Hotels worlwide are accustomed to a range of scams perpetrated on them and their guests (both prospective and current). Tricks that gull unsuspecting visitors range from switching bags in hotel lobbies while they check-in with lookalike but empty valises to marauders who prowl corridors looking for an entree into guest rooms to whisk away contents. Hotels suffer too at the hands of con-men (usually men) who try anything from fake or stolen credit cards to outright impersonation that results in monetary loss to the property. However, New York’s high occupancy has added a new dimension to hotel scams – that of a non-hotel.
First reported in Crain’s New York Business earlier this month, it involves the illegal use of residential buildings as “hotels” and are typically booked by foreigners looking for a “deal” via websites – even reputed ones such as Orbitz. Today’s Toronto Star has more details of the modus operandi of the “operators” who lure unwary tourists into buildings at outrageous rates that go beyond the pale. As of now, the lead perpetrators are British based and the company that raised the ire of a couple from Britain is Woogo.com. They were “thrilled to find an Internet listing for a three-star Manhattan “suite” at a bargain $250-a-night”. Except when they got to New York what they got was “two rooms that were filthy and musty, with paint peeling off the walls. The towels in the bathroom were matted with hair. The fold-out couch was wedged too close to a sink to open “. The rooms were apparently located in a pre-war apartment in midtown near Lincoln center.
The Star’s report quotes a building department official as saying that the hotel scams are “growing like an epidemic”. New York City’s response has been to conduct inspections and issue citations for non-complying occupancy use. That is unlikely to deter virtual scamsters who don’t need a physical presence. But for its part, Orbitz can be more responsive and provide for a mechanism for redressal and delist such “hotels” from their site. The wronged couple took a stronger than usual activist approach and even set up their own website. But ultimately, it is a case of Caveat Emptor – buyer beware and if it is too good to be true, it isn’t.