Guest opinion: Falling victim to a rental scam was disheartening. The help of a stranger made it better.
My name is Melany Robinson. I lived and worked in Park City from 1998 to 2003, and while I now reside in Birmingham, Alabama, I travel back to the area with my family for extended trips as often as possible. I look forward to my Summit County visits more than anything. Park City was the last place I vacationed before returning home to a COVID lockdown in March 2020, and it was the first place I had planned to fly this year.
In an effort to celebrate what we’d hoped would be a more positive time in 2021, this past summer, my husband and I scoured rental websites and found on Craigs List what looked like an ideal place for our extended family to call home for six weeks this winter. I found the perfect place for an incredible price. I was so excited about the property that we paid in full for a 2021 rental and for more than half of a 2022 rental.
Unfortunately, what was perfect in July turned into a criminal investigation in January. On the morning of January 6, I discovered we had fallen victim to a high-level rental fraud. After being informed that someone had died of COVID while in the home and they needed an additional $14,000 to get the house ready for our arrival, I knew something was wrong.
The irony of all this is that I own a hospitality & travel public relations agency and am about as sophisticated a consumer you will find as it relates to vacation homes and rental companies. The would-be rental agency completely fooled us – not only with the professional-quality listing information and photography, and a lawyer approved contract, but also with deeply personal interactions, like daily phone calls to check in during my recent cancer treatments. I was so charmed that I even asked for their address so that I could send them our family Christmas card. Before renting the property, I had researched the homeowner’s name but never imagined that there exist fraud rings that assume the actual identity of homeowners.
As soon as I suspected fraud, I immediately posted on the Park City Moms Facebook page to see if anyone had experience or suggestions. The supportive response was amazing, but one woman really stood out. Natalie Atkinson of Mountain Luxury Vacation Rentals simply responded to my post with “I’ll help you.” Natalie — who didn’t know me from Adam — became my sounding board and my instant advocate, outlining detailed instructions of what I needed to do, and introducing me to resources in the police department and a private investigator.
Since the pandemic, online fraud is at an all-time high in this community and countless others. Rather than focus on the darkness that is happening online, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the fact that there is actually quite a bit of good that can come from the internet. I am so grateful that the Park City community is comprised of wonderful people like Natalie Atkinson who was willing to drop everything to help a total stranger who had been knocked out at the knees. Social media can create so much noise and negative energy, with people operating in individual siloes and likeminded bubbles of their own creation. It was beautifully refreshing to see social media being used exactly as it should be in an ideal world: to build community and help others.
We are not likely to find the culprit, and don’t have recourse for the financial loss, but I am happy to say that Natalie was able to help us secure a new rental, and I am looking forward to getting some time skiing with my daughter in the greatest snow on Earth.
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Steve Berlack, whose son died in an avalanche in 2015, writes in a letter to the editor that “[i]f you want to venture into the backcountry, do it safely. Get the education you need. … Understand the forecast. Make conservative decisions like your life depends on it.”