Avoid Vacation Rental Scams

Zoomer | September 7th, 2013

A Cottage in Provence - Getty Images

An apartment in Paris. A villa in Tuscany. A cottage by the lake, or a home by the beach. In recent years, more travellers have been thinking outside of the hotel and looking for accommodations that offer a new experience — and a lower price tag.

Unfortunately, vacation rental scams are quickly becoming part of our fraud vocabulary. Well-meaning travellers have responded to vacation rental listings only to discover their dream rental is actually somebody’s home — like one Fort Lauderdale homeowner who had Canadian vacationers show up on his doorstep (as reported by Canoe News). In some cases, that luxurious online rental doesn’t exist at all.

Some homes are actually for sale, with clever scammers using property listings for descriptions and photos and hacking real estate databases for confidential information about owners. In some cases, like this scam incident in New Jersey, vacationers have been told to pick up their keys at the real estate office where the home is listed.

People who post legitimate rentals can also be the targets of business identity theft — and find their accounts on popular vacation rental sites being compromised. For example, there’s the case of Shauna Kattler, who thought she was wiring her deposit to the legitimate owner but sent it to a scammer instead. Crooks have even caught experienced travellers, like this New York Times travel blogger. In this case, the property was supposedly foreclosed but a refund wasn’t forthcoming.

While poor grammar, missing details and a lack of contact information used to be good indicators of a scam, fraudulent listings are getting more and more sophisticated, warn experts.

NEXT: How to Stay Clear of the Scams

How to stay clear of the scams

Beware of the too-good-to-be-true offers. Scammers know travellers are always looking for a good deal. The bait: a price below what you’d normally pay — sometimes less than half what the rental should be worth. Experts still advise that if something seems to good to be true, it usually is.

How can you tell what the price should be? Compare similar rental options in the area to give you a feel for the market.

Stick to reputable sites. While reputable sites have been hit by fraudulent activity, you’re still better off booking with a trusted service than through an online classified ad. Some services screen their listings and others work only with professional management companies. Unlike free sites like Craigslist, many of these services have guarantees and a strict privacy policy.

Some popular options include Zonder.com, HomeAway and its sister sites VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and VacationRentals.com.  Another way to find vacation rentals is through a country or city’s tourism website.

However, even reputable sites have been hit by fraudulent activity so proceed with caution.

Look for guarantees. What happens if you’re not happy with the rental, or you’ve been scammed through  the website? You’ll want to look at the guarantees before you book. For instance, HomeAway’s Carefree Rental Guarantee will reimburse travellers up to $10,000 if certain problems occur — including fraud or misrepresentation.

Whichever website you plan to use, take a close look at guarantees and available customer support — and be sure to read the fine print.

Do your research. The listing shouldn’t be your only source of information. Find out what you can about the company and property. Experts recommend using search engines to look up the address, people’s names and phone numbers, for example. If you can’t find the location online, it probably doesn’t exist.

Online searches can also turn you on to important information like scam warnings, plus you can check websites like Scamwarners.com to see the latest cons. A quick internet search for keywords like “HomeAway scam” or “VRBO scam” can show you examples of what to avoid.

Another option: look up the company through the Better Business Bureau or local chamber of commerce.

Check out the reviews too. True, you could ask for references — but scammers are good at faking those too. Review sites like TripAdvisor and travel forums like Fodor’s Travel Talk Forums and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Travel Forum can offer some insider details.

Pick up the phone. It’s harder to fake phone numbers than email addresses, say experts. When in doubt, look up property owner or management company in the phone book and call their customer service representatives with your questions.

Get the details in writing before you book. If you were investing thousands of dollars or making a big ticket purchase, you’d likely read through the agreement thoroughly before signing. It’s no different with vacation rentals — get the agreement in writing and beware of any loopholes or hidden fees before you sign.

Beware of requests to wire cash. When you wire money, it’s nearly impossible to trace and there’s little hope of getting it back. Experts warn that if you’re asked to wire a deposit or the full amount, chances are you’re being scammed. Bank transfers are also suspect.

Pay with a credit card. You’ve heard this advice before for booking travel, and with good reason. When you pay by credit card, you can dispute the charges and recoup your cash if there’s a problem. Reputable companies may ask for a cheque or PayPal payment as well, but you may want to exercise some caution.

Listen to your instincts. Don’t book if you don’t feel completely comfortable with your arrangements, say experts. There are plenty of vacation rental opportunities out there — and avoiding a costly scam is more important than getting the best possible deal.

It’s not always possible, but some sources recommend visiting a vacation property in person before you rent (or have a trusted person go for you). However, you should still do your research regardless.

So what’s the bottom line? The message from experts is to be aware of the scams and be cautious in your dealings — there’s no need to avoid vacation rentals altogether. After all, if we avoided every place where we could encounter a scam, we’d never go anywhere.

Have you encountered a travel scam? Share your experience with us in the comments.

Additional sources: Consumerist.com, Elliott.org, Paradise Properties by Owner, TripAdvisor, WealthInformatics.com

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