As COVID vaccination rates continue to climb and summer destinations beckon, more people are making plans to get away as soon as possible. Yes, we all want a great deal on travel accommodations, but it’s also important to do some research to ensure you don’t get ripped off on the way to your first vacation in 18 months whether you’re booking an Airbnb or a rental.
While it may have never happened to you, millions of Americans have been deceived by scammers when trying to find the perfect home away from home. These crooks often hijack rental ads, according to the Federal Trade Commission, by advertising properties that don’t exist or aren’t available, in order to trick people into sending money they will likely never get back.
A survey from Apartment List found that 5.2 million U.S. renters have lost money from rental fraud. Of those who lost cash in scams, one in three gave away more than $1,000, typically after paying a security deposit or rent on a fake or fraudulent property.
Here are 10 ways to tell if you are being scammed on your vacation rental or Airbnb:
SKETCHY PAYMENT METHOD REQUESTED
If you are asked to pay by cash, check or wire transfer, don’t do it, says Melanie Fish, a travel expert with Vrbo. Using a credit card is the safest way to pay for vacation rentals and most legitimate companies wouldn’t ask for cash, checks or transfers. They also won’t ask for your banking account details or your social security number. Ever.
EMAILS AND TEXTS FROM OUTSIDE THE AIRBNB OR RENTAL PLATFORM
If you are asked to communicate and/or pay away from the official platform for a rental company, it’s a red flag. Don’t respond to email or text communications that don’t match others you initially received. Paying outside of a trusted platform could result in phishing or payments ending up in the hands of someone other than the intended host, Fish says.
SECURITY DEPOSIT REQUIRED BEFORE AGREEMENT SIGNED
If a host or their “agent” tries to pressure you into paying a large security deposit before you sign a lease or other other rental agreement, be suspicious because it’s probably a scam.
OWNER OF RENTAL OR AIRBNB IS CONVENIENTLY OUT OF THE COUNTRY
If a host or owner tells you they are out of the country, but have a plan to get keys into your hands, from their ‘lawyer’ or someone acting as their agent, don’t fall for it. Some scammers, notes the Federal Trade Commission, even create fake keys as they try to concoct a plausible story for why you should send money to them overseas.
BAD PHOTOS, ALL 5-STAR REVIEWS
Low resolution and poor quality images can be signs that something is not quite right, Fish says. Same goes for glowing reviews that seem too perfect. Companies on the up-and-up understand the value of honest reviews from real people and take the good with the bad. Those not-so-great reviews offer feedback and a way to help businesses improve the experience for guests.
BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS, BAD REVIEWS
This may be a sign that the photos at the Airbnb or rental were taken years ago, or that the host doesn’t maintain the property, or clean as well as they should. Proceed with extreme caution, and maybe a mop.
HIGHEST PRICE ON THE BLOCK — BY FAR
Yes, you are justified in wondering why similar listings in the neighborhood are available at a much lower price point. If you don’t spend a few days comparison shopping for other properties, you could get stuck with a place that costs far more than you needed to spend.
AIRBNB OR RENTAL WEBSITE NOT SECURE
Look at the top left corner of your screen. If there isn’t a small lock icon in your browser window, next to the URL, the website you are using to book a vacation rental isn’t secure. That’s not good. Secure websites encrypt your personal data to help keep payment information safe. If you click on the lock symbol you can verify a security
certificate was issued to the site, making it more reliable. Most online scammers typically don’t take the time to host secure websites for their criminal activity.
HIDDEN AIRBNB OR RENTAL FEES THAT BLOAT THE BALANCE DUE
Don’t fall for this trick. Watch out when your host, or rental agency lists exorbitant add-ons for things like cleaning, taxes, and, our favorite ‘owner fees’. These extras not listed in the price per night can really bring the total tab way up and should really be considered as part of the daily rate.
NO DATES BOOKED FOR THE NEXT 12 MONTHS
The calendar for the listing is completely open for the rest of the year. You should question why no one else has reserved the spot when all the other properties in an area are booked solid. This could be a sign that it’s a phantom or ghost property. That’s when someone copies the photo and details of a real vacation rental, then changes the contact info and host site to lure in potential victims.
The bottom line: Scammers are ripping off millions of people every year with fake rental property ads and bogus Airbnb rentals, among other schemes. It’s important to be vigilant when booking vacation accommodations. And if you find yourself the target or victim of a rental scam, report it to your local law enforcement agency and to the Federal Trade Commission. It’s also a good idea to contact the website where the fraudulent ad was posted.
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