En español | Diane and James Huning own a bungalow near San Diego. "Our daughter lives out there, and when we're not visiting her, we rent it out," says Diane, 69. "It's a really nice home."
A scammer agreed. Posing as an interested renter, he sang its praises, booking a nine-day stay for $985 via Huning's rental posting on VRBO.com, a popular website. (The initials stand for "vacation rentals by owner.") But when the advance check for the rental arrived, it was for $1,960.
"There was a mix-up by the bank," the scammer told Diane by email. Could she please deposit the check and mail back the difference? The retiree obliged. Bad move — several days after her deposit, her bank told her the check was fraudulent. But she'd already sent the "extra" $975. It was gone forever.
Take note, rental property owners. You're the latest target in vacation rental scams. "Scammers also try to get the log-in and other credentials of property owners to pose as them to solicit rental fees," says Carl Shepherd, founder of VRBO's parent company, HomeAway. "It's really a matter of 'let the buyer beware.' "
Vacation rental scams have traditionally targeted people seeking to rent a property. Crooks steal photos and descriptions of properties for sale on real estate websites, then advertise rentals at rock-bottom prices. After a deal is struck — typically by email — renters are asked for payment upfront. When they arrive they discover that the rental doesn't exist, or that the actual owner isn't renting it. In addition to lost payments — an estimated $18.5 million per year — renters risk identity theft from disclosures they have made on bogus application forms.
Here's how to protect yourself:
Check the description. Copy a chunk of descriptive text from the ad and paste it into a search engine. If it's found to be lifted from a home sale listing, assume the rental offer is a scam.
Run an online search of the property's address. Look up names, emails and phone numbers of the supposed landlord or agent. Red flags: The property is for sale, not rent; it has a nonexistent address; the listed address is for a business.
Ask the landlord for proof of identity and ownership. A copy of a driver's license is good for checking property records at the recorder of deeds or assessor's office, to see if the names match. You can also order detailed reports about landlords and properties at CheckYourLandlord.com for a fee. If dealing with a self-described agent, ask for proof of authority to sign a lease.
Search for past victims. When people answer rental postings, property owners should search respondents' names and addresses on the Internet, to see if someone has scammed landlords in the past using the same information.
Map it. Use an online search engine's map function for an aerial and street-level view of the address, to determine that the property exists.
Deal by phone. Avoid people who want to communicate solely by email, as email addresses are easy to fake.
Use plastic. A sure sign of a scam is a request for payment upfront by wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Your safer bet is to pay with a credit card via PayPal or use the payment transfer service at websites such as VRBO and Airbnb.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
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