Developing and running a Vacation Rentals Price Comparison/Metasearch/Listing site is quite challenging enough. Just over a week ago, we met a new challenge: criminals!
Here's what happened, with a few details missing as we don't reveal exactly what we do to detect fraudsters:
A website visitor joined HawaiiChee as a user and created a profile. That's the first step in getting a listing created. He then went on to create five listings and tried to publish them. All new hosts are checked out by Evrim, our Operations Manager. Evrim found several inconsistencies with this "host" as he had used the identity of a real person but had several details wrong. There was some strangeness in the listings themselves which indicated that something strange was going on!
So, we had a look at one of the listings in detail and matched the photos and description. Yes, at least one of the properties was real and is a vacation rental, but it is managed by a well-known property manager based in Kauai. We made contact with that property manager and had it confirmed that the property in question has no connection with the supposed identity of our fraudster.
Our next experience of these criminals came just a few days later when another (or possibly even the same) individual tried to add a single listing to HawaiiChee. It was another real person's name but again, a small amount of research revealed that the person who created the listing could not possibly be the person whose name had been used. Again, we matched the listing to one on VRBO and made contact with the Property Manager. Again, we got confirmation that the attempted listing on HawaiiChee was fraudulent.
We have stopped these two attempts before any damage could be done but the villain is still at large. One of them even has their own website, purporting to be an established Property Manager: http://www.vacations-hawaii-inc.com. I quote: "We are an established property management firm. We're available 24/7 online and in-person for you and for the guests at your home"
You'll find the same person or people operating under the name Perfect Vacation Bliss. Beware of nice-looking websites - you can buy them for a few dollars!
When you see listings on sites that fail to verify the owners and managers (like craigslist, gumtree, eBay and surprisingly: most of the big name listing sites), you just might find out that you are dealing with a fraudster instead of an owner. However, there are steps that you can take to find out:
check that the same property is listed elsewhere with the same owner/manager name
phone the owner/manager before you make payment
if you are offered a discount for quick payment: run!
if you are asked to pay through Western Union etc: run!
pay by card if possible
if you think something is not right: ask questions that only someone familiar with the property could answer and ask for an unpublished photo of the property
Google's reverse image search is an indispensable tool for this kind of research. If you're not familiar with it, just open a page in Chrome, right-click on an image and pick "Search Google for image". It really is that simple!
The next part of our story is even more interesting: we're not happy with just keeping these villains off our site, we want them stopped and prosecuted for their crimes. So, we've assembled a small team of crack detectives to help us:
Seriously, though, we are doing everything we can to track these people down. One thing we do know is that it's not straightforward. They obviously use stolen identities and they disguise their location by using proxy servers or VPN services. However, they do leave a trail. They do make mistakes and they tend to have signature phrases that they are unaware can lead to their real identity. The other thing we know is that they are greedy and that, alone, can be their downfall.