True story: Nineteen friends rented the Lake Tahoe chalet of their dreams. For $8,000 a week, they were promised 2-story windows with a view of the lake, a pool, a hot tub, a designer kitchen, roaring fireplaces, and all steps away from the water and the slopes. Best vacation ever . . . except it wasn’t. Because the band of besties arrived to find the chalet already full of happy vacationers and themselves the victims of a rental scam. Vacation turned nightmare.
Online rental services rock for convenience. You can go on AirBnB, VRBO, or even Craigslist, browse the listings, check out the fabulous pics, see what’s available, and find a perfect vacation hideaway that fits your budget. But scammers also love online rental services because they can make piles of money by pretending to rent out other people’s houses, or even houses that don’t exist. Then you show up ready to kick back at your chosen retreat and discover that you’re out the money and out of luck.
Here are just a few ways to avoid scams and get the vacation you deserve:
- The safest thing is to rent from someone you know or get a referral from someone you know. Second safest is to go through a reputable property management company.
- Don’t find vacation rentals through Craiglist. Vacation-specific sites like VRBO and AirBnB can charge rental fees, but part of what you get is some protection against rental fraud. Craiglist isn’t vacation-specific, and they don’t have the resources to spot and remove the many fraudulent postings.
- If you’re renting through one of the vacation rental sites, check customer references and reviews on the place you’re considering.
- Pay with a credit card so that you can dispute the payment if anything goes wrong. Never, ever (ever, ever) pay with MoneyGram, Western Union, or any other cash equivalent. If the property owner asks you to, consider this a red flag and run the other way. And don’t send checks because if you are dealing with crooks, you don’t want them to have your bank account number.
- Don’t let your brain leave on vacation before the rest of you. If something seems fishy or the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.
There are other tricks you can use to catch rental scammers before you hand over money. VRBO has a great list of tips, AirBnB encourages hosts and guests to check each other out through messaging and social media, and the Federal Trade Commission and AARP also have advice. On the flip side, if you’re thinking of doing a home exchange or renting your property to vacationers, beware of scammers who prey on property owners. But that’s a story for another blog.