- Pay only with plastic. The surest sign of a vacation rental scam, says the Federal Trade Commission, is a request for a wire transfer for rent, deposit or application fee. Bogus owners or agents often claim to be traveling abroad and need a transfer, but legitimate ones should accept credit cards. And if you get bilked, you stand a better chance of a refund from your credit card provider than with a transfer or personal check.
- Deal by phone. There's no guarantee that a rental rip-off artist isn't using a "pay-as-you-go" cellphone (often tossed in a month or so), but those who want to communicate only by email, especially from free Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail accounts, should be avoided. Talking is also better for getting answers to questions that can be ignored when posed by email.
- Stick with legit lodging specialists. Travel agents, visitor bureaus, realtors and other organizations in your vacation destination may be able to direct you to vetted lodging options.
- Go-to websites include Airbnb, Vrbo and, for Caribbean rentals, Wimco. You can also try condo associations and timeshare resorts, which often have online newsletters listing rentals.
Craigslist has many legitimate rental ads, but be careful. Anyone can post and there is no vetting — note the site's own warning about scams.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.