The price of paradise

So far, Kauai seems to be escaping an alarming trend happening across the islands.

Scammers who fraudulently advertise Hawaii rental properties have ripped off hundreds if not thousands of visitors to the state, according to Honolulu police, who say it’s difficult to prosecute the con artists because most of them operate out of state.

“Unfortunately, we see these scams all the time,” said Lt. John McCarthy, head of the financial crimes detail. “Hawaii is a victim of its own popularity.”

Scammers harvest pretty pictures from real estate advertisements and craft fraudulent online ads, he said.

Hector Euredjian, owner of Discount Hotels Hawaii, said some scams can be detected because they advertise extremely low rates.

Visitors conned by the scammers arrive in Hawaii and find the unit occupied by its actual renter or owner, McCarthy said.

“We’ve had private homes where tourists have shown up and asked the owners, ‘What are you doing in my rental?’” McCarthy said. “Owners that are selling their homes are particularly vulnerable. We even had a policeman who had his home up for sale, and the Realtors found it online being advertised as a rental.”

The island of Kauai has also experienced such fraudulence, although not as severely as Oahu. Sue Kanoho, executive director of Kauai Visitors Bureau, said they’ve only received three scam reports this year.

While that doesn’t amount to rampant fraud here, she said it’s still too many for the industry.

“It’s a transaction between an individual and a fraudulent person and that’s a crime,” Kanoho said. “It’s a huge inconvenience … the money they’ve spend is lost and they need to spend money on finding something else. It’s a concern for the destination; it’s a concern for the individuals.”

According to the Investigative Services Bureau, Kauai Police Department hasn’t received any complaints. 

Brett Westphal of Sacramento, California, was a victim in January. He wanted to attend the NFL Pro Bowl but resisted with hotel prices approaching $250 per night.

He and his wife reconsidered when they found a last-minute deal on Craigslist for a Waikiki condo for $80 per night. After making sure the property existed, he wired about $580 to a Texas address.

“After arriving in Hawaii, we went to the condominium to pick up the key, and the owners were a no-show,” Westphal said. “At that point, I was freaking out. … The sales office was closed so we had to get another hotel for the night. As it turned out, we had to get another hotel for the whole time.”

Tim Caminos, spokesman for Hawaii’s Better Business Bureau, said 206 rental scams were reported this year.

Scams take an emotional toll on victims who save for a special vacation in Hawaii, said Jessica Lani Rich, executive director of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, a nonprofit that helps distressed visitors.

“We had one family rent a Kahala home for a reunion, but when they arrived they discovered their rental was nonexistent. Sixteen people from California to Sweden were affected by this. It really bothers me seeing how these visitors are hurt and violated,” she said.

Kanoho said those who intend to book condo should be sure the websites they use are reputable by checking reviews first. 

“In the world of online booking, people need to be wary and cautious,” she said.

Reporter Averie Soto contributed to this report

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