As the vacation rental industry moves online, scam artists are targeting both travelers and hosts with a variety of frauds. Cyber-criminals are experts at exploiting communities that rely on trust and a personal connection, and they are finding that vacation rentals are currently a great target for several reasons:
- the standard practice in the vacation rental industry is for travelers to pay large amounts of money for vacation rentals, long before the stay and sight unseen;
- not everyone understands or uses safe and secure payment methods;
- many people conduct their business in email accounts from email providers that have been repeatedly compromised.
There are many ways that these scammers disguise their frauds, but they are basically after two things: your money and your online identity (which they can use to steal your or someone else’s money). Scams targeting travelers are usually fairly straightforward. A scam artist will create a fake vacation rental listing–usually on Craigslist or another unverified platform–and attempt to trick a potential guest into sending payment for a rental they don’t actually own. Many times these fake ads will steal pictures and information from a legitimate listing without the owner’s knowledge, making the scam difficult to detect at first glance. Victims of this scam may end up on the doorstep of the property only to find their reservation never existed, turning the dream vacation into a nightmare.
Scam artists also frequently target property-owners themselves in an attempt to gain access to their email account (from which to set up a fake listing) or with the common “over-payment” scheme. This scheme is nothing new (remember the Nigerian princes?) and involves the scammer sending a fake check far over the amount of the rental with a request that the excess money be wired back, usually to a 3rd party.
In responding to inquiries there are several red flags that rental owners should be vigilant in identifying:
- Poor grammar and punctuation
- Originating from an international location
- Discrepancies between the actual property and what they are inquiring about.
- Unspecified dates
A major tactic of scammers is to create a sense of urgency in which their target makes a poor decision with good intentions. For travelers this can mean claiming that the desired property has many interested parties and you need to act now to reserve your stay! When targeting owners with the over-payment scam, the criminals often claim to need the money right away and may even become aggressive and threaten legal action.
Here are some useful tips to avoid becoming a victim of one of these scams:
- Use a secure form of payment: be wary of anyone that requests payment by money order or cashier’s check and never send money by wire transfer. Paying by credit card offers the best protection against fraud. Stay Alfred Vacation Rentals only accepts payment by credit card.
- Use a trusted website: companies like VRBO, HomeAway, FlipKey, and TripAdvisor go through great effort to verify their listings and they offer credit card payment as well as additional rental protection. Always be wary when using Craigslist and avoid unverified sites completely.
- Be vigilant: never hesitate to ask questions or request further verification if you have doubts about someone’s legitimacy. Any reputable property owner will be happy to make the extra effort to earn your trust and scammers rarely continue their ruse when challenged.
- Use common sense: remember the adage “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Beware of properties listed far below the price of comparable rentals or that show photos and amenities that just seem fake. Common sense may be your best tool in avoiding a potential scam.