TripAdvisor is not in the business of long term rentals, but Haley Cline was unaware of this fact. So when a friendly “TripAdvisor-approved owner” emailed her about a spectacularly discounted year-long beach rental, no alarm bells went off. The scam only came into focus after Cline sent her initial $1,721 deposit via Bitcoin to the online predator.
Now Cline is asking if we can retrieve the money she lost in this long term rental scam.
Cline’s tale provides a critical reminder that if something sounds too good to be true, it is. Online scammers depend on their ability to dazzle their victims with great opportunities offered as friendly overtures. And so it’s important as consumers to make sure you familiarize yourself with the platform you’re using. If Cline had done so, she would have immediately recognized that she was in the clutches of a high-tech scammer posing as a TripAdvisor long term rental host.
A long term rental property managed by TripAdvisor?
Cline and her friend, both in their early 20s, were looking for a one-year rental in Virginia Beach. This rental would be their first apartment. Cline was concerned that without a rental history, they might have difficulty persuading a landlord to rent to them.
But with optimistic hopes, Cline began to scour online ads for local apartments and responded to a few.
Almost immediately Cline received an email from “Alexa.”
I’m contacting you regarding the lead I’ve received about my property for rent.
To refresh your memory, the place is pet-friendly, it has 1316 sq. ft, two bedrooms and two baths. It is fully furnished, but it could also come unfurnished. [It’s] very clean and you can move in right away. It has cable TV, high-speed WiFi internet, a fully equipped kitchen with all major appliances, washer and dryer, garage and driveway parking. [There are] four decks off every room.
The monthly rent is only $1,000 – all utilities included. I am looking for someone to rent anywhere from 1 month to 4 years or more. I am currently out to sea as an active duty service member in the Navy.
Alexa went on to explain that “TripAdvisor Property Management” had already inspected and approved her apartment. That department at TripAdvisor handles all of its long term rentals, Alexa told Cline. And she assured Cline that TripAdvisor’s Payment Protection plan would protect any payments she made.
Considering I’m not available to personally handle the deal, TripAdvisor will take care of the whole rental process. They are managing my property. Here’s the listing page of my property: https******
Cline couldn’t believe her luck. This apartment was below budget and it had everything that she and her friend needed. And Alexa wasn’t concerned about her age or lack of rental history.
Falling right into this long term rental scam
Unsuspecting and eager to close the deal, Cline was already fully reeled into the scam.
Within five minutes of receiving the email from Alexa, Cline was confirming that she wanted the apartment.
I’m so interested! Can I call you? If you wanna send a copy of an application or give me a call, I’m more than glad to fill it out and hear back from you. We would wanna do a year lease, and move in as soon as possible
When Cline asked to speak to Alexa, she was on the right track. Before sending money to a stranger for a vacation or long term rental, it’s imperative to make phone contact. A host’s or owner’s resistance to a phone call should always be taken as a red flag.
However, Alexa had a plausible excuse for why Cline couldn’t call her. She told Cline that she was on active duty on a Navy ship in the middle of nowhere. Phone calls weren’t possible for Alexa until her ship reached a port, she explained. Alexa wasn’t sure when that would happen. But no worries, she said, a TripAdvisor “lease consultant” would meet Cline at the property after she made the deposit.
Now, presumably to give this scammer more clout, Alexa closed her email with an official signature:
Assistant Antiterrorism Officer
USS Theodore Roosevelt
Cline wanted to get this deal solidified. She quickly accepted Alexa’s unavailability and abandoned the need to speak to her. And in her haste, she also missed another red flag in her correspondence: the request for a security deposit before she could see the apartment. No apartment owner should ask for a deposit in order to see the property. But being newly on the apartment hunting path, Cline was unaware of this fact.
A request for a Bitcoin payment from “TripAdvisor Property Management”
In Alexa’s next email, she explained how Cline could secure the apartment.
First, she said, TripAdvisor Property Management would send Cline a request for the deposit. Cline would need to make this payment via a most unconventional method: Bitcoin. After TripAdvisor received that payment, the company would schedule Cline for a walkthrough of the unit. If she liked it, she would sign the lease. If not, Alexa would refund the deposit.
The request for payment via Bitcoin should have provided yet another red flag to Cline about this long term rental. Bitcoin is very similar to a wire transfer in that once you make the payment, you can’t reverse it. And like wire transfers, Bitcoin is another payment form that is favored by scammers.
However, Cline missed this significant red flag as well. And although she was unfamiliar with Bitcoin, she set up an account and soon sent the requested deposit.
Where is that Bitcoin payment?
But Cline didn’t send the payment quickly enough and Alexa grew impatient. Alexa reminded Cline that she was waiting for the deposit to proceed with the rental agreement. Just one hour later Alexa was asking Cline if she had sent the money.
“I didn’t get any payment confirmation from TripAdvisor yet and it should’ve arrived by now,” Alexa wrote. “Are you sure everything went ok with the Bitcoin transaction?”
Before Cline had a chance to answer, Alexa responded again. She had Cline’s initial $1,721. And now this scammer upped the ante.
The scammer doubles down with an even better deal on this long term rental
I just got your payment confirmation from TripAdvisor so thank you for your speedy payment.
I also have to apologize because I’ve messed up calculations when setting up the booking details. Your TripAdvisor invoice showed a $720 service fee which should’ve been $100 on your end. Then I changed the amount to $100, but it was too late since you’ve already paid.
So I owe you $620 and I have a proposition for you. If you’d like and can pay for six months in advance, I can offer you one month free, or 2 months free for a full year paid in advance. That’s $5,000 for 6 months or $10,000 for 12 months. And with what I owe you, that’s $4,380 for six months and $9,380 for 12 months.
