Hidden cameras in Texas ranch spark wave of lawsuits against Vrbo and AirBnb

One suit claims AirBnb facilitated the ranch owner’s misconduct by maintaining his ‘Superhost’ status

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)
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 planted at the Cielito Lindo Ranch in Comfort, TX.

Upon his arrest in November 2021, police found more than 2,100 images on electronics confiscated from ranch owner Ayman J Allee. Many of the images featured the guests of his short-term rental in states of undress or engaging in intimate acts. Allee, who is currently out on bond after posting a $600,000 bail, faces 15 criminal charges of invasive visual recording — a felony offense in Texas.

The police were first alerted about Cielito Lindo when a couple reported finding hidden cameras throughout the cottage 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, came back to the ranch to shower and change clothes. This is when John discovered an awkwardly placed box near the non-functioning 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 in which they were to sleep that night,” the lawsuit alleges.

Horrified, the Does frantically loaded their luggage and dog into the car and checked into a San Antonio hotel for the night where Jane filed a formal complaint through 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 are in your pjs or nude.”

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

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

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

“Simply put, Airbnb does not 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 claims.

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

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

“These were cameras directed in the bedroom to capture illicit footage, and that’s what it did,” said Kristina Baehr of Just Well Law. Baehr, who represents the plaintiffs in the Vrbo suit, says her clients didn’t find out about the cameras until months after their visit, when local police contacted them.

In response to the July 5 suit, Vrbo issued the statement: “Surveillance devices capturing the inside of a property are never allowed in listings on our platform.”

The second lawsuit against Vrbo and Homeaway was filed three days later on behalf of two couples that stayed at the ranch. Both couples say they were intimate during their respective stays at the ranch with one couple saying they had been planning to return for their honeymoon before police informed them of Allee’s misconduct in December.

The other couple, who stayed at the ranch in May 2021, allege that they relied on Vrbo’s representation of the property as “safe and highly rated” as well as Allee’s “Premier Host designation.” In July, after being reported to the police, Allee messaged the couple about spare wires and electronics that he claimed had been left behind by guests. The lawsuit argues that this was a “farce” 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 recourse against the 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 sent emails with “fabricated, lurid lies about the Plaintiffs” that he “threatened to publicize if they did not drop all claims.”

Like the Does, nearly every plaintiff named in one of the lawsuits against Vrbo and Airbnb claim to recall some form of inappropriate behavior from Allee, such as overstaying his welcome when they arrived or making sexually suggestive comments.

The July 6 suit against AirBnb, which includes four female plaintiffs who booked the ranch for a girl’s trip, further claims that the Superhost-verified homeowners “had a history of targeting women or groups involving women.”

Between 2019 and 2021, rural AirBnb bookings in the U.S. grew 110 percent, earning over $3.5 billion last year, according to the company’s data. Texas hosts alone brought in $115 million in 2021.