Vacation Rental Scams

I just started working on our 2015 accommodation schedule and I’m already spotting fraudulent listings on VRBO, Flipkey, Homeway et al. I usually spot a scam before I inquire about a property, but sometimes, after a long, late-night session on the laptop, I miss the telltale signs. Last night for example, I sent almost 20 inquiries out for a January rental. I woke this morning to find the following message in my inbox:

“Hello Nan, we would love you stay with us at this convenient, amenity/value packed property! Since you book with us first time I can give 75% discount if you wire complete payment within 48 hours.”

Uh-huh. I’ll get right on that.

If only vacation rental scams were all this obvious!  Unfortunately, perpetrators are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the problem is mushrooming into an epidemic in hot markets.

Two types of scams are most common: 1.) Fake listings (the property being advertised doesn’t exist) and, 2.) Intercepted communications between a legitimate owner and renter. In the latter scenario, the perpetrator of the scam hacks the owner’s account on a vacation rental site like VRBO.  He then becomes the point of contact with the potential renter, arranging for money to be sent directly to him instead of the legitimate owner. Either way, your best defense is common sense and attention to detail.

Here are some warning signs that you are about to be scammed:

1.) A price that is too good to be true. Research your target vacation spot before you send out the first inquiry. Study the going rate for the area. Any property that is priced too far under the average for the area is suspicious.

2.) The “owner” requests a wire transfer payment, usually to a location outside of the country where the property is located.  Wire transfers are hard to trace and cannot be reversed once the perpetrator has collected the money.  Use Paypal or a credit card, or the secure, guaranteed payment option to reduce your risk (Note that I said “reduce” . The guaranteed payment option does not cover everything and some sites appear to have better reputations for issuing refunds than others.)

3.) The “owner” is willing to negotiate too much, too quickly. I often negotiate the rate of a property, especially if there is a good reason for a reduction (we are renting in low season, we are willing to commit to a longer lease term, etc.).  Owners are often willing to make an adjustment in these cases. But if the “owner” responds too quickly with a drastic reduction in the price or terms, something isn’t right.

4.) The photos of a property look suspiciously similar to (or are exact copies of) photos of other listings. In a recent search on VRBO, I noticed that the same 6 photos appeared on several listings in one neighborhood.  But it isn’t always this obvious.  More sophisticated scam artists will change something in the photo (the background on the same living room for example).  Any photo that looks like it has been altered is a warning sign.

5.) The location of the property is not verifiable.  If the owner has not specified a location for the property (i.e., an exact address) the listing will appear on a vacation rental site’s map view, but in a different color (on VRBO for example, a listing without an exact address will appear as a small gray dot).  This could be an indication that you are renting a property that doesn’t exist.  Sure, it is possible that a legitimate owner simply doesn’t want to give out the exact location of their property, but why risk it?  (Note: Even if you can verify that a property exists, you might still be dealing with someone who is not the owner, so verifying the existence of a property is a good first step but not sufficient to protect you from fraud).

6.) You can’t reach the owner on the telephone number listed. Check the information provided about the property owners (Bill from Washington, D.C. for example) and call the telephone number listed. If you can’t reach the owner after repeated attempts, this is a bad sign. (If you reach the owner and your instinct says “this guy’s name isn’t Bill and he isn’t in Washington, D.C.”, trust your gut.)  If the “owner” emails you and asks that you call a phone number that is different from what appears in the listing, this is highly suspicious.

7.) Inaccuracies in the property listing and/or canned descriptions. Sometimes the warning sign here is really obvious (I recently saw a listing in Florida that described the house as being “steps from the Pacific Ocean”), but sometimes it isn’t. Read the description carefully. Owners will generally write the description about their home in very personal terms. A vague property description that looks canned and/or includes descriptive text that appears in other listings is suspicious.

8.) The time stamp on an email response to your inquiry suggests that the “owner” is not in the right time zone. If the owner, Bill, supposedly lives in Washington, D.C. and you emailed him at 2pm EST, you shouldn’t be getting a response back from Bill at 4am. Is it possible that Bill is an early riser? Sure. But if responses to your inquiries and follow up emails always come at an odd time, be wary.

9.) Grammar or spelling suggests a non-native speaker. Of course, if you travel internationally, you will have language differences to contend with. But if your owner is Bill from Washington, DC, repeated mistakes in English grammar would be suspicious.

10.) The email address of the responder doesn’t jive with the owner’s profile information. Bill from Washington DC probably does not have a yahoo.com.uk email address.

At the end of the day, renting through vacation rental web sites includes some amount of risk.  Whether the risk outweighs the advantages is a personal decision.  As a flexpat, I sleep in a rented accommodation every night, either a hotel or a vacation rental.  To date, I’ve never been scammed, but I’ve come close on two occasions.  In both instances, I either ignored or did not catch one of the warning signs listed above.

Happy (safe) renting!

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