Nancie Thomas had no reason to believe the owner of her vacation rental in Akumal, Mexico, would keep her $1,000 deposit. Her friends had rented the same house on three separate occasions, “and had a great experience each time,” she says.
Alas, the fourth time wasn’t a charm for Thomas.
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Her first warning? The method of payment.
“We were surprised when the owner asked for a deposit check rather than credit card,” she recalls. “But we confirmed with our friends that they had always made the deposit by check.”
(Let me stop right here and say it: Always, always insist on paying by credit card. If Thomas had done that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.)
Two weeks before she arrived, she received a second warning.
“The owner emailed to cancel as they had double-booked the house, but assured us they would return our deposit,” she says.
That was in June.
“We have not received the check, the phone number has been disconnected, and they have ceased responding to our emails,” she says.
The rental website she used to make the reservation, VRBO, promised her it would try to help. And here’s where things get complicated.
VRBO has opened a case for us, but does not seem to be able to resolve this and despite repeated requests has not provided us with the owner’s address so that we can pursue them ourselves. We have documentation for everything, but are running into a proverbial brick wall in retrieving our funds.
Thomas dug around and learned that the owner lives in Florida. That meant she could sue him without having to hire a lawyer in Mexico. You can represent yourself in small claims court.
We spoke to the Pinellas County sheriff’s office who instructed us to first file a report with the DC police, where we live.
My husband spoke with a detective and met with a pair of officers, but the DC police will not follow up.
We are trying to at least obtain a copy of the incident report from them that we can then share with the sheriff of Pinellas County.
We have also gathered the necessary paperwork to file against the owners in small claims court, but are hamstrung by our lack of an address for them.
We have located property records in their name in Pinellas County, but a reverse search shows a different occupant at the address.
The house is still listed on VRBO, despite VRBO’s knowledge of the problem, thus leaving other consumers at risk.
Well, this is a situation, isn’t it?
Who’s responsible for this mess? Clearly, paying by check was risky, and I would never have advised it. But how much is VRBO liable — particularly if the home is still available through the site?
Another thought occurred to me: Is it possible that the owner’s identity was compromised, and that she sent a check to someone who had pulled a variation of the phishing scam?
It’s difficult to tell based on the correspondence she sent me, but I know the scammers are very clever and adaptable. Nothing would surprise me.