Searching for a last minute vacation to wrap up the summer? Searching the internet is a great place to explore options, however, it is also a great place to run into scams and phony offers. Better Business Bureau of Central New England reminds consumers to shop wisely when looking for vacation rentals.
“With a shift in vacationers opting for rental homes over other accommodations, scammers have found ways to take advantage,” said Nancy B. Cahalen, President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central New England. “They may post listings for homes that don’t belong to them, aren’t actually available, or with misleading photos. Compare options diligently.” One a victim expresses interest, the scammer may request a deposit to secure the place, but when the date of vacation rolls around, things may go south. They may take your money, and leave you without a place to stay.
Another variation targets property owners who are approached by con artists claiming to be professionals who resale timeshares. The scammers promise they have buyers ready to purchase, but actually, they plan on using the property to scam other individuals. Some victims have found images of their home being offered as a vacation rental online.
Look for these red flags:
• Personal forms of communication: Legitimate home sharing companies keep records of messages and can help consumers if something goes wrong. If you get an email about a vacation rental, check the sender's address. Scammers prefer private email accounts to keep their conversations off the record. Emails should come from a vacation rental website and not private email companies like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.
• Misleading pictures: Train your eye to look for images that have been heavily edited. The property you end up with may not be quite as beautiful and may be overpriced. The images may also have been lifted from other websites or postings.
• Extremely low price: If prices seem too good to be true, they probably are. A gorgeous property priced surprisingly low should move you to do further research on the legitimacy of the listing. If you are searching for properties using a legitimate site you can find similar properties in the area and compare prices.
• Payment Method: Criminals and scammers prefer to deal with cash, wire transfers, checks or ask for things like prepaid gift cards. While paying with credit card is the smart way to go, never share that information by email. If entering your credit card information on a website check that the web address includes “https://” as the “s” identifies the site as secure. All information on secure websites is encrypted.
• Odd Questions: Scammers will try to get as much personal information from you as possible to use in future scams or to steal your identity. Do not give out information from your passport, driver’s license, or Social Security Number, especially not over email or via a phone call that you did not initiate.
Tips to outwit scammers
Don’t be a victim. Rather, be a hero who guards your trip against scammers by following these tips:
1. Search a reputable home sharing website or app. Verify companies' legitimacy by searching at bbb.org. Be wary of following emailed links to home sharing sites. Type the URL into the address bar or search your chosen company on the web to verify that you aren’t accessing a convincing counterfeit site. Most home sharing companies vet the individuals who post their property for rent on their sites.
2. Confirm the legitimacy of the offer. Take precautions before taking the plunge and reserving your stay. Confirm that the property exists by searching Google Maps or another mapping website or app. Do an online search on the owner's name, the property address, and even do an image search to ensure the photos are not from a magazine or stolen from another listing. Ask for additional pictures of the property.
3. Know what to expect. Look at different listings before making a reservation, paying a deposit or putting a credit card on file. You can establish a reasonable price for similar properties in the area. If you found the property via a home sharing website, read their host policies as it may prevent them from requesting certain information or forms of payment. Get a copy of the contract and review it before sending a deposit.
4. Read reviews from previous property tenants. Reputable home sharing websites include user ratings and comments; some allow you to post questions for other users to answer. Look for misleading reviews that may be posted by the scammers. Look for reviews about the user's experience while at the rental.
5. There is no such thing as being too cautious. Be a smart shopper and think of ways to protect your wallet. Online payments should be made with a credit card because consumer protection laws allow you to recover your money if a purchase turns out to be a fraud. If something seems fishy, question it. Scammers go after people who aren’t savvy and usually back off if someone seems too knowledgeable. Consider checking out the property in person or having a friend or relative go before paying a security deposit. If you make the same trip annually, renting the same property each year could help you avoid possible scams on a new rental.
If you are targeted by a travel and vacation scam, report it to:
• The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
• The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
• BBB Scam Tracker