Was this Grand Canyon vacation rental a grand scam?

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Christopher Elliott

Hey, where did my deposit go?
The rental cabin in Williams, Ariz., she found through VRBO.com had three bedrooms — the perfect size for her family. So last year, Trudi Wood sent the owner a $839 check for a deposit.

But everything wasn’t as it seemed.

“It only had two bedrooms,” says Wood. “We discovered the deception by reading the reviews posted after we sent our check.”

Good thing the owner had promised the deposit was “100 percent” refundable — a promise she’d gotten in writing. If he didn’t offer a prompt refund, then maybe VRBO.com, the trusted intermediary through which she’d found the rental, would help her.

If only.

When I asked for a refund of our $839. The owner refused.

VRBO.com was no help. They simply say they don’t get into disputes between renters and renters. My husband and I contacted the FBI’s Internet fraud division, who were supposed to contact local authorities.

We’ve heard nothing.

Here we go again! I’ve covered renter problems with phishing on VRBO and its parent company HomeAway. In those cases, HomeAway has been crystal-clear about its position: It’s not liable for any transaction that goes wrong; it’s just the middleman.

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But this case is a little different. Wood alleges the cabin owner claimed to have three bedrooms when there were in fact only two. That’s false advertising, and I thought HomeAway would be concerned if one of its owners posted a misleading listing.

So I contacted HomeAway on her behalf. A representative agreed to “take a look” at her case on Feb. 29. I followed up with Wood last week to find out if there had been a resolution.

“No one from HomeAway has contacted me at all,” says Wood. “I’ve only had responses from them saying they did not get into resolutions with their renters.”

Wood’s Grand Canyon vacation is ruined, her $839 deposit is gone, and now she’s getting radio silence from HomeAway. What now?

Since her case has been referred to the FBI and local law enforcement, I’m not sure if there’s anything else she or I can do. Normally, when lawyers or law enforcement get involved, it’s practically impossible to mediate a case. (And that’s especially true if the lawyers come after, ahem, me.)

I think it’s best to let the investigation run its course for now.

The only question that remains is whether HomeAway could have done more to help.

I’m a big fan of vacation rentals and what HomeAway has done. It’s made the home rental product more accessible to millions of American travelers. I’ve used HomeAway, and I really like the idea behind the product.

What’s always set HomeAway and VRBO.com apart from Craigslist and other Internet classifieds, is that it offers assurances that you’re dealing with a reputable owner, you’re getting a real listing, and that at the end of the day, you can rent with peace of mind.

There’s also an implicit promise that HomeAway is endorsing these rentals and will stake its reputation on them. And here, I think, is where the disconnect between the renter and the company is happening.

HomeAway is saying there’s no such endorsement, and that if something goes wrong with your rental, you need to work it out with the owner. Renters are disappointed, because they thought they could lean on HomeAway when something bad happened with their vacation rental.

Who’s right? I can see both sides of this conflict, but my sympathies are with the renter. No one deserves to lose their deposit.

And while I’m not sure if Wood will ever get her money back, I think we can prevent this from happening again. HomeAway needs to either step up and be the service it wants us to believe it is — and stand behind its rentals — or it should stop pretending it’s anything more than an Internet classified service.

And customers like Wood? They need to stop renting from anyone who doesn’t accept credit cards.

(Photo: B. Rosen/Flickr)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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