A VRBO phishing scam with an unhappy ending

Today I’m revisiting a case I first reported on back in November and followed up on last month. It involves Tania Rieben, who had rented a condo in Maui through VRBO.com.

Or at least, she thought she had.

After she wired $4,300 for a six-week rental, the person claiming to represent the property stopped answering her e-mails, and she soon made a stunning discovery: The “owner” was actually a scam artist who had obtained the real owner’s e-mail password and assumed his identity.

VRBO said it wasn’t responsible for her loss, since the owner’s email address had been compromised. But it promised to help negotiate a settlement between Rieben and the condo owners.

And that’s where we left off. But before I get to the rest of the story, I wanted to revisit some of the emails between Rieben and the scammer. I thought it would be instructive to see how these criminals operate.

Scammer: For 1 month the lowest price i can offer you is $4850. And we can work a little bit on it if you are willing to pay the whole month in advance, i say i can cut another 20%. Let me know when you make a decision, by the meantime if you have any other question please do not hesitate to contact me.

Rieben: I’m actually looking to rent this for my parents in law. I think they were looking for something around $3500. I can ask if they would be okay to pay up front but is this price something you would consider? Thanks so much!

Scammer: As i have told you in the previous e-mail, if you pay upfront i can give you another 20% discount, so that would mean around 3800, i am afraid is the best price i can give you. Let me know what you decide.

Anyway, the point is, she fell for it. I might have, too.

VRBO got in touch with the condo manager, who added a few facts. Apparently, Rieben had contacted the condo manager first and was given a higher price. She was also told that the rental management company was the only one authorized to rent the units — in other words, that anyone else saying they’d rent her the condo wasn’t legit.

A VRBO representative said Rieben approached the scammer, believing he was the owner and presumably would undercut the management company with a lower price. And that’s when she was scammed.

Rieben says she believed she was dealing with the real owner the entire time. (And besides, doesn’t it make sense to shop around?)

The property manager told me that she was the only one authorized to rent units AFTER everything was said and done. My whole point was that if she had told me this when I first called her the money would never have been wired.

“At this point,” a VRBO representative told me, “it’s a case of ‘he said/she said’.”

VRBO’s position is that it’s done all that it can. It’s tried to get both parties talking, but last I heard, they were playing phone tag. (The condo owner, according to VRBO, had left messages for Rieben and her father, but Rieben doesn’t recall receiving any messages.)

It pains me that I can’t help Rieben, and others like her, recover their money. But I’m equally troubled by the attitude VRBO and its parent company, HomeAway, has taken about these complaints. They regard themselves as nothing more than the intermediary in the transaction, and appear to be behaving as if they have no obligation toward the guest.

The folks who found their scammy rentals through VRBO and HomeAway obviously feel otherwise, and I can understand why. HomeAway has a commanding market share and it presents itself as a trusted intermediary that stands behind every rental, not some fly-by-night rental operation that’s a half-notch above Craigslist.

Does VRBO have to do anything here? No. It is not legally liable. But if it wants to keep its reputation, it might consider ensuring every one of these phishing cases — including Rieben’s — is resolved.

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