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Savvy Consumer Report: Online Vacation Rental Scam

Online travel websites make booking vacations a lot easier but also put consumers at risk. Christina Howell was almost a victim, as she tried to book a rental house through the popular vacation website, VRBO. 

“You kind of feel a little bit of urgency to book right away, so when you get a response back and someone says this beautiful house is available at this price, you’re kind of like, 'this is strange, but I want to know more,'” said Howell. 

The listing was legitimate, but the separate email she received offering a much lower price, was not. 

“They offered transportation to and from the airport, free WiFi, laundry service, all kinds of things." 

Howell had a feeling the offer was too good to be true, but emailed back and forth with a woman named Kathleen McCafferty anyway. 

"Everything was detailed really clearly in the contract, until it got to the payment part, which said you can wire money to a bank in London.”

Another warning sign was Kathleen and her company, which she calls ProLuxe Holiday, wouldn't take a phone call. The Better Business Bureau says that is a red flag. 

“If someone won’t talk to you on the phone, red flag. Ask for a phone number you want to talk to them," said Jim Temmer, President BBB serving Wisconsin. 

The BBB says ask for references, ask specific questions about the property and search the company name online to see what comes up. 

VRBO's parent company, HomeAway, has confirmed Kathleen and ProLuxe are aliases used in a phishing scam. Somehow the thieves gained access to an owner or property manager’s account and attempted to trick travelers into wiring money. 

To avoid falling victim to a scam, HomeAway says travelers should book directly through HomeAway.com website. Doing so protects 100% of payment against things like listing fraud, phishing, a property that is significantly misrepresented and more thanks to HomeAway’s Book with Confidence Guarantee.

Additionally, travelers should avoid the following practices:

  •          Sending cash is not recommended, but paying in cash in person to owner or manager upon arrival can be okay
  •          Sending a check made out to cash
  •          Using an instant money transfer such as Western Union or Money Gram

As for Christina, she did not lose any money, and she still used VRBO to find her rental property. She shopped more cautiously and says she will use this experience as a lesson for the future. 

“It didn’t scare me away. I still feel like I can use that service to my advantage. I just have to be really aware of the types of scams that are out there.”

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