How to avoid a vacation rental scam? Never pay cash or use an electronic cash transfer. Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy

How to easily avoid a costly vacation rental scam

An internet prowler recently snagged Goldie Min in a costly vacation rental scam by luring her off the Vrbo site to pay a $500 deposit. This scammer was so savvy that Min didn’t even realize she had been led away. But when Vrbo canceled her rental and informed her the listing was a sham, Min was jolted into reality.

Now Min wants the Elliott Advocacy team to retrieve the money she electronically sent to the phony vacation rental owner.

But is that possible?

Self-bookers beware! Faceless predators are prowling the internet 24-hours a day looking for prey. Novice trip planners like Min are a scammer’s dream-come-true. Her case serves as a harsh reminder that it’s never wise to make electronic payments to strangers. The major vacation rental sites will protect you against scams as long as you stay inside the safety net their platform provides.

But take a step off that protective ledge, and all bets are off.

“This vacation rental scam hit me by surprise!”

Min was hoping to make a scam-free vacation rental reservation over the holidays. But things went wrong within minutes.

“I booked my vacation rental and paid the full cost of $1,000 with my credit card,” Min reported. “But then I immediately started receiving a series of conflicting messages from Vrbo.”

The first message instructed Min to pay an additional security deposit through questionable methods. Specifically, the instructions requested that she send a $500 security deposit through Zelle — an electronic money transfer app.

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A fake vacation rental owner stole her money
The warning sign of a scam: A request to send a $500 security deposit for the vacation rental through Zelle, a money transfer service

This request from HomeAway (the parent company of Vrbo) to electronically send a $500 security deposit for the vacation rental, should have been a warning sign of a scam. Unfortunately, Min didn’t find it alarming since she had never used Vrbo before.

But as Min was taking a look at that request, she quickly received another message — this one from Vrbo. The email indicated that there might be a problem with the listing.

In fact, Vrbo announced that it had canceled her vacation rental over security concerns and would refund her $1,000 payment.

Vrbo confusion: “We canceled, now restored your reservation”

Very shortly after that announcement came an array of conflicting messages and reassurances. Now it appeared that the vacation rental company had determined that the owner and property weren’t fake after all. Oddly, some of these emails came from Vrbo and others from HomeAway.

One message from Vrbo assured Min that the property had passed the necessary security checks despite the listing being just 24 hours old. The company had restored her reservation. As an added touch, the message told her not to be “concerned or worried.”

Min definitely should have been both by this point. This vacation rental had scam written all over it.

More vacation rental confusion! Is this a fraudulent listing or not?? Vrbo and HomeAway has sent multiple, confusing messages.
Conflicting messages from Vrbo: “Please ignore the email you received earlier about the reservation being canceled and refunded. You don’t have to be concerned…”

Yet another email, from HomeAway, again urged Min to ignore the emails that said Vrbo had canceled her reservation. This message pressed her to make the required electronic transfer of the $500 security deposit. It also reassured Min that she was “safe and protected by our security platform.”

The fake vacation rental owner sends a fake reassurance -- everything is fine!
This is the message from HomeAway/Vrbo reassuring Min that this vacation rental and its owner aren’t fake.

All of these reassurances lulled Min into a false sense of security. Unfortunately, she followed the detailed instructions and sent the $500 electronic transfer to the address in the email. Soon she received confirmation that the transaction was complete.

Then Min breathed a sigh of relief. Now that her reservation was finally confirmed, she assumed all the rapid-fire emails would end. She then turned her sights to planning the rest of her trip, believing the problems with this vacation rental were over.

In reality, the problems with this vacation rental listing were only beginning.

Vrbo Trust and Security: “This is a fraudulent listing; we canceled it”

Surprisingly, within hours, Min received confirmation that Vrbo had canceled her reservation and refunded her original $1,000. Confused, she called the company to find out what exactly was going on. At that time, Vrbo’s Trust and Security team verified that they believed the vacation rental was a scam, and the owner fake.

But the worst was yet to come.

Min pointed out that the $1,000 credit card payment she made for the fraudulent vacation rental wasn’t the full amount on the line. She explained to the agent that she had also electronically sent the scammer $500 cash as instructed by Vrbo. Min demanded that Vrbo return it as well.

That’s when she received infuriating news — her $500 was not in the grasp of the vacation rental company.

“They claimed not to know anything about the $500 deposit that they guaranteed was legitimate,” Min told me. “Those emails from Vrbo explicitly told me to pay!”

Min couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She would never have sent the cash deposit had the company not sent a steady stream of requests for her to do so.

She tried the online chat feature at Vrbo and hoped to hear a more reasonable response to her plight. But, Min says, chat agents kept disconnecting from their conversation without giving any further clarification about the fate of her money.

Where is this traveler's security deposit?
Min’s frustrating conversations with Vrbo chat agents about the fate of her $500 security deposit

What is Zelle, and should you ever use it to pay for a vacation rental?

Zelle advertises itself as a fast and easy way to send cash to people you know and trust. It’s not meant to send money to strangers.

Sending money electronically through any of these apps is much like sending a wire transfer.

And we know that wire transfers have historically been the preferred payment method of internet scammers. That’s because wire transfers are fast, and once a victim sends the funds, there is no way to reverse the transaction. Thieves rely on creating a sense of urgency in their victim — suggesting that the deal won’t be available if they wait. This urgency prevents the victim from thinking things through and checking facts.