This way I’m covered if you decide to break the lease earlier and as for you, a nice discount is in stake. So it’s a win-win situation.
If you’d like to take my offer, please let me know and I will have TripAdvisor send you a new invoice. Payment will be sent to them, so that you could be reimbursed in case you don’t want to sign the lease after touring the property.
Mom steps in to put an end to this long term rental scam
Cline thought Alexa was offering her a fantastic deal. But as a 22-year-old working as a waitress, she didn’t have that type of money to take advantage of the offer. So that’s when Cline turned to her mom to ask for help.
Cline’s mom was immediately able to see all of the giant red flags that her daughter had missed. She told her daughter to ask for the refund that Alexa promised her would be available if she changed her mind.
And Cline never heard from “Command Investigator” Alexa again. Nor did she receive the requested refund of the “refundable” deposit.
That’s when Miller’s mom contacted the Elliott Advocacy team.
Asking the Elliott Advocacy team to ask TripAdvisor for a refund
When the request from Cline’s mom arrived on my desk, she was under the impression that the property was an actual listing on TripAdvisor. She assumed that TripAdvisor would contact the owner, who had turned out to be a scammer and get her daughter’s money refunded.
However, that isn’t how it looked to our advocacy team. My fellow advocate Dwayne Coward and I scoured the paper trail. Dwayne looked up the public property records of the address this scammer had given Cline. And I searched the internet for similar scams.
I soon found multiple reports of fake TripAdvisor sites listing long term rentals. These fraudulent sites are created purely to phish for victims. They are designed to mirror the look of the actual TripAdvisor site with remarkable accuracy. And they are only visible for a short time — once a victim is caught in the scam, the perpetrator removes the site. It soon reappears at another URL address to find more victims.
In fact, by the time Cline’s mom contacted our team, the fake TripAdvisor site that lured her was taken down. When I clicked on it, my computer sent me a warning, advising me that the website was likely impersonating “TripAdvisor long term leases” to steal my personal or financial information.
I went into the site anyway. Now the only thing on the page was a “404 error” (page not found).
And there was more bad news. Dwayne discovered that the address of Alexa’s apartment matched a home owned by someone else. It wasn’t for rent or sale.
Asking the real TripAdvisor for guidance
Unfortunately, it was clear to our team that Cline’s $1,721 was irretrievable. Luckily, she hadn’t had the funds to prepay for the entire year, or she could have lost thousands more.
Our team had already determined that this scam had not occurred on the real TripAdvisor site, but I asked our friends at TripAdvisor to review the case and to provide guidance to our readers.
It turns out that TripAdvisor is aware of these fake sites that list TripAdvisor long term rentals. The company’s Trust and Safety team did a thorough investigation of what happened in Cline’s case. It seems that her situation follows a similar pattern that TripAdvisor’s Trust and Safety team has noted:
- The consumer found a listing for long-term rental through a site with which TripAdvisor has no affiliation
- Then the consumer inquired on the home through this third-party site
- The consumer received a response from someone claiming to own the home in the listing. This person fraudulently claimed to list and work with TripAdvisor and asked the consumer to make payment via Bitcoin. The message included a link to what the scammer claimed was their TripAdvisor page, but was, in fact, a fake listing designed to mimic one of ours, and hosted on another domain
Never send a rental payment via wire transfer or Bitcoin
The executive resolution team at TripAdvisor went on to explain their Protection Plan would never cover payment via Bitcoin or wire transfer. These methods are not secure forms of payment.
This advice follows the guidance we also provide here at Elliott Advocacy. The safest way to make a vacation payment is with a credit card.
The Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers who use their credit cards to make these payments. And we’ve seen time and again the disastrous results of consumers who send wire transfers, cash transfers or use debit cards in these types of transactions:
- Here’s how to avoid this big vacation rental mistake
- This is how she quickly lost $1,300 to a stranger on Venmo (2019 update)
- How to get a refund when your tour operator takes your money and splits
TripAdvisor: “We are in the business of vacation rentals – not long term home rentals”
Finally, our executive contact at TripAdvisor made it clear that the company is not in the business of long term rentals:
TripAdvisor never sells or advertises homes on classifies sites, we only accept payment through our online check-out, and we are in the business of vacation rentals – not long term home rentals.
Had Cline known this, she could have immediately identified Alexa as a scammer.
TripAdvisor reminds our readers that they should always make payments inside the TripAdvisor payment platform. If a “host” requests payment off-platform in the form of Bitcoin, wire or bank transfer — RUN. You’re likely in the clutches of a scammer.
Lastly, TripAdvisor reminds its users that if they ever have a concern about any listing:
Please, let us know. You can reach us on [email protected], and we’re always happy to help.
How to spot and avoid an online short or long term rental scam
- There is a sense of urgency with the deal. In Cline’s case and in many others, we’ve seen, the scammer creates a sense of urgency in the victim. This causes the consumer to overlook details that should be viewed as red flags. The victimization of Cline took 12 hours from start to finish. A host should never pressure you to make a payment immediately before you have time to review a contract or other details.
- The host is unavailable by phone. You should never send money to a total stranger before making at least a quick phone call. A common theme in these scams is the unavailability of the “host” to receive a call. Remember if a host can email you, they likely can be reached by Skype or other phone apps. There is no legitimate reason a host can’t be reached for a short chat.
- The host tries to lure you off the rental platform for a better deal. Scammers often successfully lure victims off of legitimate rental sites with the offer of much better deals. To take advantage of the payment and rental protections that most listing sites offer, you must stay within the rental platform. This also guarantees you will use an approved payment method.
- The host asks for untraceable and irreversible forms of payment. Scammers rely on untraceable money transfer forms of payment such as Bitcoin, wire transfer and other cash transfer services. Never use these forms of payment to send money to a stranger.