Family loses thousands in vacation rental scam

By Gray Hall - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – If you plan on renting a vacation home -- do your research! We talked to a family swindled out thousands of dollars.

The Goochland family says despite the red flags, they still felt safe -- now they hope their story will be a warning to others.

For Ruth and Pat Matthews, summer vacation homes are a tradition. This summer that tradition turned into a nightmare. Pat says, "We are out of about $4,500."

The plan was to rent a vacation home in Ocean City New Jersey -- the cost $2,000. Everything was done through the website Trip Advisor. The excitement was building, then came the email.

Pat says, "We got an email from Trip Advisor dot com saying that they think it was a fraud."By that time, they had already sent a check for $2,000. With that money lost, and not wanting to spoil their summer -- they spent an extra $2,500 for another vacation home.

Pat says, "We tracked down the real home owner of the house we were going to rent and he told us they had several people that were complaining; they either showed up at the house or somehow found out it was a scam."

The family showed us all the documentation: emails, a contract, and even a court document  that appears to show the suspected scammer was accused in a real estate scam in Missouri.

They say contacting the police didn't help. Pat says, "All three police departments said that it was too small of a loss for them to waste tax-payers dollars to prosecute."

Goochland Sheriff's Investigator, Mike East, said the case involves at least three states -- a jurisdictional nightmare. Tracking the money and the people is complicated.

East says, "They have a network of people where the money will be funneled from one person to another person, to another person before it goes out of the country somewhere where the person eventually gets the money."

East says never send personal checks or wire money -- use reputable companies and do lots of research.

The Matthews won't stop renting vacation homes -- they say they will just be much more cautious.

Pat says, "We will do some investigative work on the Internet to make sure they haven't been arrested for real estate fraud in the past." The Matthews also say they will also be sure to make phone contact and not rely just on e-mail.

The family tells us they recently alerted the suspected criminals that they contacted police about the situation. They tell us they received an email back and told their money would be returned. They are still waiting on the money.

Here is some advice from the Better Business Bureau:

For consumers interested in booking a vacation rental property:

Some perks for vacationers include access to the amenities of a larger home such as a full kitchen, pool, and washer/dryer. Also, there is potential for higher occupancy rates with home rentals, so instead of booking multiple hotel rooms for larger groups, you can rent a larger property to stay together.

Check with BBB first.
It's a good idea to check out a company at to view their complaint history and BBB rating. You may also ask the company or agent for references, and visit their Web site directly.

Choose a popular rental destination and reserve early.
If you're looking for big savings, your best bet is to choose a location where there are a lot of vacation rentals on the market where prices stay competitive. Comparison shop in the area to find the best deal for your needs.

Don't send money until you sign paperwork.
Never send anyone money until you've signed your rental paperwork. Many home rentals are managed by professional real estate agents, so the rental paperwork should include all the legal details you need. Whether you are renting from a homeowner directly or booking through an agency of some sort, there should be a lease for you to sign.

Read the fine print.
Is there a cancellation or partial refund policy if you have to leave early? Does it stipulate when you will get your deposit back? Spend the time up front checking things out to avoid hassles later. Some rental homes will say "everything's included," but you want to double-check to be sure that there are no hidden surcharges. Some properties will say they include utilities, electricity and gas and then the fine print says it's included, up to a certain dollar amount.

Have an emergency contact person.
Make sure you have a phone number and email address of the contact and if possible get a second person as a backup. You don't want to rent a home and have the hot water heater stop working and end up with cold showers for two weeks.

Watch for red flags.
Be wary of anyone requesting payments by wire transfer and do not wire funds to people you do not know. Additionally, be cautious if no rental application is required. Always ask the landlord for a rental application as most managed properties require one.

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