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Avoiding Vacation Rental Scams

Online sleuthing and a little common sense are your best protection

4. Don't rely solely on email correspondence. Many rental scams are carried out by Nigeria-based scammers (so beware of poorly written ads.) You'll want to talk, by phone, with the landlord or listing agent. There's no guarantee that the person who takes the call won't be a crook using a disposable cellphone or Internet-based line that has a local area code. But be especially wary of foreign or distant American area codes.

5. Never pay upfront for a rental with a wire transfer or prepaid debit card, the preferred methods for scammers. A credit card or PayPal are your safest options. If something goes wrong, you'll have recourse.

6. If dealing with people who say they're the owners, ask for proof of ownership. You can also seek proof of identity, such as a copy of a driver's license, and cross-check that information with the recorder of deeds or assessor's office where the rental is located. For most areas, you can do this online. A finding that a property is in default should give you pause. You can also order detailed reports about landlords and properties at CheckYourLandlord.com.

7. If you're dealing with a manager or agent, ask for proof that the person has a right to sign a lease on behalf of the owner, and check the information with the owner.

8. To verify a real estate agent's credentials, search for the person's name at the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials or contact the licensing office in the agent's state. To find that office, type "(name-of-state) real estate licensing" into a search engine. Keep in mind that scammers may steal the names of legit agents, so make contact by looking up their claimed agency's phone number yourself, rather than using a number the person provides.

9. For vacation rentals, consider reputable websites such as VRBO.com, AirBNB.com or Roomorama.com. Condo associations and timeshare resorts may also guide you to rentals.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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