Travelers, Take Heed: Vacation Rental Fraud Is Still Rampant

Photo (cc) by CarbonNYC [in SF!]

Her “villa” in the Dominican Republic looked like a real find. It came with its own concierge and a private pool and was only steps away from a rugged Caribbean beach. Best of all, the price was right for Elisabeth Sperry, a veterinarian from Falmouth, Maine: a week for just $3,500, a 25 percent discount from the regular rate.

But Sperry wishes she hadn’t found it. After wiring the money to a bank account in England belonging to the person who claimed to be the owner, she discovered that she’d been scammed and that her funds were irretrievably gone.

Vacation-rental fraud has hounded travelers for years. Remarkably, despite new, more-secure booking systems and stern warnings against wiring money, a solution remains elusive. Clever criminals pretending to own rental property continue to prey on clueless travelers, extracting sizable overseas wire transfers from them before disappearing into the digital ether.

Slippery roles and responsibility

Why hasn’t it been fixed? Some bookings sites continue to present themselves as full-service travel agents while later regarding themselves as nothing more than reservations platforms. That allows them to treat the scams as someone else’s problem. But guests aren’t heeding the warnings, either. Scammers, meanwhile, have refined the ruse and snare even the smartest travelers. Ultimately, a patchwork of inadequate laws and banking regulations lets the bad guys get away with it.

Sperry says she found the rental on FlipKey, a popular vacation-rental website. A FlipKey representative said the company was “saddened and concerned” to hear about Sperry’s experience. It conducted a detailed review of her transaction and found that FlipKey was not the source of the swindle.

“It appears one of her inquiries was sent to a scammer posing as a homeowner with the purpose of defrauding travelers,” the representative says. Typically, a scammer will assume the identity of a vacation-rental owner by hacking the owner’s email account and soliciting offers. “The scammer then responded to Elisabeth’s email,” she said.

The entire transaction happened outside FlipKey’s system, which has safeguards against fraud, the representative added. “The scam did not originate or occur on, or through, FlipKey,” she says.

Sperry says FlipKey gave her the runaround when she tried to report the crime, subjecting her to lengthy hold times and chastising her for not using a credit card on its secure, web-based system. Finally, it sent her a form email denying any responsibility for the theft.

“It was a very inadequate and unsatisfactory response from a reputable travel company,” she says.

Companies do warn their customers about wiring money. On FlipKey, for example, Sperry was cautioned that she could “avoid the uncertainty of wire transfers and money orders” by using a credit card to pay through its system. And listings sites such as Craigslist, through which Melanie Fleisher found a (nonexistent) vacation rental in Killington, Vermont, run intermittent scam warnings that caution users against wiring money.

Lesson: Do not wire money

Fleisher ‘s ill-fated home rental tale is a heartbreaker. A man claiming to be the homeowner offered her an $1,800 weekly rate if she wired the money. Fleisher, a speech therapist from Silver Spring, Maryland, planned to take her children to the New England ski resort for vacation. After sending the cash, they heard nothing from the alleged owner.

“We began to think that we had been scammed,” Fleisher says. “We drove up to Killington, only to find out that our fears had been realized.” There was no vacation rental.

Fleisher contacted her bank and her local police department and also asked me for help. My efforts to contact the “owner” were unsuccessful. A representative for her bank, Wells Fargo, would not comment on her case, citing privacy laws, but informed Fleisher that the bank account belonging to the bogus homeowner had been closed.

If you think you’re too smart to fall for the vacation-rental scam, think again. Laura Hall believed she was doing everything right when she found an Airbnb rental. Knowing the dangers of wiring money, she insisted on using a secure payment system and a credit card. The alleged vacation-rental owner complied, sending her an email that appeared to come directly from Airbnb and inviting her to pay through a “secure” server. Turns out he’d rigged his own server to siphon her payment information. “Airbnb kicked him off the site as soon as I passed the information on to them,” she says.

