There goes the vacation

New vacation rental scams are turning many travellers’ dream holidays into nightmares.

In February, a Vancouver couple fell victim to one of the newest and increasingly common forms of vacation fraud that besets people planning a holiday.

Landis Warner and Geoff Graham (pictured above) were planning to get married in BC’s Okanagan Valley in the summer. They wanted to honeymoon nearby so they searched online for a place to rent.

The couple visited Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), an international website that bills itself as "the most popular vacation rental site in the US." It boasts of having more than a million properties listed for rent worldwide, with its Canadian site touting more than 8,500.

The future newlyweds found a lakeside villa they believed was the perfect place to celebrate their marriage. "It had a pool. It was right by the lake. It had a winery. It was everything we could have dreamed about," Warner told CTV Vancouver.

The couple contacted the owner, agreed to wire $2,000 to him in London, England, and received a four-page rental agreement soon after.

Three weeks later, Warner experienced what she described as "a knife through my heart." The couple got a message from the real owners of the villa, who told them they had been having problems with their email account and the dates they’d requested had already been booked.

It soon became obvious that someone who had hacked into the vacation site listed on VRBO had scammed the couple. Just when Warner thought she could relax and look forward to her wedding, she and her fiancé had to start looking for another honeymoon site, with $2,000 less to work with.

Around the same time the Vancouver couple was being fleeced, the same thing was happening to a retired husband and wife in California.

Early this year, John and Nancy Doner began planning what they called the trip of a lifetime to New York City.

"Like so many, they turned to a vacation rental website, an explosively popular way to find luxurious accommodations without the hotel price tag," ABC News reported in a story it called "Summer Vacation Nightmare." "After clicking on several properties on the rental site VRBO.com, the Doners were emailed a listing in the city from a site called RentalsFinder.com — advertising free laundry service, airport transfers and even a 20% discount on the rental," ABC said.

As in the Vancouver case, the purported manager of the site asked the Doners to wire the rental payment to London. Once they had done so, they too received a rental agreement and a nice thank-you email.

But then something went wrong. "RentalsFinder.com disappeared from the Internet," John Doner told ABC. It became apparent it was a copied site that stole listings from the real rental website.

The Doners had been defrauded. "The address listed for the company on the rental agreement they received turned out to be an address to a random person’s house in London who had no affiliation with the New York City listing," ABC said. "The apartment advertised on the listing the Doners were scammed with turned out to be a legitimate listing inside a luxury apartment building, but the owners never got their inquiry. The owners said this isn’t the first time this has happened to them and that people have shown up on their doorstep, not realizing they had been scammed."

As far as scams go, this is an epidemic, author and travel advocate Chris Elliott told ABC, noting that he’d seen countless cases similar to that experienced by the Donors. "I get several of these every month, and it’s been going on for at least three years now."

Elliott said he knew of people who had lost more than $10,000 in what is basically known as a phishing scam. "When someone inquires about a vacation rental online, the scammer intercepts the message and sends an offer without the real owners ever knowing," he said. "The unsuspecting victims wire money to the scammer impersonating the owner, and the money is lost forever."

While the online rental scams appear to be the predominant type of vacation fraud, many other forms are quite common.

In recent years, fraudsters have been preying on owners of timeshares who have wanted to unload the once popular vacation properties. In 2013, Forbes magazine warned its readers, especially those with elderly parents who owned a timeshare, that scammers might target them.

"These operators will claim to have a buyer or renter for the properties, take a fee, then disappear or refuse a refund when no sale transpires," the magazine said. It noted that a typical scam involved a cold call from someone claiming to have a buyer for a timeshare. For a small upfront fee, the caller would connect the owner and the buyer, a transaction no legitimate broker would propose.

In June 2013, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it had taken 191 actions to stop "fraudulent operations hawking timeshare property resale services and travel prizes," including three FTC cases, 83 civil actions brought by 28 states and 25 actions brought by law enforcement agencies in 10 other countries, involving approximately 185 individuals facing criminal prosecution.

"[The timeshare resale scammers] persuade owners to pay fat upfront fees by saying they have someone ready to buy the property, but that’s a lie," the FTC said in a news release. "Our message to timeshare owners is simple: never pay for a promise, get everything in writing first, and pay only after your unit is sold. Our message to timeshare resale scammers is simple, too: law enforcement agencies at every level of government are working together to put an end to this problem."

Travel-prize scams, as noted by the FTC, are also prevalent. Many Canadians are likely familiar with the foghorn that begins an automated telephone call congratulating you on having received a free trip or other travel perk.

While mentioning that some travel offers are legitimate, in 2013 the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre issued a bulletin cautioning Canadians about vacation scams that cite, without any legitimacy, the names of companies such as Expedia, Air Miles, Air Canada and WestJet. 

The centre reported that in a three-year period it had received 1,573 complaints about vacation scams, with the average loss approximately $1,000.

The fraudster, using high-pressure sales tactics, offers an incredible discount for a trip if the deal is accepted right away. If the victim agrees, the caller asks for a credit card number to pay for the taxes.

"Analysis on victim reports shows that credit card charges are being debited by banks in the United States and Mexico. To date, 71 merchant accounts have been identified and 10 terminated," the centre said. "The suspect group is using Robocallers (auto dialers) and Number Spoofing. These technologies make investigations difficult by masking the suspect companies’ actual location. They have the ability to operate anywhere in the world and avoid detection and prosecution by law enforcement."

The scam was so prevalent that in March WestJet released "another warning to Canadians to avoid sharing their credit card numbers and other private information with fraudsters posing as WestJet or WestJet Vacations."

The airline also told of callers willing to send e-tickets, "with long numerical sequences purportedly issued by WestJet. In fact, WestJet itineraries are identified by six letters only and contain relevant information about fares, taxes and fees, baggage allowances, seat selection, inflight entertainment and airline partnerships."

In addition, WestJet said that scammers have set up fake WestJet Instagram accounts promising free flights or vacations to the first 25,000 followers. "This common Instagram scam technique allows an individual to build a large following with the intention of selling the account. Although the fake account names are similar to ours and some use our logo, they are not associated with WestJet," the airline said.

There are many types of vacation scams, some of which are easy to avoid. "When you’re dealing with a vacation rental, just don’t wire money," Elliott says. Obviously, the too-good-to-be-true rule applies.

As for the Vancouver couple, they declined a partial refund from VRBO (it depended on them accepting a secrecy clause). VRBO pointed out that the bulk of trades (99%) on the website go through without any problems.

The owners of the villa Warner and Graham wanted to rent offered the couple a free week’s rental — a kind gesture that hopefully restored the couple’s belief that their new life together would be blessed with good tidings, not just the rough lessons they have experienced.

About the Author

David Malamed


David Malamed, CPA, CA•IFA, CPA (Ill.), CCF, CFE, CFI, is a partner in forensic accounting at Grant Thornton LLP in Toronto.

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