Oh no, not another VRBO phishing scam!

Just when I thought it was safe to rent another VRBO vacation home, I received a complaint from Brit Railston about a rental in Utah that went terribly wrong.

Now, to be clear, it is safe to rent from VRBO as long as you use a credit card. But please, folks, no wiring money. Ever.

I’m already in touch with VRBO about this case, which I’ll get to in a minute. Meanwhile, the question for you is: Given VRBO’s response, how hard should I push it to refund Railston’s $9,900. (Yeah, that’s a lot of money.)

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The home in Park City, Utah, was meant for an extended family gathering in October.

“After some back and forth negotiation, we agreed on a price and were sent wiring and check-in instructions,” he says.

(Again, at the risk of repeating myself: no wiring money!)

He continues,

Strangely enough, we never received the promised “welcome package” once the funds were sent.

After a few weeks I called the seller; he claimed to have never heard from us, and had no idea what I was talking about. After several follow up calls, I believe him.

VBRO denied all responsibility in the scam, and said the owners email must have been hacked. Yet the owner said he got legitimate property requests both the week before and after the alleged hack of his email.

At this point, it sounds like we’re out of luck.

VBRO isn’t being any help. It seems to me if VBRO knows its possible for negotiation to be phished from their site, yet they still support it via their site, they have some culpability.

Let’s go straight to the VRBO response. I think it’s illuminating.

You recently sent an inquiry for the property referenced above. First, thank you for using our site. Unfortunately, we have reason to believe that the owner or property manager may have unknowingly and inadvertently had their email account compromised.

What this means for you specifically is that there’s a chance someone other than the actual owner or manager for the property may have viewed your inquiry and contacted you. This issue is commonly referred to as internet phishing. When we learned of this potential issue, as a precaution to you our traveler and also to protect our vacation property owner we temporarily deactivated this listing. We are currently in the process of working closely with the owner or property manager to assist with revising their account with us and reinstating this listing.

How this impacts you:

*If you sent money to book this property, you should contact the owner or property manager by calling the phone number included at the top of this message. We recommend that you do not communicate with the owner via email until the listing has been reinstated.

*If you have not yet sent money but are still interested in booking this property, please wait to receive an additional notification from us that the listing has been reinstated with a revised account. At that time, you will be able to use our inquiry form to again contact the vacation rental owner or property manager. Also, be sure to follow the directions for paying safely found on your inquiry confirmation email and at our security center:

Please be advised that at this time, the rental property described in the listing is not eligible for participation in the Carefree Rental Guarantee program. If you have already purchased the Guarantee prior to this notice, please let us know.

HomeAway is working hard on HomeAway Secure Communication, a new system that will add heightened protection to correspondence between vacation rental owners, property managers, and travelers. Learn more here:

Please feel free to contact us should you have any questions.

VRBO representatives also told Railston by phone they couldn’t help him.

I contacted VRBO on his behalf and VRBO has agreed to review this case. I’m not entirely sure how productive any further involvement in a resolution would be.

VRBO doesn’t seem to like operating under the glare of the media spotlight, now more than ever. I imagine the Railston case is particularly embarrassing because it assured everyone the phishing problem was being addressed this spring. I haven’t had a phishing complaint in months.

Another fact worth noting: Railston tracked the IP address of the phisher to London, which is the location of the other phishing attacks. Wouldn’t it make sense for VRBO to contact law enforcement authorities in the U.K. to stop these criminals once and for all?

Clearly, they’ve figured out a way around VRBO’s current safeguards. Perhaps a police officer can be more persuasive?

The simplest solution, of course, is to ban all payment by wire on VRBO and its affiliated sites. Then travelers would be protected by their credit cards. End of story.

In the meantime: No. Wiring. Money.

69 thoughts on “Oh no, not another VRBO phishing scam!

  1. The problem here with mediating this case is you’ve been down this road with VRBO in the past, their guarantee is pretty worthless and they obviously have a serious phishing issue yet they don’t seem to be willing to do anything about it. They’ve flat out refused to honor or make amends for these scams yet a solution to this would be very easy. Create an internal messaging system that would provide a secure means of communication between the property owner and potential renters. Instead, they rely on email addresses and stand by their flimsy guarantee.

