Red flags and top tips to help you defeat vacation rental crooks: Internet Scambusters #1,019
Excitement can quickly turn to disappointment and heartbreak when you book a fake vacation rental.
But there are plenty of warning signs to alert you of potential trouble and lots of tips to follow to keep you safe.
We have them all for you in this week's definitive guide to vacation rental scams.
Let's get started…
Beat the Vacation Rental Scammers!
Hundreds of vacationers, maybe thousands, are going to be disappointed in the coming weeks when they discover their vacation rental doesn't exist or that someone is already living there.
July is the peak season for vacation home rental scams. Travelers fall for these tricks every year. Yet just a few simple precautions can prevent that heartbreaking moment when, full of excitement, a family discovers they've been conned.
Overall, home rental scams hit more than five million Americans every year. Often, the victims are looking for regular, long-term leases but crooks find it just as easy to trick short-term vacation renters via online classified sites and even legitimate rental companies.
They steal fabulous property photos from the Internet, adding tempting descriptions along with what seem like bargain prices to lure in their victims. But they usually give themselves away to anyone who takes the trouble to check out their offer.
If you plan to rent a vacation property in the coming weeks, here are the red flags to watch for:
- Bargain prices. Compare the cost of the home you plan to rent with similar accommodations in the same location. If the price is significantly lower and it's not a last-minute booking, there either has to be a reason that's not being disclosed or it's a scam.
- You can't speak to the owner. Although bookings are normally made directly online, letting postings should include a phone number that you can call and check. Don't be fobbed off with excuses about why you can't speak to the supposed owner.
- You're booking through a letting agency, but the supposed homeowner wants you to go off-site to progress the booking and pay. That's because agencies have strict checks in place to identify scammers, so they try to persuade you to switch to messaging and payment apps or fake websites. Never agree to this.
- You're asked to pay via an online money transfer app like Zelle. This isn't necessarily a scam, but you need to know that money paid via these apps is usually non-recoverable. Same goes for money-wiring services. Ideally, always pay by a credit card, which protects against fraud. Travel insurance generally does not cover rental fraud, although some individual agencies may do so.
- The "owner" tries to rush you into making your booking. While it's true that attractive, well-priced vacation rentals tend to book up quickly, always allow yourself enough time to check them out.
- There are no reviews, or they can't be verified. Alternatively, beware of all five-star reviews. It's highly unusual for every single review to give the maximum score. Travelers are not that easy to satisfy. Also, check the wording of reviews, looking for poor spelling and bad grammar. Copy a line or two of a review and search to see if it has been used elsewhere.
More Vacation Rental Tips
Other tips to follow:
- Do a Google street search to check that a home actually exists and it looks like the advertised one.
- Book through an established letting agency and then follow their own security rules. There are scores of these agencies and they have a reputation to protect.
- If you find yourself coming at the issue from the other end -- where your search for a property or location returns a local agency or one you've never heard of -- research them thoroughly before dealing with them. Beware of any agency that doesn't have a published security policy.
- Beware of hidden charges -- for example, for utilities and Wi-Fi. During COVID, some owners, even legitimate ones, added extra charges for deep cleaning. And if there's a security or damages deposit, make sure you know the terms for getting it back.
- Ask friends or relatives for recommendations for homes they've previously rented.
- Beware of disclosing personal financial details to an individual advertiser/owner. Make sure you've checked them out thoroughly before giving account details and other confidential information.
- Ask the owner about local sights and attractions. If they're genuine, they'll know.
- If you're really suspicious, you might consider doing a landlord screening check. An example would be MySmartRenter.com, although we can't vouch for them or any other similar service. Costs start at $20.
Owners Targeted Too
Vacationers are not the only scam victims in the rental home market. Owners are sometimes targeted too. Typically, scammers use the overpayment trick, sending a dud check and then asking for part of the payment to be wired back to them before the fraud is uncovered.
These crooks often give themselves away by having unusual email addresses such as a bunch of letters or by giving too much information about themselves to try to convince you they're a great renter. They may also claim that their dates are totally flexible or not even mention a specific date at all.
Watch out too if they ask you to send keys by regular mail or seek lockbox codes well in advance of the supposed visit.
You want your vacation rental to be memorable for the right reasons, so make time to thoroughly check it -- and the owner.
This Week's Scam Alerts
Shooting Victim Fundraisers: Crooks are cashing in on the recent wave of mass shootings. They may claim to be from legitimate charities or set up fraudulent crowdfunding sites, using messaging and robocalls to solicit contributions. If you want to help, do your homework on the fundraisers first.
Twitter Verification: Scammers are targeting Twitter users, who have blue-badge check mark verification (which anyone can get subject to checks). The crooks send direct messages saying the victim's badge has been suspended and that they must complete an appeal form, which calls for their sign-on and other details. Twitter doesn't send messages like this, so if you get one, it's a scam.
Phone Scam Losses: Sixty-eight million Americans handed over almost $40 billion to phone scammers last year, according to a new report from Truecaller. Fraudsters offering fake or overpriced vehicle warranties and Medicare tricks were the most common scams.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!