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Avoiding Vacation Rental Scams

Online sleuthing and a little common sense are your best protection

Vacation home with pool and palm trees

If the vacation rental offer looks too good to be true, it's probably a scam. — Chris Ryan/Alamy

En español | Now is the time when many summer seekers make arrangements for that long-awaited week at the beach or in the mountains.

That means it's time to guard against vacation rental rip-offs.

The fraudsters' basic technique is to place phony advertisements for vacation rentals at great prices. Most commonly they steal property descriptions and photos listed on legitimate real estate websites. Or they may post addresses of homes that aren't for rent or simply invent a rental by posting a made-up description and nonexistent address.

The ads often show up on Craigslist, but can also be found in newspapers, online chat boards or phony real estate websites that the crooks themselves create.

The goal is to get an up-front payment from you or trick you into completing an application form that requires personal information the thieves can then use to steal your identity. You may even receive keys, a rental agreement or other indicators of a legitimate transaction, but when you arrive at your paid-for getaway, you learn it was all a ruse.

Recently, we've seen variations that go beyond summertime swindles.

  • The same approach is increasingly used for longer-term rentals, especially in college towns or areas popular for retirement. Such scams especially target people looking to downsize and boomer parents of college-bound students.
  • Owners of properties that are in the latter stages of the foreclosure process sometimes offer their vacated homes to unsuspecting renters. When the property is seized, the tenants are evicted if they can't produce a lease that the lender will honor.
  • Homes that lie empty for months — think houses of snowbirds who head south for the winter — have been broken into by con men who then "rent" them to unsuspecting folk. The real owners return to find unknown and unwanted people living in their homes.

You can avoid these ruses. Common sense is great protection. Trust your instinct: if you're offered rent at an impossibly low cost, it probably is impossible. But doing some homework can help, too.

9 Ways to Protect Yourself From Vacation Rental Scams

1. Before paying anything, first check out the property yourself, or ask a local to do it on your behalf. If you can't take those steps, run an online search of its address, as well as of all names, emails and phone numbers of the supposed landlord or agent. Red flags include search results that indicate the property is for sale (and not for rent), a nonexistent address, an address listed for a business or other nonresidential property, and postings by people who fell victim to this particular scammer.

2. Copy and paste into a search engine whole chunks of the ads descriptive text to see whether it's been copied from elsewhere online. If that search reveals a bona fide listing of a for-sale home, assume that the rental offer is the work of a scammer.

3. Use an online search engine's map function to get an aerial view of the property. There may also be a street-level photo.

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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