Searching the Internet for deals is an excellent way to stretch your vacation budget, but it’s also a way to come in contact with lots of scammers. Better Business Bureau® Serving Eastern Oklahoma warns consumers to be on the lookout for fraudulent rental property postings, travel and vacation scams. According to the 2016 BBB® Risk Report the median loss for travel and vacation scams was $847. It was one of the top three most risky scams affecting military families, veterans and individuals over 55 years of age.
How the Scam Works
As more people choose property rentals over typical vacation accommodations, scammers have found ways to take advantage. Con artists may post listings for properties that do not belong to them, are not currently available, or that mislead the consumer with dishonest photos. Once you are interested in the property, scammers will claim they need a "security deposit" and make off with your money leaving you without a place to stay. Often victims don't realize they've been scammed until weeks or months later once they have arrived at their destination.
Another variation of the scam 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.
Red Flags to Look For
BBB suggests you look for these red flags to identify scammers:
- Personal forms of communication: Legitimate home sharing companies keep records of messages and can help consumers if something goes wrong. If you receive an email concerning a vacation rental, check the sender's address. Scammers will prefer to use private email accounts to keep their conversations off the record. Emails should come from a vacation rental website and not prevalent 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 set off an alarm and 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 give out that information over 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 often 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.
Five Tips for Outwitting Scammers
Don’t be a victim. Rather, be a hero who guards your trip against scammers by following these tips:
- Start by searching on a reputable home sharing website or app. Verify that companies are legitimate by searching for them on BBB’s website. Also be wary of following emailed links to home sharing sites. It’s always best to type the URL into the address bar yourself 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.
- Confirm the legitimacy of the offer. It's easy to get excited about a beautiful vacation rental, but it's best to 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. Conduct an online search on the owner's name, the property address, and you can even do an image search to ensure the photos are not from a magazine or stolen from another listing. Asking for additional pictures of the property is another way to identify scammers.
- Know what to expect. It's best to look at different listings before making a reservation, paying a deposit or putting a credit card on file. By looking around, you can establish what 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 thoroughly before sending a deposit.
- Read multiple 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. Also be on the lookout for misleading reviews that may be posted by the scammers. Look for reviews that include specifics about the user's experience while at the rental.
- There is no such thing as being too precautious. Be a smart shopper and always 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. And 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:
If you’ve had an experience on a home sharing website, leave a business review here.
BBB is sharing more advice on staying safe from scammers while on vacation all month long.