Early spring weather in many parts of the country has consumers starting early on vacation plans. Keep in mind that travel is a lucrative area for scammers.

"Internet sites, like Craigslist, or other online classified ads, are a popular place for consumers searching for last minute rental bargains or homeowners who are hoping to earn more rental income during the summer vacation season," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly. "Unfortunately, these websites are also popular with scam artists looking to lure unsuspecting consumers into their traps."

Upfront payments are red flags

Consumers should use caution when dealing with a company that demands advance payment for travel packages. It's one thing to pay an up-front deposit but quite another to pay the entire amount.

"We have not traveled yet, but I received a call today saying that we had to pay an additional amount as a guarantee," Linda, of Sweet Home, Ore., wrote in a post on ConsumerAffairs. We already paid almost $2000 for our vacation package. The package was to include hotel, etc. Why would I have to pay more money up front. I was foolish to bite on this scam."

Scammers will structure their ads in a way that forces consumers to respond quickly and often ask that rental payments be wire-transferred in order to guarantee reservations. Kelly noted that consumers who own vacation homes can also be targeted by these schemes.

Property owners can be scammed too

Scam artists will often look for victims who are advertising items online and then "accidently" send a check for an amount that is larger than necessary. Scammers then send the homeowner a request use a wire-transfer to return the excess money.

Kelly said that it can take a week or more for banks to identify counterfeit checks or money orders. Unsuspecting consumers who fall for these schemes eventually learn that the rental checks they received are worthless, but not before they have transferred hundreds or thousands of dollars to the scammers.

Consumers should also be suspicious of vacation home listings that request detailed personal data, such as social security numbers or bank account information - supposedly to verify your "credit worthiness" as a renter. In reality, these listings are a type of "phishing" scheme, used by identity thieves to steal personal information.

When renting a vacation property:

  • Get the details about the transaction in writing, preferable in the form of a contract, including the property information, dates of the stay, total price, and exactly what is included and what is not.
  • Ask for references from past renters.
  • Speak to the owners/managers on the telephone instead of exclusively through email.
  • Do research online for possible complaints against the owner or rental company.
  • Be careful when reserving properties far from home. It is easy to get scammed if you can't verify the condition and location of properties pictured on the Internet.
  • Proceed cautiously if asked to make an international payment or use a money order or wire transfer.
  • If possible, pay with a credit card. Credit cards typically offer protection in the event that your accommodation is not supplied as promised.
  • Never give out personal financial information (bank account number, social security number, etc.)
  • Consider using a reputable rental company or real estate agent for peace of mind and to assist you in your search.

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