    I don’t see mediating this as being beneficial unless you want to drum up some negative press about VRBO and get them to do the right thing that way, they don’t seem to be willing to make things right on their own.

    This is where airbnb has VRBO beat hands down. Airbnb has a secure messaging system, money is all handled by Airbnb and they hold the money until you get to the property and can return it if there’s an issue. Also, they protect the property owner by having the option to collect a security deposit. This also works in favor of the renter because they act as mediator in case there’s a problem. No money changes hands until both sides are happy, this beats VRBOs obviously problem prone system.

  2. In my humble opinion, the fact that VRBO does not take all reasonable measures to protect its clients makes them liable for payment of damages to those who get ripped off using their site. It’s the same principal as a hotel being aware that their guests’ rooms were being constantly broken into by thieves but refusing to provide improved locks on doors.

  3. I’m not happy about the way VRBO has conducted itself. It does seem like there are many simple options it could implement. But at the end of the day wiring money to an unknown person, especially to pay for a domestic rental is so unwise that it trumps VRBOs negligence.

    There simply is never a good reason to wire money to a stranger. It’s the electronic version of dropping cash off in a paper bag.

    1. Very well said. I find it hard to have sympathy because this was such an incredibly dumb move. I’m sure I’d feel a bit differently if it had been a few hundred bucks, but the darn fool wired nearly $10 grand?! I have the feeling a fly-by-night roofer or some other scam artist would have gotten that money if not for this phishing scam.

  4. OK, the more I’m reading about this the more I’m thinking it isn’t owners’ emails being hacked, it is VRBO’s database, possibly with help from an inside source. You can make an email look like it is coming from anywhere and put in a reply address that goes elsewhere. Without parsing the headers of the original emails there is no way to know. At the very least they need to put on every page of their site to not wire money.
    After hearing about all the scams, not just here but of all kinds, is there any legitimate use for wiring money that can’t be done more securely some other way? That and prepaid debit. Never buy a prepaid debit card to pay something because they won’t take a credit card. Never take a check, deposit it and return hundreds or thousands of dollars by wire.

    1. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for wiring money. The key is that you have to have confidence that you know who the recipient is. I receive international wires from clients in many countries. International checks can take six weeks to clear and non-swipe credit transactions cost more and have greater restrictions.

  5. Wiring money to strangers isn’t a good idea (I found that out the hard way once), but that said, VRBO gets away with rotten treatment of its customers because no one takes them on-do they?-and local law enforcement doesn’t seem to care.

  6. I guess I look at this differently than most here. VRBO isn’t treating its customers poorly because it’s customer is the property not the consumer. It’s a listing service. If this was 20 years ago, would you blame the newspaper for being burned by an ad?
    Chris, do you know if the OP paid for the insurance policy meant to protect this exact thing? (See screen shot). It would only have been $149 for the rental.
    Finally, I think this is out of Chris’s hands. The OP needs to call the local FBI office for this case of wire fraud. Unlike CC scams, the receiving bank account had to have a Federal Tax ID tied to it (unless it was wired overseas). Wires have a paper trail associated with them. They should be able to trace the person down. If it was a a scam, he’s probably not the only one.

      1. I’m more inclined to agree even though its a covered reason (phishing is clearly covered) because this isn’t really insurance. Never met a guarantee I had to pay for….

    1. There is one huge difference between VRBO and the MLS listings: a listing service doesn’t handle money, but just puts sellers in touch with buyers. VRBO, in offering the Carefree Rental Guarantee, makes itself a party to the transaction and therefore responsible for phishing on its own site.

      1. I would agree IF you didn’t have to pay for the guarantee (see the screen shot). Since you do, it’s really only a party if you pay for the insurance (which they aren’t calling insurance so they don’t have to deal with state insurance commisions which takes us back to Chris’s trip protection contracts scams).

    2. That brings up a good point. The IP address was oversees, but banks make a distinction between domestic and international wire. However, there are other ways of wiring money besides using a bank.

      I also notice the amount is right under the Federal 10k cash reporting limits. That should be another red flag to anybody. Any transaction just under a legal or contractual reporting limit should be scrutinized because if the other party is trying to avoid a reporting obligation you can bet that’s there is something fraudulent going on.

