BOSTON (CN) - A website that connects vacationers with privately owned homes failed to prevent a Belize scam artist from walking away with tens of thousands of dollars, according to a federal lawsuit.
Peter Hiam says that Jewels of Belize, the supposed owners of a beachfront estate in Belize, ran off with $46,000 he wired to them to secure a week-long vacation at the property starting Dec. 27, 2014.
Hiam says he discovered the property on Homeaway.com, which is owned by VRBO.
The property was advertised as large enough for 14 people and included a chef, transportation around Belize and other amenities, according to the complaint filed Feb. 19 in Massachusetts Federal Court.
"The JoB (Jewels of Belize) listing was a complete fraud: there is no such property located at the listing address," Hiam says in his complaint. "Indeed, there is no such address in Belize at all. The pictures appearing on the VRBO listing were stock pictures appropriated from another website."
Before Hiam had learned of the fraud, he communicated with the supposed property owner through email and was given instructions on how to wire the payments for his vacation.
According to the complaint, another party identified as John Doe sent a check for $27,000 to reserve the same property during the same week as Hiam. The check was cashed April 25, 2014, just three days after the plaintiff had wired the first half of his payment.
A few months later in September, John Doe attempted to cancel when he was unable to get more information about the property, specifically its location. Doe contacted the defendants in an attempt to get that information and to warn the website that owners of the Jewels of Belize might be scam artists, according to Hiam's complaint.
Despite Doe reporting his inability to contact the owners for a refund, the defendant failed to notify Hiam of the concerns - and Hiam wired the second $23,000 in October.
Homeaway.com eventually responded to Doe's inquiries and told him, via email, that they had confirmed the existence of the property and that the supposed owners were authorized to rent it, but the defendant refused to give any more details or provide contact information out of privacy concerns, Hiam says in the complaint.
And Homeaway.com representatives gave the same explanation to Hiam when he attempted to find out why the owners had not contacted him within 30 days of his scheduled vacation, as per the rental agreement, according to the complaint.
Homeaway.com removed the listing for Jewels of Belize from their website in December 2014, but told Hiam that it was removed because they were unable to confirm the availability of the property, Hiam says.
Hiam claims that by not referring to the case as fraud, VRBO avoids having to fulfill its guarantee to cover the money lost by Hiam and Doe. Hiam also says VRBO failed to protect its customers from the fraud.
"VRBO knew no later than August or September 2014 that the listing was fraudulent and that fraudsters using its site were defrauding John Doe and Mr. Hiam," the complaint says. "Rather than conduct a legitimate investigation into the two almost simultaneously received fraud complaints, VRBO employed its customer service function to delay and obfuscate efforts of John Doe and Mr. Hiam to track down the persons who had defrauded them"
A spokesman for Homeaway.com declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, but did say that instances of fraud are rare on their website.
"Any listings deemed to be fraudulent are removed as soon as they are discovered," Homeaway.com spokesman Adam Annen said in an email. "HomeAway employs a detailed and proprietary method for screening listings to our sites and rely on traveler feedback, as well, for suspicious activity."
Hiam is represented by John Traficonte.
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