Even savvy travelers need to do research

Hall is no ordinary guest. She works for a vacation-rental company based in the United Kingdom, and she knows the ins and outs of the industry. If she can’t tell the difference between the real thing and a fake, imagine how many other guests are getting scammed.

Georgina Porteous, the sales and marketing manager for a rental company on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, says she regularly hears from guests who were ripped off and are looking for a legitimate place to stay. The problem is almost always preventable, she says.

“I would say the biggest mistake people make is not doing their research properly,” Porteous says. “With a few simple checks, it is usually quite easy to decipher if the advertisement is a fake. Hints could be in the photo quality, their communication, the villa not appearing on Google Maps, inconsistent or too-good-to-be-true reviews, or the ‘advertised from’ date being quite recent.”

Ultimately, the criminals are exploiting dozens of loopholes and corporate policies that allow them to continue a scam that almost always ends with someone wiring money to an overseas address, often in Britain. Closing the loopholes or forcing large sites such as FlipKey and Craigslist to take responsibility for these bogus bookings might help some travelers, but not as much as persuading every potential guest to conduct a little research on their rental — and to never, ever wire money.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at [email protected].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
12 Tech Gadgets That Make Daily Life Easier
12 Tech Gadgets That Make Daily Life Easier

These products on Amazon will ease worries and simplify your routine.

9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive
9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive

These Amazon products can give you an extra edge at work and other parts of your life.

5 Reasons You Should Work for as Long as You Live
5 Reasons You Should Work for as Long as You Live

These benefits might make you think twice about retirement.

6 Types of People Who Can’t Count on Social Security
6 Types of People Who Can’t Count on Social Security

If you fall into one of these groups, don’t assume that you will receive benefits.

7 Tips for Building an Emergency Food Supply
7 Tips for Building an Emergency Food Supply

A pandemic or natural disaster could leave you reliant on your existing emergency food supply. Is your pantry well-prepared for emergencies? Knowing what to stock up on for emergencies can be a difficult task and we’re here to help.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

Seniors With COVID-19 May Display This Unusual Symptom
Seniors With COVID-19 May Display This Unusual Symptom

Largely asymptomatic seniors may experience a symptom not commonly associated with the coronavirus.

20 Things That Are Actually Worth Stockpiling
20 Things That Are Actually Worth Stockpiling

You don’t need a year’s supply of toilet paper to survive an outbreak, but consider stocking up on these items.

18 Early Black Friday Deals on Amazon Today
18 Early Black Friday Deals on Amazon Today

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?
Can a Twice-Divorced Woman Claim Social Security Survivors Benefits?

Understanding survivors benefits rules is the key to getting the most from your benefit.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation
These Are the 10 Worst Cars for Depreciation

Two types of vehicles are especially likely to see steep plunges in value.

Never Buy These 10 Things With Your Credit Card
Never Buy These 10 Things With Your Credit Card

Credit cards offer many conveniences and protections, but sometimes it’s simply smarter to keep the plastic tucked away.

13 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now
13 Amazon Purchases That We Are Loving Right Now

These practical products make everyday life a little easier.

10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s
10 Things I Always Buy at Trader Joe’s

From snacks to sweets to side dishes, stock your cart with these time-tested favorites on your next TJ’s run.

8 Surprising Household Items You Can Sell for Fast Cash
8 Surprising Household Items You Can Sell for Fast Cash

Sometimes, the humblest household items are worth the most money.

Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early
Cut These 11 Expenses Now If You Hope to Retire Early

Like the idea of financial independence? Part of the FIRE equation is cutting costs.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

There are easy high-paying majors available in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required. We’re here to help you find easy degrees that pay well.

5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021
5 Ways Social Security Will Change in 2021

These adjustments will affect both workers and retirees in the new year.

Stop Buying These 19 Things Online
Stop Buying These 19 Things Online

The internet has changed how we shop. But for some things, you’re still better off buying the old-fashioned way.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

11 ‘Disposable’ Items You Should Be Reusing
8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores
8 Things You Should Buy at Restaurant Supply Stores

You don’t have to be a chef or a restaurant owner to shop here.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.