By REBECCA JARVIS and MAGGY PATRICK
John and Nancy Doner, a retired couple living in California, where planning 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. 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 percent discount on the rental.
It seemed like a great deal, but there was just one catch: The "manager" asked the Doners to wire the money for the rental to England. He accepted the deal, wired the cash, and even got a thank you email with the rental agreement.
But then something went wrong. RentalFinder.com “disappeared from the Internet,” John Doner said. It turns out it was a copied site that stole listings from the real rental website.
“I began to say, 'well gee, what's going on here?'” he said.
The Doners had been scammed. 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.
Author and travel advocate Chris Elliott said he has seen countless cases just like the Doners'.
“As far as scams go, this is an epidemic,” he said. “I get several of these every month, and it's been going on for at least three years now.”
Elliott said when someone inquiries about a vacation rental online, the scammer intercepts the message and sends an offer without the real owners ever knowing. Then the unsuspecting victims wire money to the scammer impersonating the owner, “and the money is lost forever,” he said. Elliott said some people he has talked to have lost more than $10,000 in a rental scam.
“When you’re dealing with a vacation rental, just don’t wire money,” Elliott said. “Then you’ll be able to avoid a scam like this.”
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.
Two of the biggest rental companies, HomeAway, which owns VRBO, and Flipkey, told ABC News that this rarely happens to their customers. They suggest that travelers should avoid communicating with anyone off their sites and never wire money. Instead, they recommend paying with a credit card or PayPal account.
In a statement to ABC News regarding the Doners' case, HomeAway said, "Phishing is a common form of Internet fraud, and to our dismay, the vacation rental industry is an attractive target. Because the phishers target the property owner or manager’s email accounts, we must emphasize that this is not a breach of the HomeAway system based on the information we have, which is why we cannot prevent it from happening. But if one traveler is affected, that’s one too many. With this said, a phishing attack that results in traveler loss is extremely rare on HomeAway websites. Less than .02 percent of travelers experience such a loss. This means that 99.98 percent of travelers who come to HomeAway have a great experience. We will continue to educate owners and travelers about phishing and how they can protect themselves to prevent it."
The Doners hope sharing their story will help other summer travelers get their dream vacation, without getting taken.
“If we can keep anybody from doing something like this and save them money, that would be a very good thing,” said Nancy Doner.