In April 2010, I researched and discovered a wonderful condo to rent in Frisco, Colorado, through the Vacation Rentals by Owner website (VRBO). I paid in full, received confirmation and instructions, and in June we made the journey for our family vacation.
We arrived June 19th, stayed through June 23rd, and had a fabulous time meandering our way home.
June 28th, which was five days after we left (an important date to remember), I received an e-mail in my inbox that was titled, in lower case, “damage to unit.” Inside was a 2-sentence statement saying that upon our departure they had discovered a shattered shower door in the unit, they had tried to bill my debit card on file, it had been declined, and how did we wish to pay for the damage in the amount of $225.30. (Thankfully, I had pulled out everything but $20.00 from that account prior to heading out on vacation and had not made it back to the bank to make a deposit.) Enclosed were 2 blurry photographs of a bathtub filled with shattered glass.
Five whole days had passed without our being notified of any damage to the unit whatsoever. When we left, we had cleaned, left the condo in good condition, and, by some miracle, I had taken photos of the entire condo as we were walking out the door…. including the bathroom. Those photos showed the shower door to be intact.
I immediately responded to the e-mail and enclosed our photos. I told them when we left everything was clean, the shower doors were intact, and here were our photos. We were sorry the door had been damaged, but it was not us who did it, and we would not be paying for any damage whatsoever. Good day.
In the meantime, out of curiosity, I downloaded the photos that had been attached to their e-mail because they gave no indication as to when they had been taken. I wanted to get a better look at them besides the thumbnail photos I could see attached to the e-mail. They had a generic name assigned to them. Upon downloading them, I looked at the digital photo properties and was stunned to see they had a date of 10/01/2003 at 12:03 a.m.
I began to smell a rat. I was suspicious that we were being scammed. Wait 5 days after a departure, when people are likely well out of state (and unable to inspect any damage), then bill their credit or debit card without any warning. Enclose a misdated, ambiguous photograph for proof, and it’s the perfect scenario. Unless a renter had photos of their own (and thank God we did), they would be unable to prove that there was no damage to the unit when they left and would likely have to pay.
After receiving the e-mail I got on the phone with my bank. I was informed that the only way to prevent them from charging me further was to cancel out my debit card and request another. That would take 7-10 business days.
I had hoped that my e-mail and photos I sent to the rental company would close the subject matter and we would be finished.
I was wrong.
On July 1st, my husband’s bank informed him that someone had attempted to withdraw funds from his checking account via “direct debit,” first in the amount of $700 and then in the amount of $400. Thankfully the bank was suspicious of the transactions and put them on hold. The bank’s security department contacted him to ask whether he had authorized these charges, and when he told them no, they canceled them and red flagged the account. He then went to his bank to review his account and make sure there weren’t any other unauthorized charges. He authorized the cancellation of his debit card, closing his account, opening a new one, and then spent the remainder of the day notifying our other credit card companies and credit reporting agencies of possible fraud.
Was this related to the condo situation? We had no way to know. However, my husband does not ever use his account information online for shopping. He does not even use online banking. He doesn’t have a Paypal account, use Amazon, nor has he ever input his debit card information via a computer. His debit card is usually firmly in his wallet and only used to withdraw funds from an ATM. Whoever attempted to take the money used a “direct debit,” which means they had his checking account number and the bank’s routing number. So how anyone obtained this information was a mystery.
On Friday, July 2nd, I discovered my fun with the condo was not over. I received 2 telephone calls from the Frisco Police Dept, who left voicemails on both my home and cellular phones, that they were investigating damage to a condo where we stayed and informing me that I had charges filed against me for criminal mischief and vandalism (a class 2 misdemeanor in the state of Colorado). They called me four more times on Saturday for a total of 6 phone calls. It was at that point that I contacted an attorney.
We were suspicious as the caller ID showed the phone number for the Frisco PD; however, the number that was left for contact was entirely different and did not come up on a Google search as anything related to the Frisco PD.
My attorney advised me not to return the calls. First, he was suspicious because a broken shower door is not a criminal offense. It is a civil matter that would be referred to small claims court. Second, his words were, “Since when does a municipal police department do collections for private individuals? This is extremely inappropriate.” He then began trying to contact an attorney in Colorado to determine how to proceed.
