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Avoiding Online Rental Scams

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Last week, the news program 20/20 aired a travel special called “Vacation Confidential.” On the whole, the program was interesting and informative, but there was a particular segment on vacation rental scams that seemed worthy of mentioning here.

Travelers are increasingly turning to the internet to book flights, hotels and to purchase travel insurance. For the price savvy, sites such as Travelocity and Expedia allow visitors to make reservations with verified businesses at deep discounts. There are also sites such as VRBO which allow private rental owners to advertise their lodging.

Then, there are the shadier options.

Craigslist and Backpage, two sites where anyone can list classified ads, are popular tools for scammers. “Owners” of vacation rentals will often request money to be wired via Western Union or sent to the bank account of a middle man as a deposit. Usually, the purchaser will receive a contract to sign and the property “owners” will promise to meet travelers upon arrival to give them the keys.

Then, nobody shows up.

Unfortunately, there is little recourse for travelers in these situations.  Rental scammers are nearly impossible to track down and whatever money was sent to them is likely gone for good.  Most travel insurance policies will not cover any type of rental fraud. Some policies offer financial default as part of trip cancellation or interruption coverage, but that is only good if a company experiences complete suspension of operations due to financial troubles — and this is completely different from fraud.

So how can you avoid becoming a victim of online rental scams? Vacation Rentals Watchdog (vrwd.org) offers the following tips to make sure your booking is legitimate:

  • Gather detailed information. Know what you are looking for in a vacation home and make sure those amenities are included. Find out the homeowner’s policies about pets, smoking, security deposits, cleaning, refunds, cancellations, damages, utility costs, arrival time, checkout time and maximum number of occupants.
  • Receive a written agreement. Always ask for confirmation of your vacation rental in writing and ensure you receive copies of cancellation and refund policies.
  • Examine the photos. Only consider rentals where you can see pictures of all the important rooms – each bedroom, kitchen and living room. Ask where and when the photos were taken.
  • Talk to the owners directly. This will give you an overall idea about the owner and whether or not he/she is responsive to your needs.
  • Try to pay with a credit card. Credit card companies may allow consumers to dispute a charge within 60 days of purchase. If possible, avoid making payments with personal checks.
  • Check vacation rental databases. See if anyone else has reported any complaints about a vacation home on review websites.

Do your homework, watch for the red flags of scammers and stick to booking with reputable websites.  This will drastically reduce your chances of falling victim to vacation rental fraud.