As summer heats up, so does the home-sharing economy. Lured by the idea of an attractive vacation rental and the perfect getaway, more travelers are getting duped by unscrupulous scammers every year.
The scenario usually involves a fake listing, a request for payment by wire transfer and, after you've wired the money, an end to communication from the property "owner" or “agent.” When the dust settles? Your money is gone, and you have no place to stay.
Vacation rental scams come in many forms. Some are websites run by frauds posing as timeshare agents, but have no real connection to the property. Others use legitimate sites, such as Craigslist, to seduce would-be vacationers with fictitious or misrepresented rentals, only to divert you to a less desirable spot upon arrival.
How to protect yourself from too-good-to-be-true properties when you can’t check them out in person? Here are some tips for avoiding fraudulent vacation rental schemes.
Watch Out For Requests to Wire Money
This is the surest sign of a scam. Payment methods such as MoneyGram and Western Union are essentially the same as sending cash — once you send it, you have no way to get it back.
If you must pay a deposit, consider alternative payment methods
Vacationers should also know that PayPal doesn’t offer the same protections for services and intangible goods, such as vacation rentals, as they do for physical items. Use a credit card instead — Visa, MasterCard, and American Express will all allow you to recover the money you lose to fraud, including vacation rental scams.
Additionally, reputable sites like Airbnb will hold your security funds in escrow. They play middleman, both making sure you’ve put the funds in place before you get keys and that those keys don’t unlock a vacation nightmare.
Don’t Be Fooled by Photography
Scammers first target potential travelers by luring them with composited or photoshopped images and details collected from around the web.
Related: How to Spot a Hotel-Booking Scam
Avoid scams with a reverse image search
To make sure those photos are the real deal and not lifted off another property listing, try a reverse image search. Simply right-click on the image you want to check, copy its URL, and paste it into the box at images.google.com.
If you're using Google Chrome, it's even easier. Just right-click the images and select “search Google for this image” from the menu that appears.
Another option is to ask the owner or agent for additional property photos, or use Skype to get a live view of the property. Searching with Google’s Street View feature can confirm that the property you’re considering actually exists at the address advertised, while allowing you to get a close up look at the vacation rental’s exterior.
Question Unusually Cheap Vacation Rentals
Once scammers have constructed an ideal vacation rental, the fraudulent listing is often posted at an unbelievable price to attract vacationers eager for a bargain.
Get a feel for reasonable prices in your desired area
Some rentals come cheaper than others, and some come a little too cheap. While you won't know fair pricing for rooms and full apartments in a city you haven't visited, common sense can guide you.
Still on the fence? Instead of just going with the flow, apply some skepticism to the rental process by driving a hard bargain. By disguising your attempt to get a better deal, you’ll have a chance to detect any odd behavior such as bad grammar, canned responses, or the failure to address your specific request.
Be Wary of Online Classifieds
Sometimes Craigslist feels like the origin of all scams. While an excellent resource for local goods and services, the website is a hotbed of vacation rental scammers. It is notorious for featuring false listings posted by anonymous users who are trying to get you to fork over private information or to wire them a deposit — while the property often isn’t as advertised or doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes scammers will even break into homes while their residents are out of town and “rent” the property to unsuspecting vacationers.
Call or conduct an online search to verify your chosen vacation rental
Know that legitimate property owners may use free online classified ads to save money, but it's important to vet any listing very carefully. If your prospective vacation rental is listed by an agent, take the extra time to confirm with a live representative before booking.
Looking at a private listing? Google any information connected with the ad, including the owner's name, the property address, images of the property and, if possible, who owns the rental website. If you notice discrepancies or if you find the same text or photos posted by two different owners, think twice about renting the property — especially if you have been asked to pay the rent in full by wire transfer or a similar method.
How to Find Legit Vacation Rentals? Start at a Trusted Source
Even home sharing platforms, such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO struggle with dubious properties and fraudulent listings. Despite efforts to verify information from guests and renters alike, they obviously can’t run checks on all users in order to ensure no potentially bad people will use the service.
However, these sites do provide secure payment systems, complaint resolutions, user comments and star ratings to build community trust.
Additionally, vacation rental websites such as VRBO, HomeAway, and Airbnb have a better track record of taking fake accounts seriously and acting aggressively to shut down spammers in order to protect their reputations as trusted communities for vacation home rentals. For example, Airbnb has built a positive reputation by offering a quick response and assistance to both renters and property owners when things have gone awry.
Bottom Line: It’s Up to You to Rent Intelligently
A few bad eggs shouldn’t dissuade you from experiencing a wonderful vacation rental stay. Be cautious and do your homework to vet the rental properties before booking that dream trip.
If you think you might have been the victim of a vacation rental scam, log a complaint with the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant. You can access the complaint assistant and file your report when you visit ftc.gov/complaint.
Related: Popular Travel Scams