Renters Beware…Tips for Spotting Online Scams when Booking your Summer Vacation Rentals

Most people book their summer vacations months in advance. I wish I could say I was one of those people.  With four kids and a super busy schedule, it was June before it hit me that I better start looking now, with only six weeks until vacation. Our desired destination was the southern coast of Maine. I spent a few late nights scouring the internet to see if I could find something reasonable that would accommodate my large family (and possibly our dog) for the dates we needed. I started searching the typical sites, like Homeaway, VRBO, and AirBnB, but I wasn’t having much luck. I did a Google search for Maine beach rentals and a couple of Craigslist posts popped up. Both posts were in the area we were looking for, and both were large enough for my family’s needs for a reasonable price. I inquired, and quickly received a response from both listings, each saying that my dates were available. My husband and I chose one of the properties, based on size and location, and contacted the owner.

This is where the nightmare begins. After communicating with the owner via Craigslist, I was sent a rental agreement with the property address and payment details. After some research and a few red flags, I realized that this was a scam. The address was valid, but the person I was speaking to was not the owner listed. This house was not available for this price, or even to be rented out at all.

Disappointed, but still willing to believe that not all Craigslist ads are fraudulent, I proceeded to contact the owner of the smaller home that we had decided against originally. The response I had received from this person seemed more personable and the questions I had asked were answered in detail, without any one word answers or grammatically incorrect responses. I did the same research on this property, and this time everything seemed to check out…until I received emails pressuring me to send the full payment ASAP because I was at risk of losing this property to other interested renters. After digging a little deeper, I realized that this posting, although a little more sophisticated, was also a scam.

Luckily for me, I picked up on some red flags, and was able to identify the scam before I became a victim of it. Aside from losing hard earned money, nothing would have been worse than packing up my family of 6 (and dog) and getting to our destination only to find out that we had no place to stay. I want to prevent that from happening to anyone else.

Here are some tips I’ve learned along the way:

Stick to the reputable websites: Homeaway, VRBO, and AirBnB are good sites if you are interested in renting a home. These sites require property owners to register, and allow you to contact the owners through their site and monitor the activity. They also provide reviews from previous renters which can be helpful.

Research the property address: Do a Google search, and look at sites like Zillow or any realtor listing that might come up. For the first property, when I searched the address, a realtor listing came up with the same pictures and the same property description, word for word. This was a red flag for me, so I went to the assessor’s online database for the town, which lists the current owner.  This also did not match. I did the same for the second property. This time the name of the owner and the name on the rental agreement matched, but the email address I was asked to send the payment to via Paypal was that of someone with a different name. We later found this exact home, with the exact same photos and description listed on Homeaway by the owner. Scammers will take these photos and property descriptions and repost them as their own in an attempt to steal your money.

Be cautious about deposit requirements: Both properties required the full balance to be paid up front, including a security deposit, which allegedly would have been returned if there was no damage to the property. A reputable renter would generally ask for a deposit at the time of booking to reserve the dates, with the balance paid at a later date, or at time of check in. It was a red flag for me when I received several consecutive emails asking for immediate payment in full in order to keep my reservation. It also made me suspicious when these emails were sent at odd hours (middle of the night).

Verify payment methods: Ask about the preferred method of payment. Most renters will take a major credit card. The deposit can be charged to the card, and, rather than a security deposit, there is usually an agreement where any damage or incidentals can be charged to the card upon checkout. For the first property, the payment method was a wire directly to a Wells Fargo Account, which just didn’t seem right to me. With the second property, I asked right away what the payment method would be. They told me Paypal, which made me feel more comfortable because I knew it was a secure method, which I could then tie to my credit card and have even more security. When the payment information was sent to me, it instructed me to pay through Paypal Friends and Family. I wasn’t familiar with this product, but upon researching it, Paypal Friends and Family transactions are not retained by Paypal and you cannot dispute any transactions. You should be suspicious of anyone requesting this method when they are not your family or your friend.

The bottom line is, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. While everyone is looking for the best deal, there are some things you just shouldn’t compromise on. Stick to reputable websites, use a rental agency, or take a ride to your destination and book something in person. It may cost a little more, but summer vacation comes only once a year, and knowing you will be able to enjoy it makes it all worthwhile.

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