        1. Maybe. As I understand it, and I’m not a banking expert, is that structuring is when you “structure” a transaction to avoid reporting requirements. The distinction is too subtle to explain in a blog posting, but the common example is you want to deposit 12k in cash. That would trigger the reporting requirements. So you deposit 6k today and 6k tomorrow. You’ve structured a transaction solely to avoid reporting. In this case the 9.9k doesn’t trigger the reporting requirement so without more it may not be considered structuring.

  7. I’m not really sure this is VRBO’s fault. A quick view at the Traveler Help section of the page shows that under “How to Pay Safely” there is the text “Never pay by cash or instant money transfer services such as Western Union or Money Gram.
    These payment methods are preferred by criminals, and using them will
    void any guarantees from HomeAway, including the Carefree Rental
    Guarantee.” (emphasis original).

    How can VRBO reasonably guarantee that a negotiation not be phished from their site? They don’t control the owner’s email accounts, virus protection, or password practices.

    The OP’s best option is to contact law enforcement to try and recover his money – I don’t think he has a great shot, but still he could try.

    1. Nobody, including VBRO, can fix stupid. So, you get an e-mail that asks you for $9,900 (hmmmm…. just under the $10,000 limit for the filing of a ‘suspicious activity report.’ I wonder why?) And then you send it. You’ve don’t know this person, you’ve never met this person. And you send them $9,900 in cash.

    2. maybe they should add “in the even you use a money transfer you forfeit all protection and compensation.”

      I might inspire smart people to reassess the situation:
      scammer: this is the ONLY way you can pay me
      renter: well i guess i have to get a different property, because i just don’t feel comfortable wiring money.

      and if someone is not very smart they will just have to live with their mistake:
      scammer: of you wire me money i will give you a 50% discount.
      renter- sure!
      (this person will be otu of luck when they loose their money.)

    3. Maybe vrbo ought to have a system where all transactions go through vrbo similar to the way stubhub operates. There is no direct contact between buyer and seller. Granted, stubhub makes a heck of a lot of money via commission but it is also a guaranteed transaction for all parties involved.

  8. VBRO is a joke. Any legit system would have an internal communication for buyers and sellers that could be monitored. They would also forbid listings asking for wired money and remove ones that did.

    But, y’know.
    What do they care? It’s not THEIR money.

    1. And what if the seller’s VRBO account gets compromised? What makes VRBO more secure than, say, gmail, which can use legitimate 2-factor identification?

    2. This has been what I’ve said about VRBO all along. They could set up an internal messaging system that allows people to communicate securely. The secure messaging system should have secondary account authentication that notices when they log in from a different IP address or from a different computer.

      There’s one big reason they DON’T want to do this, if they provide secure communication it puts them further in the middle of the transaction and could be considered a party if/when fraud like this occurs.

    3. This is, in fact, what Amazon does when you buy something from a third-party seller. The filter even removes email addresses so phishers can’t make an end-run around it.

      VRBO wants it both ways — it pretends to guarantee the authenticity of its listings and transactions, but refuses to take the reasonable and relatively simple steps that could actually prevent cases like this.

      All that said: WHO WIRES MONEY TO A STRANGER!? C’mon.

  9. I’m not sure the guarantee is worthless. It states pretty clearly that it doesn’t apply if you wire money. That’s seems like a pretty reasonable limitation given that you should never ever wire money to a stranger. That’s Finance 101.

    If you choose to engage in foolish behavior whether through ignorance or intent, you can’t expect people to insure you.

  10. When I read story after story about the same problem, I always ask myself, “Just who *are* these people that know enough to ask {insert consumer advocate name here} after the fact, but don’t know enough to get roped into {insert scam here}?”

    I’m very sorry for Mr. Railston – that’s a LOT of money to lose. But who the heck wires money after story after story shows up in print, online and on tv about various kinds of scams using wire transfers?

    I don’t think mediation will accomplish anything. This is a matter for law enforcement. Not that it will accomplish a lot, since many of these scammers operate out of Internet cafes under aliases.

    However, a quick look at the VRBO site doesn’t show the same sorts of disclaimers that appear on CraigsList. Traveler advice is down deeper than it should be if VRBO really wants to protect travelers. I think VRBO’s reputation has suffered another hit and after all these stories, deservedly so.

