Vacation rental scam stories are all over the Internet. The scenario usually involves a fake listing, a request for payment by wire transfer and, after you have wired the money, an end to communication from the property "owner." When the dust settles, your money is gone and you have no place to stay.
Here are seven tips that can help you detect and avoid vacation rental scammers.
Good Deal, or Too Good to Be True?
"If it looks too good to be true, it is." This old saying is applicable in many situations, and you should keep it in mind when researching vacation rentals. While vacation rental prices vary based on factors such as the number of rooms, amenities, and location, you should be wary of any apartment or cottage that is offered at a deep discount. Always check rental prices for several properties in the neighborhood you would like to stay in so that you have a good understanding of the going rates for that area.
Consider the Website's Payment Methods and Security Policies
The safest way to pay for your vacation rental is by credit card. Regardless of where you live, credit cards offer more consumer protection than any other payment method. If there is a problem with your rental, or if you are the victim of a vacation rental scam, you can dispute the charges with your credit card company and have them taken off your bill until the matter is investigated.
Some vacation rental websites, such as HomeAway.com, offer secure payment systems and/or money-back guarantees, sometimes for an additional cost. These systems and guarantees offer renters an extra level of security. To ensure that you will be covered, be sure to read the guarantee's terms and conditions before you book and pay for your stay.
Other vacation rental websites, such as Rentini and Airbnb, do not release payment to property owners until 24 hours after a renter has checked in. This helps to ensure that you can get a refund if you arrive at the property and it is not as advertised or not available at all.
Never Pay by Cash, Check, Wire Transfer, Western Union or Similar Methods
Scammers regularly ask for payment by wire transfer, Western Union, check or cash, then take off with the money. It is almost impossible to recover your money once this has happened.
If you are asked to pay the rental balance in full via cash, check, wire transfer, MoneyGram or Western Union before you arrive and you are not working with a trusted travel agent, start looking for another place to rent. Scammers typically get you to pay by wire transfer, move the funds to another bank account, close the first account and vanish with your money before you realize you are a fraud victim.
While it is true that wire transfer payments are commonplace in some countries, reputable vacation rental property owners will be willing to work with you and find a payment method acceptable to both parties.
Be especially wary of emails or telephone conversations with owners who do not seem to know anything about the local area or who use poor grammar in written communication.
Verify that the Property Exists
Use Google Maps or another mapping application to verify that the cottage or apartment you want to rent actually exists. Scammers have been known to use false addresses or to use addresses of actual buildings that turned out to be warehouses, offices or vacant lots. If you know someone who lives near the apartment or cottage, ask them to look at the property for you.
Conduct Online Searches
Before paying a deposit, do some research on your chosen property and its owner. Conduct an online search for the owner's name, the property address, images of the property and, if possible, who owns the rental website and who pays the property taxes. If you notice any discrepancies, or if you find the same advertising 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.
You should also be wary if the owner asks you to conduct business away from the vacation rental website's communication system. Scammers try to lure prospective renters away from the official communication platform to fake websites so the renter will not realize that a scam is taking place. Check the URL of any website you are asked to switch to, and be especially wary of owners who want to conduct business away from the vacation rental website's official payment system.
Investigate Owner Memberships
If the owner of the property you are considering is a member of a known renters' association, such as the Vacation Rental Managers Association, or advertises the property through a well-known vacation rental website, you can contact that association or website to find out whether the owner is in good standing.
You can also call the tourism office or Convention and Visitors Bureau of the area you plan to visit and ask if the property owner is known to them.
Rent Known Properties
If possible, rent a cottage or apartment that someone you know has already stayed in. You will be able to ask the previous renter about payment methods, rental policies and any other concerns you might have. As you begin to plan your trip, ask family members and friends if they know of available rental properties in the places you would like to visit.
Professionally-managed apartments and cottages are another alternative. VaycayHero, a vacation rental booking website, offers only professionally-managed, vetted properties. VacationRoost, which features Destination Experts who provide customized advice, also rents only professionally-managed properties.
What About Travel Insurance?
Travel insurance policies generally do not cover rental fraud. Your best defenses against vacation rental fraud are rental scam awareness and careful research.