Vrbo and Airbnb face lawsuits over hidden cameras at the ranch

Owner Ayman J Allee and 217 Saddle Wood Trail in Comfort, Texas (Realtor.com, Kendall County Sheriff’s Office, illustration by Priyanka Modi for The Real Deal with Getty)

Short-term rental giants AirBnb and Vrbo are facing two lawsuits each over hidden cameras installed at the Cielito Lindo Ranch in Comfort, TX.

During his arrest in November 2021, police found more than 2,100 images on electronic devices confiscated from rancher Ayman J Allee. Many of the images featured the guests of his short-term rental in states of stripping or engaging in intimate acts. Allee, who is currently on bail after posting $600,000 bond, faces 15 criminal charges of invasive visual recording – a criminal offense in Texas.

Police were first alerted to Cielito Lindo when a couple reported finding hidden cameras throughout the chalet last summer. According to the lawsuit filed against Allee last December, the couple – identified in the complaint only as John and Jane Doe – checked in on July 6, 2021 and after a day of exploring Comfort returned to the ranch to shower. and change clothes. That’s when John discovered a misplaced box near the non-working TV in the bedroom.

“Upon further investigation, John realized that the box was a small camera and recording device wired into the wall and facing the direction of the bed they were to sleep in that night,” alleges the trial.

Horrified, the Dos frantically loaded their luggage and dog into the car and checked into a San Antonio hotel for the night when Jane filed a formal complaint via Airbnb chat support. In the morning, John called the police, noting that some of the comments Allee made during the rental process were “suggestive” – ​​such as telling Jane, “be comfortable, we don’t care if you’re in your pajamas or naked “.

After obtaining a search warrant for the property, Kendall County police were able to verify that the camera was recording and streaming.

John and Jane Doe are now part of a civil lawsuit filed in California on July 6 against AirBnb along with eleven other ranch guests, including a family with two minor children. The plaintiffs say they experienced extreme emotional distress and travel anxiety from the ordeal, and say they booked the ranch based on Airbnb’s depiction of the property.

The lawsuit argues that as verified “Superhosts,” Allee and his wife “acted as agents for Airbnb.” He also claims the company refused to cooperate with Kendall County investigators’ efforts to identify the full guest list and never informed users who had booked the ranch of the alleged misconduct. The lawsuit further alleges that the ranch listing remained on the site for at least a month after Allee’s arrest.

“Put simply, Airbnb is failing to do the bare minimum to protect its guests from the trauma and humiliation inflicted on them by the non-consensual recording of their most private moments,” the lawsuit alleges.

In the same week in early July, two other lawsuits were filed on behalf of former ranch guests – both against short-term rental platform Vrbo and its parent company Homeaway. The Does’s attorney, Bianca Zuniga-Goldwater, told The Real Deal that there is at least one other lawsuit against AirBnb in California regarding Cielito Lindo Ranch.

The first, filed against Vrbo on July 5, cites another couple who stayed at the ranch in August 2020. The lawsuit alleges a systematic failure by Vrbo to prevent harm, arguing that the company “misrepresented the security and privacy of the property”.

“These were cameras aimed into the bedroom to capture illicit footage, and they did that,” said Kristina Baehr of Just Well Law. Baehr, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Vrbo lawsuit, says his clients only discovered the cameras months after their visit, when local police contacted them.

In response to the lawsuit on July 5, Vrbo issued the following statement: “Surveillance devices capturing the interior of a property are never permitted in listings on our platform.”

The second lawsuit against Vrbo and Homeaway was filed three days later on behalf of two couples who stayed at the ranch. The two couples said they were intimate during their respective stays at the ranch, with one saying they planned to return for their honeymoon before police informed them of the misconduct d’Allee in December.

The other couple, who stayed at the ranch in May 2021, allege they relied on Vrbo’s portrayal of the property as “safe and highly rated” as well as Allee’s “Premier Host designation”. In July, after being reported to police, Allee messaged the couple about spare wires and electronics he said had been left behind by guests. The lawsuit argues it was a ‘prank’ and that ‘Allee knew he had been discovered and was looking for a way to cover his tracks’.

At the same time, Allee was threatening legal action against John and Jane Doe who reported him to the police, saying he would bankrupt and ruin them if they did not drop the charges, according to their lawsuit against Allee, who also allegedly emailed. with “fabricated and sinister lies about the plaintiffs” which he “threatened to publicize if they did not drop all claims”.

Like the Does, nearly all of the plaintiffs named in any of the lawsuits against Vrbo and Airbnb claim to recall some form of inappropriate behavior on Allee’s part, such as overstaying her welcome upon arrival or making sexually suggestive comments. .

The July 6 lawsuit against AirBnb, which includes four plaintiffs who booked the ranch for a girl’s trip, further claims that Superhost-verified owners “used to target women or groups involving women.” .

Between 2019 and 2021, rural AirBnb bookings in the United States grew 110%, bringing in more than $3.5 billion last year, according to company data. The Texas hosts alone grossed $115 million in 2021.

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