  11. No. Doing. Business. With. VRBO. My family is planning our semiannual reunion for next year. Any property listed with VRBO is now off the table.

    1. Lots if not most properties on VRBO are available to rent through other channels, as well. Not that it really matters, since the OP’s problem had nothing to do with the property per se.

  12. OK, I understand circumstances where people don’t use computers on an ongoing basis… but I have to assume that anyone knowing what the heck VRBO is in the first place is capable of basic Internet safety rules.

    That said – how in the hell are people still being scammed into wiring money to anyone in this day and age? I mean, I see it even on places like Western Union and Moneygram… they question you as to whether or not you’re responding to a possible phishing scam, and how to identify it.

    I just… oh never mind. Whoever said sense was common, lied. At any rate, I wish the OP luck in getting his money back… 9K isn’t exactly a drop in the bucket.

    Oh, and VRBO? Please close the hell down if you’re not going to help your customers. Friggin’ safety information is hidden better than a Contact Us email address for a corporation.

  13. Even though Railston was naive in wiring money, I voted “yes” only because VRBO “assured everyone the phishing problem was being addressed
    this spring”. Your idea to ban wiring on this site is a great idea, can’t figure out why they don’t do this.

  14. The OP was foolish and lost. I am not seeing how it is VRBO’s fault. I can click on the EMAIL OWNER button and communicate directly with the owner. At that point, I have all I need to phish. It does not need to be immediate, it could be down the road.

  15. I’m afraid he was just plain scammed. It is a lot of money to lose and I know he wants it back, but I think he is going to have to chalk this one up to an expensive lesson learned. VRBO should not have to pay him back, since they were not the ones to scam him and even cautioned against wiring money. He can report this to law enforcement but good luck ever seeing results. The scammers know how to hide and protect themselves. The FBI is not interested in wire fraud until it hits the million dollar mark for a transaction.

  16. Unfortunately, there’s little point tracking an IP. It can easily be faked, and they are ESPECIALLY faked in cases involving criminal activity – the scammer will want to cover their tracks. It is as accurate as writing a stranger’s home as your return address on an envelope.

    Regardless, laws change from country to country and there’s not necessarily anything the local police can or should do. It’s frustrating to see people continuing to champion IP-witch-hunts. It is ignorant to think they identify anyone.

  17. Stupid Tax, plain and simple. Who the hell wires money in 2012?

    And as far as the police in the UK, I’m sure they’ll get right on this. They probably have nothing better to do.

  18. The VRBO site is very clear about advising users not to wire money. It is also very difficult to feel sympathy for someone who wires money in this day and age.

    However, I would recommend that Railston file a police report and report the theft (don’t call it fraud or scam) to his homeowner’s carrier. It is far from a sure thing, as most policies don’t cover fraud, but it certainly worth a shot.

    1. Filing with his homeowner insurance may not be a very good idea. Even if it would be covered, there is a lot of reports/stories about insurance companies dropping homeowners after they make a claim. Once dropped, it can be a lot harder/expensive to get a new policy. So think carefully before filing.

      1. I would file a complaint with the claimant’s state’s insurance division if this occurred. Many states have strict laws regarding when a policyholder can be cancelled or non-renewed. Insurance is there for people to file legitimate claims.

  19. We dealt with VRBO very successfully a couple of months ago. They had a rental property that just met our needs, but at first, we were very leery of them because of all the problems we had read about. But we went ahead and corresponded (and talked by phone more than once) with the owner who seemed legitimate. But to be sure, we insisted on paying by credit card through VRBO itself (that is an option they offer), and we bought the VRBO insurance or whatever you choose to call it. It was an extra $89, but when you are talking in the thousands, better safe than sorry. We still worried a little until we actually got there and were in the house, but it all worked out perfectly. So all the people who are just writing off VRBO because of this are wrong to me. You can never be 100% sure, but when you are talking thousands of dollars, you can take steps to safeguard yourself, and it seems to me that the OP didn’t do that.
    That’s a lot of money to lose, but I am not sure that it is VBRO’s fault. I feel sorry for the OP, but I think he could have (and should have) done a lot more to safeguard himself in this situation. So I vote no; I doubt that there is anything Chris can do.

  20. I don’t understand why someone would send money for anything found via the internet. I pay cash for almost everything, except travel and internet purchases.

