Feds Charge Denver Man in $8.5 Million Airbnb Scam Involving Fake Listings, Double Bookings – Westword

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A Denver man is accused of being part of a national scam using the short-term rental platforms Airbnb and Vrbo to defraud thousands of victims, from California to Florida to Ohio.

Shaunik Raheja, 34, was indicted on federal fraud charges on January 3 in connection with more than 10,000 reservations linked to nearly 100 properties across ten states, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Thirty-five-year-old Miami resident Shray Goel was also charged.

Authorities say the men created numerous fake host accounts on Airbnb and Vrbo — using stolen identities at least twice — to post multiple listings for the same rental property. They would allegedly pick the highest-paying customer to stay in the property, either canceling the other reservations mere hours before check-in or pressuring the customers to stay at a lower-quality property nearby. Sometimes, the men never had access to the advertised property address at all.

The scheme generated more than $8.5 million in 2018 and 2019: over $7 million in payouts from Airbnb reservations and over $1.5 million from Vrbo, according to the indictment.

“The sheer number of victims is astonishing, as is the millions of dollars earned through the scheme that took advantage of the reputations of online rental platforms that offer a valuable service,” said U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada in a statement announcing the charges. “This deplorable scheme victimized thousands of consumers and families across the country.”

The suspects denied the allegations in statements from their attorneys. In a post on X, Goel said he’s cooperating with the legal process and asked for “patience and an open mind from everyone.”

“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,” he said in the January 3 post. “Hold off on your judgment until all the facts are out there in the open, in the right legal setting.”

Raheja could not be reached for comment.

The scam was first reported in October 2019, after Vice reporter Allie Conti experienced it firsthand. Ten minutes before she was scheduled to check in to her Chicago Airbnb, the host told her the unit was flooded, but offered a different property she could stay in instead, she reported. She described the replacement property as a “grimy flophouse” and after one night, she was kicked out to make room for other renters. In the end, she stayed at a hotel and only got $399 of her $1,221 booking refunded.

While she investigated her story, Conti found several other victims with the same stories and identified Goel as her Airbnb host, though the listing claimed her host was a couple called “Becky and Andrew” and used a stock photo of a surfer. The day after the article was published, the FBI contacted Vice about its report.

What Conti experienced was Raheja and Goel’s usual m.o., according to the indictment, which claims the men would post the same property several times at different prices — one property was advertised in six listings for the same dates. All but the highest-paying renters would be told the property was unavailable due to some emergency, usually bogus issues with the plumbing, leaving the other renters stranded in a strange city without anywhere to stay.

Some renters were then offered alternative lodging worth far less than they had paid. If they refused the alternative, the renters would be asked to cancel their booking themselves, allowing the hosts to pocket a heavy last-minute cancellation fee.

Sometimes, Raheja and Goel decided whose reservation to cancel based on racial prejudices, discriminating against Black guests in particular, according to the indictment.

When renters requested a refund for their canceled bookings from Airbnb and Vrba, the men allegedly fought back, falsely claiming that the guests had temporarily stayed in the property, disqualifying them from a full refund. When defrauded guests left negative reviews about their experiences, the men would delete the property listing on that host account and repost it on a different account, according to the indictment. They would also allegedly use their numerous host accounts to leave positive reviews on their own listings and to get around being banned by the platforms.

In some instances, the double bookings were not canceled, leading to multiple renters showing up to stay at the same property, according to the indictment.

“Eight random men showed up on our last night there with the access codes to the gates, claiming they had also booked the house for the night,” one customer said in a review on December 16, 2018. “Turns out there are multiple listings for this house on Airbnb, run by different hosts who are booking the place for multiple groups at a time. … Needless to say, it didn’t feel super safe after this happened.”

Two of the nineteen rental properties listed in the indictment are in Denver: 3522 Shoshone Street in the Highland neighborhood and 915 26th Street in Five Points. Both were listed on Airbnb under the host name “Ryan J.”

The Five Points property was falsely advertised under a different address, 2500 Curtis Street, which is the address of a private Montessori school, according to the indictment. Two people testified that the host canceled their reservations at the Denver properties on the same day they were supposed to check in, with the Curtis Street reservation canceled because of an alleged plumbing issues and the Shoshone Street reservation canceled for a family emergency.

Denver law allows people to host short-term rentals only in their primary residence, preventing one person from hosting multiple short-term rentals. Raheja reportedly got around this by having other people file for short-term rental licenses.

Two people who claimed to be Raheja’s long-term tenants held the short-term rental licenses for 3522 Shoshone Street and 915 26th Street in 2019, when the scams were occurring, says Eric Escudero with the Denver Department of Excise & Licenses. Both of those licenses have since expired or been surrendered.

Raheja also held a short-term rental license for 3315 Navajo Street from 2019 to 2020. He applied for a license at 3442 Osage Street in 2021, but that application was withdrawn after the city asked Raheja to sign an affidavit attesting that the home was his primary residence, Escudero says. The city has no record of Goel holding a short-term rental license in Denver.

“We may not catch every fraudulent act, but short-term rental regulations have played a key role in Denver having one of the most successfully regulated short-term rental markets in the nation,” Escudero says. “Hosting platforms also play a key role in protecting consumers because they should have technology mechanisms in place to protect their customers from fraudulent listings.”

Goel was arrested on December 27 and released on bond the next day. Raheja was not arrested but will be directed to appear for an arraignment in federal court in Los Angeles later this month, says Thom Mrozek, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The incidents cited in the indictment happened between October 2017 and November 2019. “With so many victims and the complicated nature of the scheme, it was a lengthy investigation,” Mrozek says.

Goel and Raheja are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and thirteen counts of wire fraud. Goel is also charged with two counts of aggravated identity theft. The conspiracy and wire fraud charges each carry a statutory maximum penalty of twenty years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office

In addition to Denver, the rental scheme was allegedly committed in Los Angeles, Malibu and Marina Del Rey, California; Chicago, Illinois; Davenport, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Bloomington and South Bend, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin and Dallas, Texas; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

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