdoors.) Vrbo also requires disclosure of outdoor cameras, including additional disclosures if the outdoor cameras also capture pools. We embrace all initiatives aimed at enhancing the welcoming and secure nature of vacation rentals, and will continue to prioritize privacy for our customers.

Nice. But wait … what about Rojas?

Thanks for the reminder, Expedia.

So I asked Vrbo again — almost three months after Rojas had left and requested a refund — about that lake house. And this time, Vrbo investigated.

We’ve looked into the details of what happened and determined that the host and camera are in violation of our surveillance device policy. We’ve removed the property from our platform as we work with the host to correct the issue.

We’re also providing Diana Rojas with a full refund for the cost of her booking and have contacted her directly to process this.

As you’re aware, we have a strict, long-standing policy against surveillance devices that violate the privacy and security of our guests. Surveillance devices capturing the inside of a property are never allowed in listings on our platform. 

Surveillance devices outside a property, such as external security cameras or smart doorbells, are only allowed under specific rules and the host must always disclose their presence on the property listing page. 

Although these occurrences are rare, our trust and safety team actively investigates any complaints about bad actors and takes action accordingly, including permanently removing any host in violation of our policies. 

I checked with Rojas, and she said Vrbo had indeed refunded her. Mostly.

“They deducted $130 of the total payment,” she told me.

Still, she’s happy to get most of her money back. And having the lake house off Vrbo is a relief, too.

But I wonder: Do these new surveillance policies go far enough? Should Vrbo and Airbnb consider banning all surveillance equipment in their rentals?

Should Airbnb and Vrbo allow surveillance cameras anywhere in its vacation rentals?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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