  21. Why doesn’t VRBO simply institute a ban on wire payments? If they do that, then they can post PAYMENT BY WIRE TRANSFERS NOT ALLOWED for all parties on the front of all pages (instead of having to go to another linked page).

  22. I voted no because I don’t think mediation would accomplish anything. Basically, he got scammed – and if he knew enough to send an email to Chris for help, then he should have known enough to NOT. WIRE. MONEY.

  23. I understand VRBO is really just a ‘meeting place’ for renters and rentors, but the company should to take some responsibility. At the very least they should contact law enforcement. Their standard ‘we’re just a resource service’ answer is getting old. They know they are allowing scams and they don’t do squat about it. Their rental guarantee is all about keeping the owner’s property protected and they don’t do much, if anything, for the renter.
    I lost more than $800 to a scam with them. Still, I have rented from the company twice since, but ONLY with a credit card. I am leery of renting from owners anymore, too. I have found that property managers (who are often real estate agents) are more professional and tend to be more likely to have a sensible legal contract, and they generally accept credit cards. I think VRBO and HomeAway should insist all their owners and property managers to accept charge cards as a safety measure for both parties. The people who rent from VRBO and HomeAway are just as important as those who list their homes. One wouldn’t work without the other, but it’s getting harder and harder to trust a company who NEVER backs up their offers with a guarantee.

    1. They could easily require credit cards be accepted as a condition for posting a listing. with the smartphone credit card terminals from places like square and intuit, there is no reason for a domestic place not to.

  24. This is why I would never, ever rent thru VRBO or any of it’s clones. The risk is just too high. Even if you are talking to the real owner, if the property turns out to be dump, VRBO will leave you twisting in the wind. We’ve seen quite a few of those cases, too.

  25. I did a bank transfer once to secure a hotel room in rural Mexico. I had to have a TON of information, including the full name of the person I was sending it to (I was happy to see it was a German name, as the hotel website was in Spanish, English and German), their bank information (which corresponded with the only bank in the small town near the village in which the hotel was located), their phone number (Mexican country code!) and their (Mexican!) address. If any of it didn’t match what the receiving bank had on file the transfer would have been cancelled at my expense. In fact, my local bank turned me away at first for not having enough information about the recipient. I acknowledge that I could have been scammed, but I feel like there’s a much lower possibility when the money is transferred bank-to-bank. I understand why this may be a need, especially in the developing world. But Western Union? Hell no.

      1. Well, it’s pretty random to find a hotel in almost-middle-of-nowhere Mexico with a webpage only in English, Spanish AND GERMAN. It was good to see a connection between the website’s language and the name I was transferring money to… I took it as one indicator that I was PROBABLY transferring the money to the actual owner and not someone who had hacked their email.

  26. This is posted on VRBO big and clear EVERY TIME a potential renter sends an email to a VRBO property. Test it. Send a test inquiry to a rental. I think this is loud and clear. VRBO is not responsible for total stupidity. “Prior to paying a reservation deposit, always verify payment instructions with the owner or manager by calling the phone number published on the listing. Learn more in our Security Center.”

  27. After I sent a test I also got an email from vrbo. How much clearer can they be? Pay through ReservationManager(TM) from VRBOAccepts credit cards and eCheck.This is the most secure way to pay, and your payment is guaranteed against internet fraud up to $10,000.Pay by credit card, check, PayPal or bank transferBefore sending money with one of these methods, call the telephone number published on the property listing to confirm your reservation and payment details.If the listing does not have a phone number, please contact us for assistance.Credit cards offer charge-back protection should there be any issues with your reservation.Your payment is guaranteed up to $1,000 if you follow the recommendations listed above.and…Never pay by cash or instant money transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram. These payment methods are preferred by criminals and using them will void any guarantees from VRBO including the Carefree Rental Guarantee.

  28. I’ve rented several times through VRBO and have had good luck. Owners in Italy have always wanted a deposit via a wire transfer, and then the balance in cash on arrival (though the deposit has never been more than a few hundred euros). I guess it depends where the owner resides; I’d be more leery of wiring money to someone in the US because it’s a more unusual way to conduct business there.