Our 4th of July weekend was pretty dismal. Since our finances and checking accounts were in limbo, we had no cash on hand. I got paid that weekend, but I couldn’t access the money. We live in a very rural area, 10 miles from town, and the only way I could have had cash was to go to the bank, write a check for cash, and present a photo ID. All the banks were closed for the 3-day holiday weekend. We tried writing a check at Wal-Mart for groceries, and the check was declined due to a fraud alert on the account and them being “counter checks.” On a 4th of July weekend, they don’t care why it was declined. They hand you your check, the 1-800 number for the check verification company, take your groceries away, and bid you good day, who’s next. We had to put groceries on our American Express card, and even that required a photo ID verification to do so.
Sometimes living in a rural area is great. Some times it’s not. This was one of those times when it wasn’t so great.
It was at that point that I had enough. I filed formal complaints for fraud through the Colorado Attorney General’s office, the USPS Inspector’s Service (who investigate internet and e-mail fraud, credit card fraud, and identity theft), the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (FBI IC3), and finally filed a formal complaint with our sheriff’s department for fraud. I also filed “reviews” on TripAdvisor.com, and….. I filed a complaint/bad review on the VRBO Website, where we had found the condo and made the reservations. I received acknowledgments and case numbers from each entity. The Colorado AG then passed my complaint on to the Better Business Bureau.
It was the VRBO website review that finally got their attention.
On Friday the 9th, I received a phone call from the owner of the rental company that went to voicemail. In it, he said that he did not want to leave a big long voice mail, but “due to recent developments, I’ve been led to believe you all did not break the shower door.”
Then, on Saturday, July 10th, I received an e-mail from the owner of the rental company. In it, he stated that 15 minutes after we left, the cleaning people discovered the broken shower door, so they jumped to the conclusion that we had broken it and then left. He then stated that when the contractor came in to replace the shower door, while he was cleaning up his tools, the new shower door spontaneously shattered. Therefore, he could not, in good conscience (??!!) hold us responsible. He had rescinded his collection activities, closed the police case, and would be pursuing no further legal action.
Oh, and would we be so kind as to rescind our Better Business Bureau complaint and our VRBO review.
After I was finished stomping around my house and screaming obscenities, I replied to him with a scathing e-mail. I told him that a simple phone call to us immediately upon finding the damage could have solved the majority of this issue, as we were still in town 15 minutes after our checkout. We could have returned and inspected the damage for ourselves. I told him his office ignored photos of an intact shower door that we had sent in reply. I outlined the living hell our lives have been for the last 2 weeks, the effect it has had on us, and the places where I had filed formal complaints. I informed him that the criminal charges he filed could have prevented me from having gainful employment, as around here, in this job market, employers will not even hire someone with a misdemeanor complaint against them. I then told him that our decision on whether or not to rescind any complaints would depend upon the advice of our attorney, as a simple, “Oops, sorry,” wasn’t going to cut it, nor was it going to fix the damage to our lives, our finances, and my personal reputation.
So what did I learn from this situation? A few things I would like to pass on:
1. ALWAYS photograph any place that you rent, upon your departure. Photograph every room, including the bathroom. Make sure the date and time stamp are visible/available for review. It’s better to have photos and need to toss them later than to not have them and be defenseless.
2. If at all possible, insist upon a walk-through with the rental management supervisor prior to your departure. Get a receipt for the walk-through with both parties’ signature.
3. Be very wary of any rental agreement that states the rental company can bill your credit card on file for any damages. It would be better to give them a damage deposit than to find your credit card or debit account raided for damages you may not be able to prove or disprove. You may be trying to fight inappropriate charges from states away, and most credit/debit cards have time limits as to when to notify them of fraudulent charges.
4. Do not store anything in your unit that has any type of identifying information on it. When we left for our vacation, my hubby had grabbed the mail out of the mailbox and shoved his bank statement in his overnight bag. His bag was in the bathroom where we stayed. We have no proof that this is how his information was obtained; however, in light of the other events, it is certainly suspicious.
5. Know that if you are a victim of a similar type of fraud that the Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Division in the state where the activity took place is a good place to start. They will issue a case number and possibly forward your complaint on to the Better Business Bureau. Read the Attorney General’s website to see for sure whether they will forward the complaint, as submitting a report to both entities may get one or the other kicked out of their system.
Edited to add:
6. When researching places to stay, don't just check the reviews on the property itself. Check reviews for the property rental service, if you can tell who it is. The property itself had outstanding reviews; however, upon researching the rental company, after all this happened, I saw bad reviews on travel sites (3 out of 4 were bad).
At this point, we want this to just be over; however, we still have a mess to clean up with our credit cards, credit reports, finances, and such. Things are starting to settle down, and hopefully, it will all be resolved soon, and I can chalk our otherwise relaxing vacation up to being a learning experience.
I’m curious to find out what type of excitement next year’s trip will hold.