Be careful the next time you go to book a vacation rental property from the owner. I've uncovered a fraud that could be the tip of the iceberg on a national scandal level.
If you listen to me, you know I love to travel. By following my #1 rule of cheap travel, I've been about to see most of the world on a shoestring.
Recently, I saw a deal on a flight to Hawaii. So I booked the flight and then started looking for a place where myself and my wife were going to stay.
There was a particular place we wanted to go back to on Maui. I've used VRBO in the past for stays in Hawaii, so that's where I started looking this time too.
VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) matches people with homes they want to rent out with travelers who want to rent them. The property owners pay a listing fee to get their home on the website.
Then you as a traveler contact the seller if you see a place you want to rent. There's a form you have to fill out to send as an inquiry. The owner gets back to you and tells you the terms and the price. It's common they'll also offer a discount off the published rate when they contact you.
Vacation rental scam heats up
When I expressed interest in one particular property, the alleged "property owner" wrote back offering me a 25% discount -- nothing too unusual there. My wife loved the place, so I sent an email back and said, "Yes, I want to book your place."
Here's where it starts to get hairy: I get back an email that looks like it's a form from HomeAway, which is the parent company of VRBO. It looks completely legit.
But when I go down to where I'm supposed to pay, it said to make payment via bank transfer through ING Bank to a branch in Czestochowa, Poland!
Because I do what I do for a living, I knew instantly this was a scam. But others don't. In fact, I found out about a Facebook group of people who have been ripped off by this very scam, but it's since been shut down!
Nobody knows the exact m.o. the scammers are using to perpetrate their ruse. My team is currently investigating and I'll continue to update this page as new info becomes available.
I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Because of how VRBO is set up, I never had direct access to the owner's email address. All correspondence between the owner and myself passed through VRBO's system. When I later called VRBO to ask for an explanation, they were incredulous. They insisted at some point that I emailed the owner directly and that’s how this whole situation happened. But I did not, which makes this even scarier.
Two telltale signs of a vacation rental scam
It's been said that sketchy English is a telltale sign of scammers over email. But the English in the emails I got was flawless. So you need more info to go on than that, though it is a tipoff.
The biggest tipoff of all is a wire transfer going overseas.
I contacted VRBO and got the phone number of the real unit owner. The owner told me I'm the 5th person they heard from who got ensnared in this scam. Fortunately, I didn't lose any money, but the other 4 before me apparently did.
Be careful when you can't pay by credit card. Wiring money is a big danger signal.
And note this well: The scammers seem to ask a fair market value for the rental properties. They're not asking for outrageously low prices, which might draw attention in a "too good to be true" kind of way.