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2 indicted in $8.5 million Airbnb, Vrbo scam linked to 10,000 reservations across 10 states

Airbnb cracking down on fake listings
Airbnb cracking down on fake listings 06:01

Two men were indicted by a federal grand jury as the masterminds behind a vast online rental properties scam that raked in more than $8.5 million, and was linked to 10,000 reservations across 10 states, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday. 

Shray Goel, 35, of Miami, and Shaunik Raheja, 34, of Denver, operated a short-term house rental business used to defraud Airbnb, Vrbo and guests renting properties through those platforms, according to the indictment. Goel was initially charged on Dec. 13, but Raheja was added to a superseding indictment on Wednesday, which also alleged the short-term rental property scam included discrimination against Black people.

When guests searched for rental housing in these areas, they found multiple listings of Goel and Raheja's properties as the business would run "secret bidding wars," the indictment said.  Operators used fake host names, and in certain instances, other people's identities, to list properties. 

Goel, Raheja and others who worked with them are alleged to have owned and leased properties throughout the U.S. for the rental business, including properties in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Savannah, Georgia. By 2019, the business managed almost 100 properties across the United States.

Some renters who believed they booked a property would at the last minute receive a cancellation with "bogus last-minute excuses," the indictment said. These guests would be steered to inferior rental properties, still paying the same prices. 

These "bait and switch" methods allowed Goel and Raheja to keep their properties full at the highest listed prices possible, the indictment said. Operators also tried to avoid renting to guests they perceived were Black, the indictment said. 

"The conspiracy charge alleging that the defendants discriminated against potential renters based on their skin color is a reprehensible abuse which must not be tolerated in the United States," said Donald Alway, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.

In 2023, Airbnb said it removed 59,000 fake listings and prevented another 157,000 from joining the platform. The company said it planned to use AI to verify listings in its top five countries, which are the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France and Australia. 

Airbnb and Vrbo are cooperating with the government in the investigation, the Department of Justice said. 

The indictment charges Goel and Raheja with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 13 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 20 years in federal prison. There is a two-year mandatory consecutive sentence for the counts of aggravated identity theft.

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