Just days before a trip to Jerusalem, Meera Sundram got hit with a vacation rental problem she never saw coming. An unexpected PayPal request for a $1,000 security deposit arrived from the host of her intended VRBO rental. And when Sundram balked at the payment method, the host told her to take it or leave it.
Sundram decided to leave it. And then the host decided to keep her entire rental payment — all $1,048 of it. Now she wants to know if the Elliott Advocacy team can get her money back.
This case serves as a reminder that vacation rental problems come in all shapes and sizes. And some of those problems appear a bit more scammy than others.
A surprise vacation rental problem
Sundram and her husband are world nomads. As such, they aren’t strangers to vacation rentals — or the problems that can sometimes be associated with them. And that’s why this vacation rental problem hit them by surprise.
Currently living abroad in Jordan, the couple decided to spend Christmas in Israel.
“My husband’s adult children were coming to visit us over the holidays,” Sundram recalled. “We decided to spend Christmas in Jerusalem. We’ve always had great experiences with VRBO and that’s where I found this apartment.”
Sundram explained that she found a rental that would accommodate the family and she made an inquiry. The host responded that the apartment was available and sent a $1,048 invoice for the prepayment of the rental.
Full disclosure: Sundram volunteers in the research department at Elliott Advocacy. So she is well versed in the critical importance of making all rental payments within the VRBO system. She paid for the apartment and soon received confirmation of the family’s Christmas getaway.
Her vacation rental problem hadn’t revealed itself. Yet.
A demand for a $1,000 PayPal security payment
As Sundram and her crew were packing for their journey to Israel, she received a startling email from her host, Reva. In that message, the host asked Sundram to please send a $1,000 payment through PayPal right away. According to Reva, she would hold this security deposit throughout the rental period and return the $1,000 after the family checked out. Assuming, of course, that the apartment was damage-free.
Alarm bells immediately went off for Sundram.
Sundram had recently read my article chronicling Courtney Kerschner’s struggle to retrieve a $500 cash security deposit from an unscrupulous VRBO host. So she wasn’t about to hand over $1,000 through Paypal.
Additionally, Sundram wondered whether a security deposit was necessary at all. She had purchased VRBO’s Property Damage Protection insurance for this stay. This insurance policy protects travelers against the cost of accidental damage to the vacation rental.
Send the money via PayPal — or else
However, if Reva required a $1,000 deposit, Sundram explained she would be happy to provide it — through the VRBO payment platform.
Reva told Sundram that would not be possible.
HI SINCE YOU COME THROUGH HOME AWAY which is a site that does not
keep security deposits against damages
Please could you send us 1000 dollars (as written on the site) by Paypal and we click back at departure.
Having used VRBO many times, Sundram knew this explanation was not true. Both VRBO and the parent company HomeAway are set up for hosts to be able to accept security deposits through their platform. And this is the most secure way to make any payment to a host.
“I will not make any payment to you via PayPal away from the VRBO system,” Sundram told Reva. “And you never mentioned this until it was too late for me to cancel. Why?”
And Reva responded:
We cannot accommodate any guests who don’t pay this.
It is totally safe, and I will click back at departure…you have to agree to this. I suggest you contact HomeAway.
All best – homeaway doesn’t hold security…it says you have to pay me this amount.
Now Sundram was beginning to think that her vacation rental problem might actually be a vacation rental scam. And she wanted out.
Asking VRBO to put an end to this vacation rental problem
Having booked this reservation through the VRBO website, Sundram next contacted VRBO for help. Initially, the representative, Yancy, was reassuring and reiterated what Sundram already knew. Yancy explained:
Remember all transactions on our platform are facilitated by our secure online payment system. Never transact offline by cash or through money transfer services.
Yancy went on to say that she would be contacting the host to ask for an explanation. And Sundram began researching alternative places to stay over the busy Christmas holiday. She assumed that VRBO would quickly refund her prepayment of $1,048.
Sundram assumed wrong. This vacation rental problem was just beginning.
Soon Yancy came back with a different attitude. She told Sundram that the host would be willing to accept a $1,000 cash security deposit at check-in. Sundram was dumbfounded by the agent’s seeming unawareness of her own 180-turn-around on VRBO’s no-cash policy.
“That’s against VRBO’s policy,” Sundram protested. “I’m not willing to pay a cash security deposit — I have no protection if I do that.”
Yancy then quoted the security deposit terms from an entirely different vacation rental site on which Reva lists her home as well. That site, called TravelMob, is also owned by HomeAway. But its terms are contradictory to the terms of HomeAway regarding security deposits. That site seems to encourage cash security deposits at check-in.
Cash security deposits can lead to giant problems
But Sundram made her reservation through the VRBO website. The apartment’s listing on that site makes no mention of a cash security deposit or a deposit to be made through Paypal. Sundram did not want to travel with $1,000 in cash, nor did she wish to risk handing that sum to a stranger in a foreign country. She could not imagine a more precarious situation for her funds. And she knew if there were a dispute she would have no protection at all.
So now Sundram asked Yancy to cancel the vacation rental. In response, a new representative, Sally, reiterated that the time for a refund had passed and the host would be able to keep her $1,048 prepayment.
Sundram repeated that this request for a cash security deposit is not within the terms of VRBO that she has come to know. And Sally, sounding suspiciously like a computer bot, repeated the request for Sundram to pay cash at check-in. Sally said again that the host would provide no refund if Sundram canceled. She ended by asking Sundram to rate her experience with a smiley face or an angry face.
Sundram’s next stop? Her friends on the Elliott Advocacy team.
Asking our friends at VRBO/HomeAway for assistance
When Sundram contacted our advocacy team, it was just before Christmas. She had already secured an alternative place to stay in Jerusalem. But she was stunned that the VRBO representatives had not quickly put an end to this vacation rental problem. In this situation, the company was supporting Reva’s requests to make a payment off the company’s secure payment platform.
As I’ve mentioned, Sundram has been a volunteer on our site, as well as a loyal reader and supporter. The stance of the VRBO representatives that she encountered went against everything that Sundram knows about secure vacation rental payments. And the host’s behavior mimics patterns of vacation rental scammers we’ve seen before. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether the host was a scammer, but Sundram wasn’t willing to risk her $1,000 to find out.
Now Sundram just needed VRBO to support her decision. After all, she had purchased the recommended insurance for this rental as well. The fact that the owner waited until the penalty-free cancellation period had passed before she asked for the Paypal or cash security deposit is questionable. And Sundram never resisted paying a security deposit. She merely wanted to do so on the secure payment platform of VRBO.
The good news
I contacted the VRBO/HomeAway executive resolution team. I pointed out that Sundram was following the guidance that the company itself provides. Renters should not step off the secure VRBO platform to make any payments — including security deposits.
As I suspected, Sundram did the right thing. And the VRBO executive resolution team soon confirmed it:
Ms. Sundram did the right thing. After making a secure booking on our platform, she received a follow-up request from the vacation rental owner to pay the deposit offline. We understand her apprehension and have refunded her in full in hopes she will book with us again.
Sundram got her refund and VRBO has restored her faith in its customer service.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in February 2019.