LAKE PLACID - This Olympic village is a popular winter destination for people from all over the world, but for some people who used websites to book vacation homes in Lake Placid this holiday season, the trip has been less than ideal.
Margie Philo said Dec. 27 that her Lake Placid real estate offices and others around the area have heard from dozens of people this holiday season who reserved rental properties on websites like VRBO.com, which stands for Vacation Rentals By Owner, and were scammed out of their money by people posting false listings.
"We have dozens of families that have no place to come," Philo said. "A family will call us, we'll have 10 people with airplane tickets coming from all over to be together for the holidays. They're just stymied.
"We just dealt with another one this morning."
Renters are supposed to put down a deposit by credit card or a wire service like PayPal; then they typically pay the rest when they arrive at the site. People who have have put down deposits then showed up in Lake Placid to find that the listing doesn't exist or that the property wasn't listed by its owners, and they are out of a place to stay.
Or the "owner" from the listing will change the price, or start asking for more money. That's what happened to a woman from New Jersey who asked the newspaper to only refer to her by her initials, H.C.
She can't remember which website she ended up booking on, but she put down a deposit on a four-bedroom, two-bathroom, pet-friendly condo on Whiteface Inn Lane.
Then the lister wanted the money ahead of time, changed the price and finally asked for a $300 cleaning fee.
That's when H.C. got skeptical, canceled her reservation and called Philo, who helped her find the place she was staying this past week with five other family members.
H.C. used to visit Lake Placid as a child with her parents. She brought her kids up here when they were young, but she hadn't been back for a while until recently, when she and her husband made a trip. She enjoyed it so much she wanted to bring the whole family up, so they planned a visit for the holiday season this year to see if they liked it and wanted to make Lake Placid holiday trips a new family tradition.
"This was great that she was able to find for me last second," H.C. said of Philo. "This was all on Christmas Eve, and I'm on the phone with her and planning to come up the day after."
Philo said she and other real estate offices have been able to help all but one family that called in desperation after becoming the victim of scams. But it's getting harder.
Philo noted that many of the websites people use to book that sort of thing are international, so it's not just a problem here.
She posts her own Mirror Lake rental home on VBRO.com because she said it's convenient and easy to use. But there aren't any safeguards to ensure that the property exists or that the person posting actually owns it, she said.
She said it's tough to tell if a listing is a scam, but people need to make sure to ask questions and be skeptical, and pay attention to things like accents and where the lister says he or she is located.
Philo recommends that anyone who thinks they were scammed should report the incident to both the police and the websites they booked with.
Lake Placid police Sgt. Chuck Dobson said his department hasn't received any complaints this year, but last year it received a few.
HomeAway, the company that runs www.vrbo.com and the website www.vacationrentals.com, offers a rental guarantee to protect from fraudulent listings and other issues that can be purchased for about $39 up to two days before the check-in date.