Despite decades of experience in the travel industry, David Prior, the founder of eponymous experiential travel company PRIOR, found himself the victim of a rental scam on a recent visit to Sydney.
Securing what he thought was a Bondi Beach serviced apartment on Booking.com, the Queensland-native felt confident he'd snapped up a home base with an unbeatable location and "incredible view".
After arriving at the property, the host informed him he would not be staying in the building pictured on the website.
"She says, 'oh, it's not this building, it's two doors down – I just don't want people to know where the property is'. I was like, okay, this is a bad sign," he recalls.
In place of a dreamy apartment by the sea, Prior found a dirty share house, a bunk bed and a "hedgehog of cigarettes" on display as he entered. On reflection, he says the so-called incredible view was "certainly a stock image".
"It was a complete scam. I was like, 'You literally cannot do this, you just charged me $700 a night for this'".
And just last month, a woman's New York City Airbnb went viral on TikTok after she shared a mortifying discovery – that her sunny two-bed studio in Times Square actually looked directly into a restaurant dining room. Absent were the city skyline views and blue skies pictured in the online listing.
So, what should you do if you find your property rental isn't the brochure-worthy oasis promised in the online listing?
Am I entitled to a refund or compensation?
Canstar's finance expert Steve Mickenbecker says most travellers have experienced some form of misleading advertising, with overly flattering property descriptions and photos leading the complaints charge. That's followed by gripes around comfort, noise, upkeep and cleanliness.
According to an ACCC spokesperson, "if a consumer purchases a service, then later decides to cancel that service, their entitlement to a refund will generally depend on the terms and conditions of their service agreement."
But beyond the murky waters of booking platform terms and conditions, travellers may get an additional halo of protection via a set of consumer guarantees under Australian Consumer Law, according to Mickenbecker.
"Australian Consumer Law requires that accommodation is fit for purpose, free from defects, safe and matches the description."
My accommodation isn't up to snuff – what now?
Attempting to resolve the matter directly with the accommodation provider is a crucial first step, Mickenbecker says.
"A complaint should be raised as soon as possible, and record retained of the complaint, so make sure to screenshot or save any correspondence with the booking provider as part of the process," he says.
An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission spokesperson agreed that the business should be the first port of call before escalating the issue with a consumer affairs body.
From May 2022 in New South Wales, these sorts of code breaches will appear as a 'strike' against the host – with two strikes within a two-year period landing the offender on an Exclusion Register.
A NSW Fair Trading spokesperson said, "Once listed on the Exclusion Register, the person or premises is prohibited from participating in the short-term rental accommodation industry for five years."
In Victoria, such misleading conduct can result in serious financial penalties – soaring to up to $500,000 for individuals, and $10 million for corporations.
Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
There are a few things you can do to safeguard your holiday dollars, from shopping around and reading accommodation reviews, to understanding the terms of service and cancellation policies.
Mickenbecker suggests booking through reputable agents or websites, to minimise your risk of fraud.
"If you want to book directly with an owner and are required to pay in advance, undertake checks to confirm that the party you are paying has the right to rent out the property," he says.
He also urges travellers to be wary of signs like conspicuously cheap rates.
"If the rent sought is a lot cheaper than like properties, be on your guard. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."