In recent times, these instant, electronic cash transfer apps are replacing wire transfers as the most popular payment mode for scams.

So it’s more important than ever to be aware of the terms of the cash transfer service you’re using. Otherwise, you could just be dropping your money into the pocket of a thief — never to be seen again.

Zelle warns its users:

Only Send Money to Friends, Family and Others You Trust

Because once you authorize a payment, you can’t cancel it if the recipient is already enrolled in Zelle. Why? Because money moves quickly – directly into the recipient’s bank account typically within minutes

So unless you know the vacation rental owner and are sure the listing isn’t a scam, you should never use Zelle to pay. If something goes wrong, your cash will be completely unprotected.

Asking the Elliott Advocacy team to help reverse this vacation rental scam

When Min’s plea for help reached me, she had been battling Vrbo for several weeks. She was still under the impression that Vrbo had instructed her to deviate from its platform and make an unprotected cash payment.

I had my doubts.

Certainly, the steady stream of emails Min received urging her to pay the security deposit outside the platform was highly unusual. The terms and conditions of Vrbo state that renters must make payments within the confines of the platform. Payments made outside of the Vrbo website will not be eligible for the protections of the Book with Confidence Guarantee.

Vrbo explicitly warns its users to avoid making payments in the following methods:

  • Cash
  • Check
  • Money transfer service

So why did Vrbo and HomeAway send instructions for Min to make a payment through Zelle?

Do not make vacation rental payments with Zelle or any other money transfer service

I sent Min’s case over to Vrbo, along with her extensive paper trail.

We have one of your Vrbo customers, Goldie Min, over here who seems to have been a victim of fraud. The trust and security team canceled her reservation and refunded her rental fee. Unfortunately, she also paid a $500 security deposit through Zelle after she received emails that appeared to be from the Vrbo team, telling her that she should make the payment that way. I’m not clear if those were fake emails, but I’m including them below.

Could your team have a look and see if she can get the $500 returned? Thank you!😊 Michelle

After a thorough investigation that spanned several weeks, I heard back from the Vrbo team. It turns out that almost all of the emails Min had received were fake. Only the ones informing her of the cancellation and removal of the listing were legitimate.

In its response, the executive team reiterated that renters should never make any payments away from Vrbo’s secure payment system. And, of course, cash and instant cash transfers are also a big no-no.

But there was good news for Min….

Here’s your goodwill refund!

Hi, Michelle,

I hope you’re doing well! We looked into Goldie Min’s case. As you noted, the listing she booked and paid for through the Vrbo platform was determined to be fraudulent. So under our Book With Confidence guarantee, we refunded her in full for the cost of the booking.

The emails she received instructing her to pay an additional $500 security deposit through Zelle were also fraudulent and not sent from Vrbo. Because she paid the deposit off the Vrbo platform, the payment is not protected under Book With Confidence. However, we are sending her $500 in the hopes that her next Vrbo experience is seamless. Our Billing team will contact her for the next steps.

This case serves as a great reminder to travelers that they should always book, communicate and make all payments through Vrbo to be protected under Book with Confidence.(Vrbo executive resolution team’s response)

And with that, Min’s two-month battle for her $500 was over, and she couldn’t be happier. One thing is for sure, she’ll never send instant cash to a stranger ever again!

How you can avoid falling victim to vacation rental scam

  1. Use a credit card for all payments
    When you reserve a vacation rental, the safest method of payment will always be a credit card. Remember, when you use a credit card, you have the protection of the Fair Credit Billing Act behind you. Should the listing turn out to be fraudulent or unavailable, your bank can investigate and get your money back. This is not the case if you use cash, check or a debit card,
  2. Make your payment within the protections of the rental platform
    All of the major vacation rental sites have reliable security systems that protect their users from making fraudulent payments. If somehow a scammer is able to cross that barrier, your money will not be lost if you’ve made the payment within the platform. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and again, renters are often lured away with promises of better deals. Keep in mind, you’re risking your money, vacation and peace of mind, if you hop off the site to make a payment.
  3. Study the listing’s photos
    Do the photos look too perfect? Scammers often use stock photos for their listings. If the pictures of the property seem too good to be true, you may wish to drop them into a Google Reverse Image search and see if they exist elsewhere.
  4. Do not pay for your vacation rental deposit with cash, check, wire or instant cash transfer
    Remember your mother telling you not to talk to strangers? Well, don’t send cash to unknown characters either. Of course, there are reasons why some legitimate vacation rental owners want to be paid via wire transfer or check. But if you truly want to make sure your payment is protected, avoid these methods.
  5. Take your time
    As I’ve already mentioned, internet prowlers rely on developing a sense of now-or-never in their victims. They want to make sure their target doesn’t have time to notice discrepancies or oddities in the transaction. Don’t let anyone — especially a stranger — pressure you into making an immediate, irreversible financial decision. If something doesn’t seem right, trust your instinct. Take your time, think things through and do some research to find out if the requests are legitimate.
  6. Don’t be a guinea pig
    Of course, everyone has to start somewhere — even new vacation rental owners. But if you’re trying to avoid a fake listing or phony vacation rental owner, make sure the property has a track record. You can lessen your chance of falling victim to a predator by carefully reviewing the history of the listing. If there are no reviews and the property just appeared on the scene (as was the case here), it’s best to keep looking. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)



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