Avoid a vacation rental scam by watching out for these flags

We're hearing about an avalanche of scams involving rental listings.

Image: Sathish kumar Periyasamy via Pixabay

Some of us may be planning our first vacation in years, and the getaway is definitely much needed. But if you’re planning to rent a condo or a home, you need to be super careful.  

We’re hearing about an avalanche of scams involving rental listings. Con artists will lift a rental listing from a web site with the photos and everything, and then put it on a different rental website with their own contact information. Can you believe it? You see an amazing rental, you contact the person, you send in a deposit and you think you’re booked. Except when you drive 500 or 1,000 miles, the place is already being rented by someone else with a real contract, or the place may not even exist. That would really make your head explode.

Flags to look out for:
  • One big warning sign a listing is a fake: A demand for immediate payment on another platform. If you’re going through Vrbo or Airbnb or whoever and are directed to leave that site and make an online payment through Zelle or Venmo or Square, don’t do it. These P2P payments are really difficult to get back if you get scammed.
  • Super cheap rates. If you’re looking at various properties in a particular vacation spot, you should have an idea of the range of rental prices. If one or two are unbelievably inexpensive, there may be a bad reason — they may not be legit. If it’s too good to be true, take a pass.
  • Grainy images or peculiar-looking images. To sniff out imposter listings, you could take a screen shot of the photos and do a google image search of photos and see whether the photos show up elsewhere. That place you think is in Myrtle Beach could be in New Jersey or Europe. 
  • Suspicious reviews. If you see multiple reviews using the same phrases, or reviews that just sound weird, consider that they may not be genuine reviews from real customers.
Tips to avoid rental scams:
  • Get a copy of the contract before sending money. Check that the address of the property actually exists. Look on Google maps street view. If the property is located in some kind of resort, call the front desk and confirm the place is real and its location.
  • Don’t ever wire money or pay for a vacation rental with a prepaid card or gift card.
  • Don’t be rushed by the supposed owner into a making a decision for fear the place is going to be rented within a few hours. If you can’t do your homework and miss out on this place, so be it.
    To report a suspected scam rental, contact local and state authorities.

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Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers' health, safety and financial security. Prior to her current role, she worked as a journalist and columnist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio's largest daily newspaper. She is the recipient of dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, Best Business Writer in Ohio, and National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis. Among the accomplishments she’s most proud of is receiving a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected at least 15 million customers nationwide. Her work caused Verizon to reach an $80 million settlement with the FCC, the largest ever imposed at that time. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons and a dog. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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