Beware of vacation rental scams as spring approaches

Photo (c) mihailomilovanovic - Getty Images

Tip-offs include altered ads and a request for a deposit before a lease is signed

Spring means warmer weather. Warmer weather means vacations. Vacations mean rentals. And rentals mean… scams?

Consumers looking to take a trip following a year of the pandemic can’t let the excitement of being out of COVID-19’s reach get ahead of their need to be vigilant about vacation rental scams. 

If you’re already searching for vacation rentals online, it’s likely you’re probably looking for something unique or very affordable. That’s the trap that scammers have set for consumers -- ads for vacation rentals that tell you what you want to see and get you to thinking, “Gee, that’s too good to pass up!” Unfortunately, behind many of those ads are scammers ready to take your money and leave you without a roof over your head once you get to your vacation site.

Exercise caution

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s golden rule when you’re looking for a rental is to stay skeptical and look out for red flags. The agency says some tip-offs to a scam may include:

Altered ads: Scammers have been known to hijack an honest-to-goodness real rental or real estate listing by simply changing the email address or other contact information and placing the modified ad on another site. They might even go as far as using the name of the person who posted the original ad in their altered, fake one. In other cases, scammers have been known to hijack the email accounts of property owners on reputable vacation rental websites such as VRBO.

Consumers should research both the owner and the listing, as well as reviews from other renters, to avoid falling into this trap. If you find the same ad listed under a different name, that’s a tell-tale clue that it may be a scam. 

Phantom rentals: Some rip-off artists make up listings for places that aren’t for rent or, worse, don’t even exist. The scammers then try to lure you in with the come-on of a low rental price or great amenities -- maybe a hot tub, daily maid service, or a free happy hour. The FTC says the scammer’s goal is to get your money before you find out the truth.

Georgia’s Attorney General offers another good way to search for phantom rentals: Google Maps. “Consider checking the location and neighborhood through Google Earth or Google Street View to get a sense of whether you would feel safe and comfortable staying there,” said Attorney General Chris Carr in his forewarning of vacation rental scams.

Another surefire search practice is doing an online search of the rental company. Enter its name plus words like “review,” “complaint,” or “scam.” If you find bad reviews, you may want to look elsewhere.

The signs of a scam

When you’re online looking for the perfect vacation rental, it might be smart to keep a list of these other red flags beside your computer: 

You’re asked to wire money or give a renter credit card information: Stop right there if this happens because this is the surest sign of a scam. “There’s never a good reason to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, first month’s rent, or vacation rental fee. That’s true even if they send you a contract first. Wiring money is the same as sending cash — once you send it, you have no way to get it back,” the FTC warns.

You’re asked for a security deposit or first month’s rent: That’s a normal course of business once you’ve signed a lease or met the agent in person, but if you haven’t, then it’s a bad idea. Two things to remember: 

  • If the “rental agent” gets pushy about a deposit before you’ve signed a lease, beware; and

  • If you can’t visit a rental in person, the FTC suggests you find someone you trust who can do that for you and confirm that the listing is honest. 

They say they’re out of the country: The FTC considers this a huge red flag. “If they say they have a plan to get the keys into your hands. It might involve a lawyer or an ‘agent’ working on their behalf. Some scammers even create fake keys,” the agency said.

“Don’t send money to them overseas. If you can’t meet in person, see the apartment, or sign a lease before you pay, keep looking. What if the rental itself is overseas? Paying with a credit card or through a reputable vacation rental website with its own payment system are your safest bets.”

The “international” thing came up several times in ConsumerAffairs research on vacation scams. One interesting thing to watch out for are the timestamps of the emails/messages that the rental agent sends. On the Community section of Airbnb, one person noted the disparity in times in their communication with a property owner. The owner claimed to be in Madrid, Spain, but all of the email timestamps appeared to be U.S. Eastern Time -- a five-hour difference.

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