An Airbnb and Vrbo host has been arrested and charged with defrauding would-be guests out of millions of dollars. Accused of wire fraud and identity theft in a Florida district court, the host allegedly made an estimated $8.5 million by scamming guests who booked properties on the online property rental sites.
The huge scam is reported to have taken place over a period of nearly two years, between January 2018 and November 2019 and involved around 10,000 bookings of more than 100 properties across the USA.
How did the scam work?
Court filings show Shray Goel, 35, of Miami, and Shaunik Raheja, 34, of Denver, are accused of using an array of different identities to double-book rentals, often choosing the highest bidder, then refusing to give refunds to other customers. Sometimes the properties did not exist at all.
Using the fake name of a couple as a host, such as “Alex & Brittany” and “Jess and Tyler” was a key part of the confidence trick. Goel is also accused of hiding negative reviews by de-listing properties from the rental sites and re-listing them, as well as intimidating customer representatives who became involved in complaints.
How was it uncovered?
It was a Vice investigation that uncovered what is being termed a “double-booking-bait-and-switch”. Journalist Allie Conti had booked a stay in a property which she later was told was flooded by so-called hosts “Becky and Andrew”. She was however only offered a refund of less than 25% of the $1,221 she had paid.
Her report went viral. Airbnb promised to verify all their listings just a week its publication and it was followed up by an FBI investigation and the arrest of Goel, who was released on bond.
“Built on trust”
Airbnb said, speaking to the Daily Beast their business “is built on trust, and bad actors have no place in our community. We supported the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI throughout their investigation to help ensure accountability, and we are thankful to them for their work.”
Meanwhile, Goel – a self-styled “real estate visionary” – has responded to the case by calling it “complex”. Writing on X, he added: “I know it’s stirred up a lot of different feelings. While it’s easy to get caught up in a media narrative – I hope you give me the opportunity to share my perspective once the legal process concludes.”
In Florida, wire fraud with aggravating factors such as multiple victims and identity theft can result in prison sentences of 15 years plus financial restitution to victims who may choose to pursue civil cases.