Although it is still the middle of winter, there are many media reports stating an increase in vacation rental scams. Intersections’ Consumer Security Adviser Neal O’Farrell shares some insights on this disturbing trend and offers up some tips on how you can protect yourself.
Believe it or not, now is the time that many people start making decisions about their vacation, especially with Easter and spring break not far away. And now is also the time that scammers start to ramp up their attacks to take advantage of this.
That's probably why consumers around the country are being warned to watch out for a new wave of scams based around vacation rentals. It's a story we covered about a year ago but is fast becoming a favorite for scammers around the world.
In recent cases, scammers are stealing the email passwords of genuine renters using vacation rental websites, and posing as the real owner are advertising vacation properties, accepting deposits, and then simply vanishing; leaving the real homeowner, the victims, and the websites to pick up the pieces.
In the most advanced scams, scammers are creating entire websites devoted to highlighting a variety of rental properties around the world at attractive prices. The sites come complete with detailed photos and descriptions of the properties, information on local attractions, testimonials from happy renters, and even currency exchange calculators. All designed to convince customers that the site is real.
The scammers use international payment systems to collect multiple deposits for properties that are not theirs to rent. And in many cases the properties are actually real and available to rent — just in case the vacation-seeker decides to try to look at the property using Google Earth. If scammers can take multiple deposits, for thousands of dollars at a time, for the same non-existent rental, you can imagine how lucrative the scam is.
And this is where the scam can get particularly heartless. Imagine that you and your family have booked and paid for your dream vacation. Everyone has taken time off work, you renewed your passports, paid for a pet sitter, and purchased a bunch of expensive plane tickets.
After hours of exhaustive travel you arrive at your dream rental only to find someone else is renting it, or the owner has never heard of you and has never rented the property. And because it's the height of tourist season there isn't a single room anywhere nearby to rent instead. It can be emotionally and financially heartbreaking for victims. And if the vacation is purchased directly from the scammers, there's no recourse, refund, or insurance.
In one recent case, an unlucky homeowner in Florida was plagued by an endless stream of angry vacationers demanding to get into his property — which they believed they had rented — or get their money back. After some victims became so threatening, the homeowner had to post signs on his lawn that the property was never for rent in the first place. And it's easy to understand why victims might assume that the real homeowner is in on the scam.
And the Chicago Tribune recently ran the story of one such victim, who paid a deposit of $4,500 to rent a vacation home that simply did not exist. And while the victim was careful enough to rent the property through a reputable online broker called HomeAway.com, she was still out of luck. Many of these sites do little if anything to verify the authenticity of their advertisers. And in this case, the crooks had gone to the trouble of hacking into the real owner's email account and launching the scam that way.
But with some sites hosting property listings by more than half a million property owners and managers, it's impossible to police such a large pool of properties all around the world.
Unfortunately, there's very little you can do to avoid such a scam. The obvious protection is to not pay upfront for rental listings you find on Craigslist or in unsolicited emails. But even going through reputable online sites and brokers is no guarantee either.
There are some things you can do to at least reduce the risks:
• Use an established and reputable online broker and see if they have some form of rental guarantee or insurance.
• Pay with a credit card or PayPal if you can but never by wire transfer.
• See if you can get any referrals from friends who might have some favorite vacation properties they can recommend.
• Never respond to an email offering vacation rentals. Most legitimate renters won't spam you.
Learn more about identity theft protection.