See also: Volunteer on vacation.
Rental scams were among the top complaints to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2010.
The swindles typically start with phony advertisements for rentals at affordable, sometimes rock-bottom prices. They're posted on such well-known websites as Craigslist, but also on fly-by-night ones that purport to be the online homes of legitimate real estate brokers or rental companies. Others turn up in newspaper classifieds and online chat boards.
The ads are sometimes dressed up with photos and property descriptions stolen from home sale listings on legitimate real estate websites.
When you inquire, the scammers may reply using a real broker's name to give the fraud more legitimacy, the FBI warns. You may be asked to submit an application form. Through email or telephone exchanges, a deal is struck. And then you're told that you need to pay upfront, with a wire transfer or personal check.
You may receive keys, a rental agreement or other indicators of a legit transaction, but it's all a ruse. When you arrive at your paid-for getaway, you learn that the dwelling is occupied, doesn't exist or that you were mailed nonworking keys. Your money's gone, and info you put down on that application form may leave you open to identity theft.
But with a little homework — and common sense (especially in not being taken in by promises of below-market prices) — you can avoid this fast-growing scam.
- Let a search engine be your guide. If you don't know a local who can check out the property on your behalf, do an online search of its address, as well as of all names, emails and phone numbers of any person who responds to your query about an ad you've seen. This search may turn up accounts from victims of a particular group of scammers.
- Copy and paste into a search engine whole chunks of the ad's descriptive text to see whether it's been copied from elsewhere online, suggests the New York Times' "Frugal Traveler" Seth Kugel, who personally fell victim to this scam. Fraudsters often copy real ads, with the exception of the price, which they lower.
- Do a Web search on the prospective property's address. This should reveal whether it's for sale, not for rent — a red flag for you. An online search engine's map function should provide an aerial view. There may also be a street-level photo of what's at that location, if anything.
- 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.