NORFOLK, Va. – June 17, 2019 – Frank Ramaekers III has turned away people who have paid to stay in his beach rental homes in Virginia Beach. The problem? They hadn't paid him, they'd sent their money to a scammer on Craigslist.
Ramaekers said it's difficult to turn away families with their cars packed full of luggage, beach chairs, umbrellas and toys. He asks where the crestfallen vacationers booked and the answer is always the same – Craigslist.
"Last year, I had an individual rent one of our homes for $2,000 for the month of July ..." he said. "It was all done through Craigslist and it was 100% a scam. They showed up and said they're ready to check in."
During the same month, a man and his family came all the way from Panama and claimed to have rented the home. The man became upset and aggressive when he found out he couldn't stay at the house and had lost his money, but the house was occupied by other renters at the time, said Ramaekers.
"I immediately knew they got scammed," he said.
Craigslist and vacation rental websites like Airbnb have made it easy for homeowners to rent their properties, and for consumers to find them. But the increase in Internet listings has brought more fake listings posted by scammers. Virginia Beach property owners, for example, are more often finding scam victims, who thought they had booked a bargain online, waiting at their doors.
After learning that their money is gone and their vacation ruined, many say: "I knew it was too good to be true."
All of Ramaekers' beach houses, and most of those he manages, are rented through Airbnb and Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO), a vacation rental website owned by HomeAway, and have keypad door locks. He's been renting and managing properties over the last five years and is now responsible for six houses in Virginia Beach.
Two summers ago, Ramaekers came across a man checking out one of the properties and claiming to have it rented later that summer. Turns out, he was a victim of a scam on Craigslist. In addition to surprise guests, Ramaekers regularly receives emails from people interested in renting the houses, sometimes saying they saw the ad on Craigslist. Those are the lucky ones who avoided losing their money, he said.
It's usually the same story – people looking for a cheap rental rate.
On Craigslist, a rental place might be listed at $200 a night, Ramaekers said. "It's (actually) triple that during the summer. It's unheard of. That's what happened. They see these reduced prices and then wire the money and the wired money goes to an account somewhere," he said.
Ramaekers used to report fake ads to Craigslist, to have them taken down. They would be posted with photos and text taken right from his own listing.
"I used to, but they just pop right back up. I quit. It would take me a couple hours to do it," he said. "I started to do it frequently, and then it would come up under a couple days' time under a different name, different titles and different profile photo."
Liz DeBold Fusco, the northeast press secretary for Airbnb, said the company hears about many fraudulent situations and recommends that renters stay on trusted sites for all transactions and communications to ensure those sites can help with potential disputes.
"We see this specifically around major events when there is a surge of demand for guests looking to book for something," she said. Some scammers claim their "rentals" are managed by Airbnb or send renters to mock-up Airbnb pages. On the Airbnb site, potential hosts are screened and are required to provide a full name, date of birth, photo, phone number, payment information and email address before they can create a listing. Sometimes hosts are required to provide government IDs.
VRBO representative Francesca Faris said the site verifies user accounts and conducts background screenings on homeowners and property managers. She did not specify how the site attains the identity verification.
Atlanta resident Tom LoPresti and his wife have rented four vacation properties in Virginia Beach through VRBO over the past four years. The couple had two people show up at different times last year to the same house in Old Beach, having driven from out-of-state and thinking that they had booked the spot through Craigslist.
"They spent $1,000 on seven nights for the beach house that sleeps 12 people? That should have been a flag," LoPresti said.