  29. If I understand correctly, VRBO has a form on their website which potential renters use to contact property owners. VRBO is saying the property owner’s email was compromised, but how do they know it wasn’t their site the was compromised and the email switched? They should keep records of when the email address was changed on the account and a record of IP addresses used to log into the account. Has the OP considered contacting the police and asking them to request the login IP information? Because if the VRBO site was phished, I think they should be responsible.

  30. How do you report phishing to VRBO. I recently contacted the “owner” relative to 433419 who wanted $$ wired to Europe. Turns out they lifted the property info and photos from the MLS listing for the property.

  31. I represent the other side of the coin: I am an owner of a holiday home in France, which I rent via VRBO and two other sites. I live in the UK so guests who also live in the UK pay by cheque and others by bank transfer. They have the option to use Paypal but rarely do. We do not have a credit card facility and don’t intend to get one.

    My responses to an enquiry (and subsequent email exchanges to answer specific questions) are so atypical of someone who’s up to no good. In addition, VRBO do suggest enquirers call the owner as a safeguard, and even if not in doubt I would think this is good advice. Our ad has a link to our website with full contact details, my name is there for all to see, and when it’s googled it pops up enough times to convince people I’m real, it’s to be hoped. So there are measures in place to check on owners. I have the rates set at just about the right level and frankly, we’ve enough outgoings already without adding the cost of accepting credit cards to them; I’d far rather plough what is left at the end of the tax year back into improving our guests’ vacation experience.

  32. Well, there are certainly some precautions that VRBO could have implemented to avoid this type of scam. For instance flipkey and rentini.com have already introduced a no direct reply messaging system. When homeowners and guests are replying to emails all communication is stored on the server where suspicious requests for wiring money could be easily filtered out and flagged. Also in case of rentini the company handles all monetary transactions for a small fee, which guarantees that money won’t end up at some scammer’s account in the UK. There is a good reason for credit card payments to become a norm in vacation rental business. All transactions are trackable, recoverable and scammers will get to jail at the end.

  33. I have had the reverse happen on a rental.  I sent the contract – they changed some of the verbiage and wanted me to sign the agreement stating that they had sent the deposit of $2,700 when the check they sent was for only $500.  The bad part – this renter was a real estate attorney!  So I  guess it works both ways.  Just be careful when renting your property and look for those red flags – make calls and ask questions.

  34. We hear about this quite often. Crooks can falsely set up a property on VRBO, steal some photos and offer an unbelievable rate. The more sophisticated ones will even speak with you over the phone and tell you about their rental, which is not really their rental. We had one client call us today for a Caribbean villa that even said they were told they could use a credit card. It is much safer to work with someone who has a proven track record, has been in business for a long time, and has relationships with many owners in the area. Relationships with many properties can also be key, because while uncommon, properties can have issues and if you need to be moved to another property an individual owner will not have an option for you. Renter Beware!

  35. I am an owner of a couple of properties listed on vrbo. I was contacted by someone who was in the process of sending money to book a property. Fortunately, the renter got suspicious when the site he was corresponding with got the property address wrong. He knew someone who had another email contact for me and sent another email.

    I immediately contacted vrbo and was given a response similar to that above. The email that I use for this property was used very rarely outside the vrbo site so I found it difficult to believe that access was not due to this website. I changed the email associated with my site and hope this does not happen again.


  36. There are ways to protect yourself that are inexpensive but still secure where the money doesn’t transfer to the owner until the renter agrees (i.e. verifies the owner, property, lease agreement, etc.) but allows the owner visibility that the funds are good from the renter. Used by high end auctions to verify bidders, eDeposit verifies the owners and renters through gov’t and bank regulation and verifies the funds are available for the transaction BEFORE moving any funds between owner and renter. Owners pay a very small fee when the transaction settles, much less than VRBO or PayPal charges. Disclosure: I invested in eDeposit

  37. Can you answer this question Elliott, do think home owners on VRBO use the site to lure renters in and than have them send a personal check and all contact is done through email so they don’t have to pay VRBO for the booking? I am struggling to have my deposit returned, I have not contacted VRBO because I am waiting to see what the home owner is going to decide. I have spent time since researching and I have to say I am very shocked at what I am learning about the VRBO company and how they treat renters per not allowing negative comments etc… now I am thinking if they are losing money,,maybe they will listen?

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