I canceled my vacation rental, but they're keeping my deposit

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Pat Morin's vacation rental in Aruba is a disaster -- and she hasn't even left yet. She's trying to get her money back, but the owner refuses. Is there any hope?

Q: I recently paid a $2,060 deposit to rent a home in Aruba through VRBO. Before I was sent a copy of the lease, I realized that the rental didn't have enough room for our party of 10, and I notified the owner that I wanted to cancel.

The owner refuses to refund the deposit, saying she runs the rental "like a timeshare." I don't even know what that means. That should have been explained in the rental agreement, and even more importantly it should be explained to a customer when they are making a $2,060 deposit.

I sent the deposit in good faith, and now I feel stupid for having done that and for not having gotten something in writing.

I contacted VRBO, the site though which I rented the house, but so far it has been unable to help me get my money back. Is there anything you can do? -- Pat Morin, San Bernardino, Calif.

A: What a mess. The owner should have sent you an agreement before you paid for the rental home, which clearly outlined your rights to a refund. The contract should have also described the property in more detail, noting how many guests it could accommodate.

VRBO sees itself as an intermediary in this transaction, providing little more than a listing service. And at the time you rented your home, it offered something called the Carefree Rental Guarantee, which would have protected you if your rental had been misrepresented. But you would have had to pay extra for that.

Still, VRBO should be concerned when one of its property owners allegedly accepts your money without furnishing you with a contract and then keeps it after you cancel the reservation, saying that the property is run "like a timeshare." I'm not even sure if I understand what that means.

The following advice may seem obvious, but it's worth repeating: Don't sign a rental agreement -- and definitely don't make a deposit -- until you've read it. If a rental owner refuses to send the contract, walk away, no matter how attractive the offer.

Look for "gotchas" like no-refund policies and nondisparagement clauses, which prevent you from writing about the rental if you don't like it. And make sure you have the option of paying by credit card, which will protect you if something goes wrong.

I reviewed your correspondence with the property owner, and it looks as if a few other things happened that were preventable. Some of the back-and-forth happened by phone, which increased the likelihood that a detail was overlooked or misunderstood. Also, at one point you authorized your daughter to deal directly with the owner, which just ended up confusing the issue. Keep everything in writing and speak with one voice, and you're likely to avoid this situation from happening again in the future.

I contacted VRBO about your case. It got in touch with the property owner and advocated for you. The owner refunded your entire deposit.

(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)

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