Avoid Falling for Vacation Rental Scams: Expert Tips to Keep Your Money and Memories Safe
Updated: Jul 12
As a twenty-seven-year law enforcement veteran and the owner of TNP Vacations, I have seen more than my fair share of rental scams. While you are gearing up for your summer vacations the scammers are gearing up to line their pockets with your money and rob you of your vacation memories. Don’t let them, and stay scam-alert with these tips and tricks.
Unfortunately, scammers target every segment of the population including those who are looking to book a vacation rental. While you are looking for your perfect vacation, scammers are preying on your emotions to con you into stealing your money and your vacation memories. Scammers know that those looking to book a vacation are looking for great locations, locations that are available and vacation rentals that are affordable. So, what are some tips to spot and avoid these scams?
The first tip is to only look for vacation rentals on reputable direct book websites or through a listings direct book website. One advantage of booking through websites like Airbnb and VRBO is the decrease in the likelihood that the vacation rental is a scam. To be listed on these Online Travel Agencies (OTA’s) hosts go through a thorough vetting process including identity checks and address verifications. Although this greatly reduces the number of vacation rental scams on these platforms, they still exist. Be cautious of listings with no reviews or newly listed vacation rentals with blurry photographs. Also, thoroughly read the property description and look for misspellings, poor grammar, or a property description that doesn’t match the photographs.
Although most OTA’s do a great job of preventing scam listings, Booking.com does have a reputation for not catching scams before they happen. This is partially due to their lax system of listing a new vacation rental on their site. While many other OTA’s require proof of identity and address verification, Booking.com does not require these during the set-up process which has led to scammers exploiting this platform to target potential guests. One famous example of this occurred in London last year when over 100 people booked a vacation rental only to find out that the listing was fraudulent. This scam was reported to Booking.com in early July 2022 however the listing wasn’t removed for over ten days allowing even more fraudulent bookings.
Besides the big OTA’s another popular way for people to find vacation rentals is through other marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, 5miles, OfferUp and Craigslist. Although these are great places to find vacation rentals, the number of scams on these platforms is much higher than the OTA’s. This is because there is no vetting process to post a listing on these sites making them ripe for fraud.
There are numerous types of vacation rental scams out there, and scammers are creating new ways to take money out of your wallet every day. Phantom rentals are the most common type. Scammers will create a fake listing including a property description and photographs that they have stolen from real estate websites. They then use a fake address in a popular vacation destination to lure unsuspecting guests to book. Scammers also use empty homes where they know the owner is out of town or the house is vacant. They will then act like the property owner and post fake advertisements requiring the guest to pay upfront often with no rental agreement. Hackers can also hack legitimate advertisements for vacation rentals and change the email address or other contact information which will redirect the consumer to the scammer and not the legitimate owner.
In addition to scammers who don’t actually own the property they are listing, real property owners have scams of themselves that they can run to take money from unsuspecting vacationers. Vacation rental managers who are only out to try and maximize profits and not provide their guests with a meaningful fun vacation can ruin a vacation. These owners lure you to their vacation rental knowing that once you get there your options to move to another vacation rental or to a hotel are limited and costly. These owners will pull a bait and switch scams where they will show you a property that they know is not available, only to send you to another property that is much less desirable when you arrive. These unscrupulous hosts will often double-book a property to hedge their bets against cancellations. If both guests show up, they send the second guest to a less desirable property or just cancel their reservation for fraudulent reasons.
With all of these potential vacation rental scams out there, how do you protect yourself? First, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Vacation rentals are big business and most of the owners will not take a big financial loss just to rent their place out. If you are looking for a vacation rental, make sure you do your research on what the typical price is in that area during the time you will be there. If the deal sounds too good to be true, ask a lot of questions. Second, if you don’t use one of the reputable OTA’s and you book directly with the owner (my preferred method of booking) check the website for to make sure it looks professional like our website for our vacation rental in Rockport, Texas www.CatchinParadise.com. Check for high-quality images, detailed property and area descriptions, privacy policies and professionally written rental agreements. Check for typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistencies in the description. Use Google Maps to get a street view of the property to verify it looks the same as the posted pictures. Check local government agencies like Appraisal Districts to see who the owner of the property is and if they match the person that is renting you the vacation rental.
Many of the OTA’s offer secure payment methods through their platform and provide an insurance policy that protects the guest in case of fraud. If you are booking directly with the owner, make sure you get a professional-looking, signed rental agreement that spells out the lease terms, payment requirements and cancellation policy. Watch out for red flags including paying through wire transfer, prepaid debit cards or payment methods like Zelle that instantly transfer the money. Instead, use your credit card or an online platform like PayPal that offers guarantees and refunds for fraudulent activity.
Finally, if you are a victim of a vacation rental scam what should you do? First, report it to your financial institution immediately. Depending on the method of payment, you may be able to stop payment before it is processed or at least stop any future payments. If the scam involved a fictitious advertisement, phantom rental, computer hacking, or an empty house rental, contact local law enforcement and file a police report for the criminal violation. Contact the listing website and report the fraud so they can hopefully prevent any future fraud. Finally, if the fraud occurred in the United States, report it to the Federal Trade Commission and the IC3. The FTC is responsible for consumer protection and the IC3 is the Internet Crime Complaint Center that accepts complaints for crimes that occur over the internet.