Another Vrbo problem: a fake rental and no refund for you!

The signs of a fake rental were all there on this Vrbo listing

The warning signs were there: blurry photos, a long gap between reviews, and a request to wire money. But Elizabeth Long still found the Paris rental impossible to resist. She ended up drawing me into yet another Vrbo problem, this time involving a fake rental and a request for a refund that will be difficult to fulfill.

I keep saying it, but it needs repeating: Sites like Vrbo are not hotels, despite their Book With Confidence Guarantee. These are private homes and apartments, owned by people who have their own motives and whose values may not always align with yours. Or Vrbo’s.

That’s what Long discovered with her problematic Paris rental.

“We signed the rental agreement and paid the agreed upon money according to the terms of the contract, thinking that we would be fully protected,” she remembers. “We were not.”

Long’s story is a necessary reminder of the importance of research when you rent a home online, whether it’s through Vrbo, Airbnb or any other platform. It’s also a painful lesson that wiring money offers virtually no consumer protection, no matter how right you think you are.

How she found a fake rental

Before we get into Long’s Vrbo problem, I should qualify what I mean by a “fake” rental. In this context, you may think of a fake as something that doesn’t exist — a home that either doesn’t belong to the “owner” or that’s a figment of that person’s imagination. In Long’s case, I don’t know if the rental exists. I do know she never got to stay in said rental.

It was Long’s 20th anniversary and she wanted to celebrate with her husband and three teenagers.

“First, we spent five nights in London and had great success with our Airbnb rental,” she recalls. “Our problem arose with our rental in Paris.”

Long explains that she found a place that “looked nice” in Paris through Vrbo.

“It had two large bedrooms and even had air conditioning, which would have been great since there ended up being a heatwave while we were there,” she recalls. “The place had good reviews on Vrbo, although none of the reviews were recent.”

Long says she used Vrbo to contact the owner, who then called her to discuss the rental plans.

“The owner was a French woman, who now lives in New York. She was very friendly and made her place sound delightful. She told us that it was her general policy to provide a separate, written rental agreement outside of Vrbo because she had had issues renting directly through them,” she says.

Paying for this Vrbo rental with a wire transfer

Long signed the rental contract and paid the owner $1,755 — part of it by wire, part by check.

But just a few days before their arrival, she received a text, email, and a phone call from the owner. There was bad news. The apartment had been flooded and would be uninhabitable during their rental period.

“According to the terms of our rental agreement, the owner had the opportunity to provide us with a comparable apartment during our stay,” she says. “She did come up with another place, but that second place was only a one-bedroom, without air conditioning, in a different area of the city, and it was not available for the entire five days.”

The owner also wanted part of her party to stay in a hotel at their own expense.

“And she suggested that our 13-year-old daughter could stay with her friend in a separate hotel room,” she recalls. “As you can imagine, that did not go over well with us. We asked for our money back. The owner agreed via phone to refund us.”

A canceled rental and then silence from the owner

And that’s the last she heard from her.

“She has refused to return my voicemails, texts, or emails over the past ten months,” says

Long began monitoring the listing. When she saw the apartment marked as “unavailable” during her rental period — even though she canceled — she suspected the owner had either double-booked the property or pulled the same stunt on someone else.

“I contacted Vrbo to see if they could help,” she says. “I thought that others might at least want to be warned before renting with her.”

Vrbo said it couldn’t. She wasn’t allowed to post a review of the property because she hadn’t stayed there. And Vrbo couldn’t help her get her money back since she’d booked off the platform.

“The place is still advertised on Vrbo, with only glowing reviews for the apartment and for the owner,” she says. “Our dream trip has turned into a financial nightmare.”

What happened with this fake rental?

Let’s take a closer look at the rental she booked. The listing on Vrbo raises a few red flags right away, starting with the images. The cover photos aren’t even the apartment; it’s a blurry image of the Arc de Triomphe.

The pictures are problematic, not just in terms of the poor quality, but also of what’s in them. Many of them don’t show the apartment. They’re generic Paris images — the kind you’d find in a tourism brochure.

Warning sign of a potential fake Vrbo? Old, blurry photos that don't feature the property.
This blurry feature photo on the listing should have been a warning sign for Long of a potential fake rental.

The interior photos of the property aren’t any better.

This Vrbo rental features old faded photos
This Vrbo listing features plenty of old, blurry photos.

And then there are the reviews. The owner has been on the platform since 2008. But for some reason, the 13 reviews only go back to 2012. There are long gaps between some reviews and if you read this site, your “too-good-to-be-true” meter is in the red as you review the almost entirely favorable reviews.

On this Vrbo problem, something doesn’t add up.

Friendly communication with the owner — until…

I asked Long to send me her correspondence between the owner and her.

The paper trail shows a friendly correspondence between the owner, based in New York, and the renter, located near Boston. Then there’s nothing, followed by a frantic, one-way barrage of emails in which Long asks for her money back. It appears the owner handled all the cancellation-related communications by phone.

The final demand letter fills in a few details, but probably didn’t help the situation:

Following up on the numerous phone calls, texts, and emails that have gone without response over the last three to four weeks, this letter is intended to serve as written notice that you remain in violation of our lease agreement dated January 12, 2018, for the apartment at 4 rue du Chateau, Paris.

As you are well aware, on June 18, 2018, nine days before our scheduled rental date, you texted and emailed me to call immediately. When I promptly called you back following your text and email, you told me that the apartment had flooded and was not habitable.

You were not able to find us another comparable apartment that was available for the duration of our booking period (June 27 to July 2, 2018), and as a result, I asked both by telephone and via written notice the next day (June 19) that you provide a full refund of the money we had paid per the cancellation policy in our lease agreement.

