7 Tips to Avoid a Vacation Rental Rip-off

Summer is almost here, and with any luck we’ll all soon be planning a vacation. Rather than stuff your family into a single hotel room, you may be tempted to rent an entire house.

Before you put money down on a place, make sure you know how to protect your finances and family from shady rental operators.

Vacation rental rip-offs tend to be variations on two themes:

  1. The person you’re dealing with doesn’t own the property. Instead, he or she has lifted photos and a listing from another website. Typically, you sign a contract and put down a security deposit. When you show up at the property, you are out of luck.
  2. You have a place to stay, but the home was misrepresented by the owner and isn’t what you were expecting.

Here are seven tips to avoid such vacation rip-offs.

1. Use a service that verifies properties and owners

A handful of websites make it easy for travelers to connect with property owners in prime vacation spots. They include:

In addition, these sites often have built-in fraud protection features. For example:

  • The sites provide secure methods of payment.
  • Owners and properties can be verified and typically have been reviewed by other renters.
  • Rentals may come with money-back guarantees.

Benefits vary by site, so check the fine print. And remember that even the above protections can’t weed out all the fraudsters. Do your homework by checking reviews and talking with the owner.

Another option is to go through a real estate agent. Many agents in vacation hot spots broker rentals on local homes.

2. Talk with the owner

If you are not using a service that verifies properties and owners, do not negotiate a rental solely by email. Many scammers don’t even live in the country, so get the owner on the phone and ask a few detailed questions about the property and local attractions. An owner with vague answers to your questions is a clear red flag.

Even better, request that the owner chat with you on Zoom, Skype or a similar video-conferencing service. Get him or her to take you on a real-time, virtual tour of the property so you can ask questions. This tactic lets you get a better view of the property while also verifying the legitimacy of the listing.

However, be aware that not everyone uses such technology. So, a refusal to video chat shouldn’t necessarily kill the deal on its own.

3. Check public records

If you can’t Skype with the owner, do some investigation on Google or another search engine. Look up the address and use Google Street View to confirm the property matches the one advertised. Also, verify distances to beaches, attractions and airports while on the site.

Many municipalities make tax records available online. Try searching for the property on the local government website to confirm that the name of the person you’re talking to matches the one on the tax record. Other details — such as the number of bathrooms and bedrooms, or whether or not there’s a pool — may also be included in the tax listing.

If the municipality doesn’t have its records online, you may be able to contact the clerk’s office to confirm ownership.

4. Look for reviews and ask for references

While you’re vetting properties, don’t forget to check online reviews. Some vacation rental websites provide an opportunity to rate the rental property, as well as the owner or property manager.

If the property you’re considering doesn’t have any online reviews, ask for references and call them. Again, listen for vague answers, which could indicate the reference is simply a friend of the scammer.

5. Pay with a credit card

Paying with a credit card is your best bet to avoid being out money because of a shady vacation rental. If your rental ends up being a scam, you can dispute the charge and dramatically limit your liability.

If you’re instructed to wire a deposit via Western Union, it’s time to run for the hills. Don’t send a check or cash either. And while your debit card offers fraud protection, it could be some time before the money makes its way back into your account.

6. Trust your gut

Throughout the whole process of shopping for a rental property, it’s important to trust your gut:

  • Does the owner seem shady?
  • Are there inconsistencies between the property details and what you see on Google Street View?
  • Is it an unbelievably good deal?

Scammers are betting on that last point. Rip-off rentals are usually priced at a bargain-basement rate in the hope that your excitement for the deal will push aside the nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right.

Remember, if the rental you’re considering is significantly cheaper than everything else in the area, there is probably a reason for that.

7. Stick with what you know

Finally, when you find a rental you love, use it again and again. Make it a family tradition to return to the same spot for an annual rendezvous. Variety may be the spice of life, but there is a lot to be said for what’s tried and true.

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