EMERYVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- It's a popular trend for vacation travel - renting a private home instead of a hotel room. A host of websites now list vacation rentals around the world- but are they reliable?
An Emeryville man using a trusted website thought he found a gorgeous, spacious home in Paris, France for a reasonable price. In reality, he got caught in an international scam that lured him in, and vanished.
"I thought I could trust it because it was on Travelocity,'' Rolando Sanvicente said as he gazed at photos of a luxurious penthouse he thought he was renting in the heart of Paris. He seemed unable to let go of the idea of how perfect the place would be for his family's vacation in August.
"It's a beautiful place, great views. Windows all around. A 360-degree panoramic view of the cityscape. Right near the Louvre... You can see across the river to the Eiffel Tower. My sister wants to see the Eiffel Tower'' Sanvicente said wistfully, as though the place were really there.
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What made things worse? He says Travelocity assured him the listing was legitimate, and gave him the go-ahead to wire money to the purported property manager.
"I sent the payment. I relied on Travelocity. I sent the wire. It was a nightmare."
It began when Sanvicente began a search for an apartment to accommodate 10 family members in Paris. After booking a flight on Travelocity, he checked the site's vacation rental listings.
There it was. An offer to rent a luxurious penthouse atop a building in the upscale Concorde-Madeleine neighborhood of Paris' Eighth Arrondissment. Numerous photos showed modern, spacious rooms with plush furnishings, glass and chrome fixtures, and walls of windows offering panoramic view of the city below.
It had plenty of room for 10 guests, and a reasonable fee of $3400 for eight nights.
"I reserved it online on Travelocity, and I was so happy when they said it was still available,'' Sanvicente said.
He looked up the site on Google Maps. The street view showed an older building that didn't seem to comport with the modern interior the photos depicted, so he emailed the property manager.
"I was saying is it this building? Is it this building?"
The reply was a description and list of rules. His skepticism was outweighed by his excitement.
Until he got another email. This one said the property manager needed him to pay for the apartment with a money transfer -- to a bank in Greece.
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"It seemed a little strange because most hotels require you to pay with a credit card,'' he said. "I am aware of wire fraud, so it gave me a little concern."
He says he called Travelocity and asked if the listing was legitimate.
"The person didn't think it seemed strange (to ask for payment by wire) but he said 'OK let me call'.'' Sanvicente recalls.
He says the Travelocity agent put him on hold, called the property manager, came back on the phone and declared it was safe to wire the money.
"He said, 'yes, that's their procedure, you can go ahead and send the money','' Sanvicente said. "I said, 'are you sure because this is a wire to Greece. He said, 'oh that's their procedure go ahead'."
So Sanvicente went ahead and wired the money to the bank in Greece. After that, he emailed the property manager asking for a receipt. "They kept stalling and stalling coming up with reasons I had to wait to get a receipt,'' Sanvicente said.
Soon his emails to the company began bouncing back. He tried sending a paper letter to the address in Paris. That was returned as "undeliverable."
The company had simply vanished. So did Sanvicente's $3400.
"Ohhhh, my God, what just happened,'' Sanvicente recalled thinking.
He canceled his booking and Travelocity refunded his $500 deposit, but not the rest of his money.
"They (Travelocity) kept saying, 'we're working on it, we'll contact the property manager','' Sanvicente said.
Weeks later, no word from Travelocity. He called corporate headquarters asking the status of his claim for a refund.
"She said no, this is not being processed, we weren't able to reach them so we weren't able to confirm that you paid,'' he recalls.
He said he trusted Travelocity's word that the item was legitimate and to wire the money.
"She didn't believe me,'' Sanvicente said. "She said nobody at Travelocity would ever tell me to send cash. But they did!"
Sanvicente asked Travelocity to listen to the tape recording of the phone call between him and that agent. "I said listen to the tape you'll hear that he told me it's OK to wire the money."
Sanvicente was miffed. "I trusted that if the item was on the Travelocity website that I could trust it. "I thought that if it was fraud that Travelocity would stand behind it. I said, 'You guys are responsible for getting my money back.'"
He says no one responded. He contacted ABC7, 7 On Your Side. We contacted Travelocity asking how a scam got onto its site. The company tells us it does scruitinize listings for possible fraud, using algorithms and manual checks. This one slipped by before the company could warn Sanvicente.
Travelocity said: "To ensure that our customers have a positive experience when booking a vacation rental on Travelocity, all properties listed on site undergo fraud detection methods that combine both technological and human review. Even with these processes in place, on the extremely rare occasions a fraudulent listing might show up, our ongoing fraud detection processes are designed to spot these listings so that they can be quickly removed. In these cases, customers who may have booked a fraudulent property will be proactively contacted and our agents will assist them with the situation.
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Unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Sanvicente, we did not effectively communicate the situation and did not provide a service up to our own standards."
As for reassuring Sanvicente it was safe to wire money, Travelocity said:
"It is possible that there might have been a miscommunication and we do apologize for any misunderstanding."
And Travelocity did refund all of his money.
"It was a huge relief,'' Sanvicente said. "Ten weeks of frustration and all I had to do was call 7 On Your Side."
Sanvicente still likes looking at those pictures of that luxurious penthouse. "It's a great place,'' he says. "Except... it isn't real."
Oh those rooms might exist, somewhere on the planet. Likely the scammers pulled photos off some publication for architectural services or interior design. Which goes to show, pictures may be worth a thousand words but don't bank on them.
Be skeptical about listings for anything you buy sight unseen - and don't wire money to strangers.
For more stories, photos, and video from 7 on Your Side and Michael Finney, visit this page.
East Bay man books Paris vacation home on Travelocity, finds out it's a scam