What does that lease agreement say?

And then Long went on the point out her interpretation of the lease agreement as a “licensed attorney in Massachusetts.”

In case of cancellation by the lessor, another apartment will be provided or rental money will be refunded to the lessee.

We have since texted, called, and emailed you numerous times over the past 3-4 weeks, with no response whatsoever.

If we do not receive a check in the amount of $1,755 (corresponding to our first payment of $877 made by wire transfer on 1/17/18, and our second payment of $878 made by personal check on 5/1/18) within 10 days of your receipt of this letter, we will proceed with legal action against you.

Please note that this is not an empty threat as I am a licensed attorney in Massachusetts and have colleagues in New York who will be assisting me with my case against you. In addition to bringing legal action to recoup the money owed to us, we will also be pursuing the following actions if we do not promptly receive the money owed to us:

    •  Filing formal complaints with Homeaway.com and VRBO.com;
    •  Submitting reviews on both Homeaway.com and VRBO.com to inform potential renters of our experience with you;
    •  Filing complaints with the NY Attorney General and NYC Department of Consumer Affairs; and
    •  Filing a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

This has been a very unacceptable experience, and we are asking that you promptly make this right. I certainly did not expect you to breach the contract, after you were so friendly and helpful to us in our numerous phone conversations and emails back in January. We saved up for this dream vacation, and you have managed to ruin it for us. Please send us a refund check to rectify the situation immediately.

On a problem-solving mission, threats are rarely productive

It’s unclear if Long followed through on any of these threats. But as I note in my story on how to resolve a consumer complaint, threats rarely are productive.

If you’ve ever wanted to end a complaint letter – or phone call, for that matter – with the words “I’LL NEVER FLY YOUR AIRLINE AGAIN!” or “I’LL SEE YOU IN COURT!,” then let me offer a little advice. Don’t. Threats won’t just guarantee your failure. You could also end up on a company’s blacklist (oh yes, they have them), or if your threat is serious enough — say, you threaten the president of the company with bodily harm – you could find yourself on the wrong side of the law.

OK, enough with quoting myself. You get the idea!

What are your rights when you have a Vrbo problem?

Your rights under Vrbo’s booking guarantee are clearly outlined on the site:

  • Reservations must be paid for through the HomeAway checkout.
  • If the property is significantly not as described, unsafe, or you are denied access, you must contact Customer Support within the first twelve (12) hours of the event.
  • If your reservation has been canceled less than 30 days from your stay and you are unable to locate a similar property available during the same period.
  • You must contact Customer Support within 30 days of the incident (or by phone within 12 hours of entering the property on the first day of the stay in the event that it is materially not as described or uninhabitable)

I’ve highlighted two of the terms because Long’s Vrbo problem is, well, problematic. She wired money and then sent a check, and it’s unclear if she involved Vrbo before the 30 days expired.

Pay for your rental away from the Vrbo platform, the company can’t help

So when I asked Vrbo about her case, the following response didn’t surprise me:

We looked into this case and found that Ms. Long booked and paid for her stay off Vrbo’s platform, so she is not covered under the Book with Confidence Guarantee. Thus, any refund requests or disputes should be between Ms. Long and the property owner.

I think we could all see that one coming. But I asked Vrbo about the fake rental — would the owner be able to continue renting her apartment and then asking guests to pay by wire or check?

Vrbo strongly suggests that its owners create a separate rental agreement, to “define the legal relationship between you and your guests.” Vrbo doesn’t forbid its owners from requesting payment by wire, but it certainly frowns on the practice. In a post about how to spot a vacation rental scam inquiry, written for owners, it notes that an offer to pay by wire is fishy.

Vrbo’s red flags for owners:

  • Demonstrates a poor grasp of spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation
  • Uses a free online e-mail service
  • Gives you far more information than the typical traveler
  • Is a religious figure, sea captain, doctor, or officer in the armed forces
  • Wants to arrange a surprise trip for someone else
  • Provides excuses about not being able to use a credit card (i.e., they don’t feel comfortable because credit cards aren’t “safe” or available where they live)
  • Wants to pay by certified check, cashier’s check, or unsecured wire transfer
  • Offers to pay more than your stated rate
  • Unsolicited payment information in the initial inquiry
  • No inquiry comments or traveler phone number provided
  • Arrival within 24 hours for a short stay (i.e., They stay/leave before the owner becomes aware that funds are reversed because of the use of stolen credit card information.)
  • Refers to your home improperly in the body of the inquiry (i.e., asks about your lovely apartment when you own a cabin)
  • Submits inquiry for specific dates but will often tell homeowner that dates are flexible
  • Gives you an uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right.

You know, if Vrbo applied some of these criteria to its owners, would I even be writing this story?

Vrbo’s official response

By the way, I list Vrbo’s executive contacts on this site. If you ever need to appeal to someone higher up, you can.

I asked my Vrbo contact if the owner — who had cleverly lured Long off the platform in a phone conversation — would be able to continue listing her charming apartment on Vrbo.

“We looked into the partner’s actions and record of renting on the platform and found that they’ve been in strong standing throughout,” my contact said. “Our policy in this situation is to warn the partner that if their behavior persists, punitive action will be taken, which could include stripping them of their Premier Partner status. In the majority of cases, this warning suffices to correct their actions.”

So that’s it. The apartment owner gets to keep Long’s $1,755. Presumably, if she does this again, Vrbo will take “punitive action.” But we’ll never know.

The takeaway? Never, never, ever pay for a vacation rental by wire transfer or check. You could end up with a fake rental and $1,755 poorer.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend