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How to spot & avoid a vacation rental scam?

I like renting vacation homes instead of a hotel room. Vacation rental homes provide much more value for money than hotel rooms. But it also comes with risk. Google VRBO scam or Homeaway scam, you can find plenty of results. You are after all renting a place, from a stranger, online, without actually seeing it. There are some horror stories of vacation rentals that don’t look like the photos at all or even worse, don’t exist at all. Last week, Sandy @ First Gen American forked over $1000 for a rental that she couldn’t use due to the recent blizzard. Sandy has taken down her posts, but I thought it would be a good time to review some tips on how to save yourself from becoming a victim of vacation rental scams.

How to save yourself from Homeaway, VRBO or any vacation rental scam?

  1. Check the reviews : Book from a reputable website. VRBO or Homeaway are good ones. VRBO has a weird comment/review policy. The owners can either choose to display all the feedback, positive or negative; or they can choose to disable feedback altogether. This means, if there is no feedback, the listing is new, there were no complaints or there were a lot of negative complaints, so the owner chose not to show them. So if a listing has n0 feedback, skip this listing or find ways to research this listing via other ways.
  2. Do some basic research : Google the address and see the satellite map to make sure that the place actually exists. Also Google the name of the listing + owner name or owner name + address or vrbo id. If people are dissatisfied, they would have complained somewhere, even if the owner has turned off the reviews. Check the BBB if it is managed by a property management company. Check the county records to verify the ownership.Homeaway scam
  3. Talk to the owner and/or ask a lot of questions : If it is a scam, the scammer will be looking for low hanging fruit, so he/she won’t answer all your questions. Ask specific questions, if it says ocean view, check how far the beach is if you had to walk. I looked at an ocean view rental with a beautiful sunset picture posted. When I pressed more, it turned out that you could see the ocean in the distance from the bedroom window! It is a distant view, almost 10 blocks from the beach! Asking a lot of questions is not a fool proof method, but you atleast have some time to verify and clear out all your doubts. And you will have an email trail to submit as proof if the rental didn’t live up to your expectations.
  4. Use a credit card : This might eliminate some listings that you like. When I was planning for my week long Hawaii vacation, there were several places that I liked, but all of them required me to wire the entire amount or mail a check 60-90 days before the vacation. I called and asked them if they would take a credit card. Some of them did take credit cards but as it is costly they didn’t advertise it as the preferred payment mode. Even if they say they won’t accept credit cards, ask them if they will take it if you pay the credit card fee. I did this for my Hawaii vacation. Yes, I paid 2.5% more than cash, but the peace of mind was worth every penny. If they flaked or something happened, the credit card company would have helped me. Plus, some credit cards have nice perks, for example mine came with travel insurance that would have refunded the money if something happened that prevented me from traveling. I cannot stress this point enough.
  5. Never send the money without seeing the entire agreement : Ask them if whatever you are signing is the agreement in its entirety. Ask this question via email, so you have more proof than a he said/she said conversation. Get the complete instructions along with pre-arrival agreement well in advance.
  6. Ask for references : If he is a nice owner and not misrepresenting the rental, he would be happy to give references. But use this with a grain of salt, for all we know he might be giving his wife’s name.
  7. Read the contract : Know what you are signing, it is not uncommon to have a very long complicated contract. I have seen some very simple contracts to very elaborate nickel & diming contracts. Make sure the contract specifies how you will get access to the property, cancellation policies, deposit and cleaning policies. If the contract seems one sided, by favoring only the owner, just move on to another rental. I am not saying all restrictive contracts are bad, they are renting their house to you without knowing you, so it is natural that they hold a deposit amount and ask you to leave the place as you found it. But if it says the shades should be closed precisely half way through and if it is closed an inch longer you will lose your security deposit, then the person is not planning to return your money anyway. Move on.
  8. Check the photos : If there are no photos, skip that listing, it is not worth your time. Also look for pics of both the inside and outside (remember though, photographs can be misleading – ever wonder how every hotel has the same identical blue pool with the palm trees and the beautiful women, even in Alaska??). There might be something wrong with the place the owners don’t want to show. Or the owner doesn’t care enough to take some photos and put them online. If that is the case imagine how responsive he will be if something goes wrong. Definitely not worth your time.
  9. Know where to complain: If you do get taken for a ride, make sure you:
    • Collect as much information about your communications
    • If you think the owner misrepresented the details – file a complaint with Internet Crime Complaint Center. You will have to provide your name, address, details of the scam and proof of your accusation.
    • I hope you paid with your credit card. File a complaint right away.
    • Write about your experience truthfully in the review of the booking site or Trip Advisor along with the rental id.
    • Contact BBB, if they are registered and file a scam complaint.
  10. Respect the owners rights and property : If you are happy with the owner and do rent the property, respect their requests and do as much as you can to think from their point of view. They are small business owners or regular folks who are as apprehensive to rent their homes to strangers as you are renting from someone online.

If it is too good to be true, it probably is. That extra jacuzzi you fell in love with seeing the photos is not worth spoiling your vacation for. There are plenty of options now for vacation rentals. Always trust your instincts, if something doesn’t feel right, move on.

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