I like to think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person. I generally have sound judgment and insight. But, I am also a trusting person with faith in the goodness of my fellow humans. Turns out, I am sometimes too trusting. A little bit of skepticism can be a good thing and I recently learned this the hard way.
Other than my duties as doctor and mom, over the past few years I have also taken on another role – that of Travel Agent. Somehow, I have become the organizer of trips, the renter of vacation homes, and the planner of activities for family and friends. It has generally been a task that I have enjoyed, until now.
Recently, I was charged with finding a vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. My Dad, who is turning 70 this year, wanted more than anything to get all of his children and their families together for a weeklong reunion. I began my search as usual… VRBO, Flipkey, etc., and I was beginning to get a bit concerned that this trip was going to be out of our financial reach, at least for a property that could accommodate all 14 of us comfortably. Then we stumbled upon an amazing property, like finding a needle in a haystack. It was right on the water, had rooms for all, access to kayaks and paddle boards, a rooftop hot tub, and a pool. And it was not exorbitantly expensive!
The property was listed on a reputable site but when I went to try and reserve it, the site wanted a $15,000.00 security deposit, more than the cost of renting the home. So, I did as I normally would do. I contacted the manager. The manager explained that this was typical of this site (heretofore, I had never had dealings with this particular site) and that another site offered a more reasonable security deposit. He offered me a link to the other site, which I happily followed because we were all so excited about the opportunity to get this amazing house. The other rental site offered beautiful photographs, excellent customer reviews, and listed a reassurance that this manager had achieved their verification ID.
I ran it by my family (though in hind sight, not thoroughly enough) and everyone was on board. I let the manager know of the dates we were interested in. He replied that a wire transfer needed to occur to secure the rental dates and that another party was interested in renting for the entire month. The pressure was on. I took time out of my workday to run to the bank and request a wire transfer for the entirety of the rental amount and emailed a copy of the wire transfer receipt to the manager to confirm that the transfer was going through. You can see where this is going.
Later that day, I received an email. This email was from the original rental site that I had contacted – the one that wanted the $15,000.00 security deposit. The email stated that the listing for the property I just rented looked suspicious and that it was removing the listing from their site. My heart sank. I felt sick. All the red flags that I should have originally seen became suddenly clear.
I hopped on the Internet and searched the address for the property. It was indeed a real house but it was for sale. I contacted a couple of local real estate agents who confirmed that the owner was not using the house as a rental property. I contacted the site I thought I was renting through and they had no listing of the property in question, nor any of my information.
In the following days, I have spent countless hours on the phone with the bank, trying to request a wire recall. I reported the event to the Attorney General’s office. They referred me to the Internet Crimes division of the FBI where I submitted a report of events. I contacted my employer, my credit card company, and the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert and to put a freeze on my credit reports. I have done all that I can do and, with every day that passes, I grow less and less confident that we are going to get our money back.
While I feel embarrassed that I allowed this to happen, I share these events with you because I don’t want anyone else to go through the strain with family, the risk to personal security, and the self-doubt that this has caused me. These are some very important, and very expensive, lessons that I have learned and I hope that you’ll take note and remember them the next time you are looking into vacation rentals.
- NEVER, NEVER, NEVER wire money. Credit cards offer fraud protection but once you wire money, it is gone and there’s no getting it back if the funds have already been withdrawn.
- NEVER pay the full amount for a property upfront. Legitimate listings will have you put a certain amount down and the remainder will be due just prior to your trip.
- Just because the property is listed on a reputable site, don’t trust that the property is legitimate. Do your research. Look up the property outside of the site. Talk with other renters if possible.
- Don’t let yourself be rushed! In this case, the manager put the pressure on but I also pressured myself – pressure to keep costs down for my family, pressure to secure a site that seemed ideal and would make everyone happy. I allowed myself to be rushed and we definitely don’t think as clearly or objectively when we are rushed.
- If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Listing rates should be in keeping with those of other similar properties. If it is much less expensive than everything else you’ve looked at, this should be a clue.
So, I’m out of the Travel Agent game for a while. I need some healing time and some time to reflect on how I let myself get into this situation. I have always lived my life trying to see the best in others and I hate that I have become more jaded and suspicious as a result of these events. On the other hand, I don’t want to be that person that gets easily taken advantage of. If the Universe was trying to teach me a lesson about healthy skepticism, it has certainly succeeded. Well done, Universe. Well done.