Martha’s Vineyard businesswoman and property owner Barbara Ronchetti was surprised when she received a phone call from a woman in Connecticut named Natasha, who had questions about the space in one of her rental properties. The house in question was not available for rent. Natasha, however, believed she had been in contact with Ms. Ronchetti already, and that they had agreed to move forward with the vacation rental she had found listed on HomeAway, an online vacation-rental site.
Ms. Ronchetti told Natasha that her property was not available, and that she had never spoken to her before. Natasha said she had already paid for it. It soon became clear that Natasha — Ms. Ronchetti did not get her full name — was out some money.
“She was calling wanting to rent my place; I didn’t have it available any more,” Ms. Ronchetti said.
She suspects that a scam artist created a duplicate ad on the web that listed her actual property, and that Natasha obtained her phone number because she had stumbled upon the real listing.
“She had sent payment of $3,000 that she lost because it wasn’t a legitimate rental,” Ms. Ronchetti said.
Ms. Ronchetti said she wasn’t sure what method Natasha used to send the money.
Out of the $3,000 Natasha lost in the ordeal, she told Ms. Ronchetti, HomeAway offered to refund $1,000.
“And that was with the contingency that she keep it quiet,” Ms. Ronchetti said. “A hush clause, she called it.”
Partial restitution and confidentiality clauses reflect HomeAway policy.
“Once it has been determined fraud of some kind occurred, we request that customers do not discuss the event in public,” Jeff Mosler, HomeAway chief services officer, told The Times in an email. “We believe that by limiting the details of a case where a consumer was scammed, we are preventing future fraudsters from replicating the event.”
Mr. Mosler said this policy was not intended to “inhibit transparency,” but to protect other HomeAway users.
As for the offer to return $1,000, all renters are guaranteed this basic coverage, Mr. Mosler explained, though it does not cover transactions that take place through Western Union or MoneyGram, payment options that consumer protection organizations caution should never be used.
However, if renters use HomeAway Payments, a money-processing system which the company runs, renters are given $10,000 of protection against fraud. Renters also have the option of purchasing up to $10,000 of rental insurance, at a cost that ranges from $39 to $149.
Mr. Mosler spoke to The Times about some of the most common scams that the company encounters. He said that the two most common scams the company deals with are account takeovers (phishing) and fraudulent listings.
Scammers take over HomeAway landlords’ accounts, and sometimes the personal email address associated with the account as well. From there, scammers conduct business as if they were renting out a property, and attempt to get renters to pay a sum, sometimes more than the actual listing, and then leave the renter out thousands of dollars without a vacation spot. Sometimes renters don’t know they’ve been scammed until they show up at the address of the fraudulent location, where a home either doesn’t exist or isn’t available to rent.
The phone call from Natasha was not Ms. Ronchetti’s first experience with shady exchanges on the website.
“I even got someone, that I never even wrote a contract to, that sent me a payment that was more than what the rental was for,” Ms. Ronchetti said. “I brought it right to the bank, saying whoever this is, whoever it came from, it’s a scam. I don’t know what the bank ever ended up doing with it … I just didn’t want to handle the check in any way, shape, or form.”
Ms. Ronchetti said that she sometimes receives correspondence that, to her, is a red flag for fraud.
“I see those emails coming through every once in a while where a person isn’t spelling properly, and just want to take it, [asking] ‘Where do I send the money?’”
Mr. Mosler said HomeAway takes steps to prevent scams from taking place, and that the company catches a lot of fraud before transactions take place. Protecting renters and landlords are systems such as two-factor verification sign-ins, which include using a password-protected account on top of a system which sends private codes to the user’s cell phone, which need to be entered before he or she enters the site. HomeAway also operates a communication system which strips certain identifying information, such as email addresses, from messages that are sent directly to private email accounts. Users are required to log directly into their HomeAway accounts to attain such information. Suspicious properties, flagged for reasons such as address or location from which the user has signed into HomeAway, are blacklisted from the website.
Despite such precautions, scams sometimes get through, and as in Natasha’s case, the renter loses.
The Times attempted to contact Natasha via phone, but calls were not returned.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Jeff Hurst as HomeAway chief strategy officer. The title ought to have been chief services officer and his name is Jeff Mosler.