Con Watch: Vacation Rental Scams

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

Recently, the Delaware attorney general issued a warning about scams involving vacation rental properties. Many people will be renting a summer vacation home in the days and weeks ahead in order to get that perfect place at the beach, mountains, or some other popular vacation venue. While it is generally safer to work directly with licensed real estate agents and brokers, there are many excellent websites such as VRBO and HomeAway where you can find wonderful vacation homes without having to incur the costs of a real estate agent. Many people will also go to Craigslist, Airbnb, and other similar sites to find their perfect vacation rental. These websites can be easy and efficient ways to locate a great vacation home. Unfortunately, they are also a great way for scam artists to steal money from unwary vacationers.

What to Know When Using Vacation Rental Sites

Anything popular with the public is also popular with scammers, and reports are increasing about scams involving people paying a non-existent room or a place that the scammer does not own. Many of the victims do not find out that they have been scammed until they show up at the rental only to learn that it is not for rent and their money is gone.

The scam usually starts with a listing that looks quite legitimate, and there is a good reason for that. The listing is often a real online listing that has been copied by the scammer who merely puts in his or her own name and contact information. The price is usually quite low, which attracts a lot of interested people. Because there are so many people competing for the low-priced property the vacationer is told he or she has to act fast and wire money to the owner, who is often outside of the country. Wiring money is a scammer’s first choice for a payment method because it is impossible to get your money back after you discover that you have been defrauded.

Another telltale sign that the listing is a scam occurs when the “homeowner” asks to communicate with the victim outside of the rental website’s communication system.

Tips to Avoid Vacation Rental Scams

  1. First, as always, if the price is too good to be true, it usually is.
  2. Be wary of vacation home owners who live outside of the country. Peruse any on-line listings for vacation rentals carefully for improper grammar and misspellings. Many vacation scams originate overseas where English may not be the primary language of the scammer.
  3. Never send your deposit, security deposit, or rent by a wire transfer or a cashier’s check. Use a credit card, PayPal or some other payment system from which you can retrieve your funds if the transaction is fraudulent.
  4. Only communicate with owners through the rental website and make payments through the site’s payment system.
  5. Verify the legitimate owner of the property. There are several ways to do this.
    1. Look up who is listed as the owner from the online records of the tax assessor’s office of the city or town where the property is located. If it doesn’t match the name of the person attempting to rent you the home, it may be a scam.
    2. Google the name of the owner with the word “scam” next to his or her name and see if anything comes up to make you concerned.
    3. Search online to see if you can find a duplicate listing for the home indicating a different owner than the person offering to rent it to you.
    4. If the property is listed with a legitimate real estate agency, contact them to find out who the owner is.
  6. Always get a written lease agreement for any vacation rental and make sure that you understand all of the terms of the agreement.

Summer vacations can create wonderful memories, but those memories can be painful if your summer vacation involves getting scammed. Fortunately, by taking a few simple precautions you can relax and enjoy your time off. You’ve earned it!