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Vacation Scams

En español | Few things can make a trip go south like getting to your destination only to find out you’ve already been taken for a ride by vacation scammers. Their stock in trade is offering travel packages and rental properties at prices that are literally too good to be true.

Rental scammers get your attention by advertising low, low rates and great amenities for houses, cottages and condos in choice locations. Even listings on reputable rental websites can be misleading or outright bogus. Some fraudsters hijack legitimate listings and swap in their own contact information; others use filched photos and made-up details to create fictitious listings.

They typically try to limit communication to email, close the deal quickly and get payment up front. Only when you arrive at your temporary home-away-from-home do you discover that the condition of the property was vastly overstated or the booking itself was fraudulent.

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Unscrupulous travel companies get in on the game by offering what look like serious discounts on cruises and resort packages. Once they have your deposit, you may learn that the “luxury” offerings are a lot skimpier than advertised, and that taking advantage of the promised perks requires hefty additional fees that wipe out the supposed savings.

Another common vacation con is the phony giveaway. You get an unsolicited email or call (usually automated) congratulating you on winning a free getaway to a top destination. You’ll just have to pay taxes or “processing fees,” by which crooks can commandeer your personal and financial information. Or, claiming the prize requires attending a brief meeting, which turns out to be a hard-core sales pitch for time-share purchases or travel-club memberships.

There are legitimate travel clubs, but some are shady, charging hefty dues for benefits that are hard-to-impossible to access. Be wary of the ones that offer you a “free” trip out of the blue.

Warning Signs

  • The rate for a premium vacation property is significantly lower than for other rentals in the same area.
  • The listed owner asks you to wire a deposit or full payment. The Federal Trade Commission calls this the “surest sign” of a scam because when you wire money there’s almost no way to get it back.
  • A property owner or travel company pressures you to commit quickly to a deal.
  • A company advertises steep discounts on cruises or vacation packages but provides few details about the “five-star” or “luxury” facilities.
  • You receive an offer of a free trip but to claim it, you must provide credit card information, pay an advance fee or attend a presentation.


  • Do research on prospective vacation rentals. Search the address online to confirm it exists, and use a tool like Google Street View to make sure it matches photos in the listing. Search for the property and owner with terms like “scam,” “complaint” and “review.”
  • Do get on the phone with an owner and ask detailed questions about the property and the area. If the person insists on sticking to email or gives vague answers, take a pass.
  • Do get a written rental agreement. Any reputable property owner, agent or manager will provide one, with terms and protections for both parties.
  • Do read the fine print, especially regarding cancellation and refund policies and payment security. Check that a rental company offers built-in protection against scams.
  • Do get the terms of a travel deal in writing. Check for hidden costs such as processing fees, peak travel charges and unauthorized travel insurance.
  • Do pay by credit card. That gives you the most protection if a deal turns out to be fraudulent or deceptive.


  • Don’t sign up for a travel deal before checking out the company behind it. Look it up in the Better Business Bureau (BBB) directory and search for reviews on travel sites like TripAdvisor.
  • Don’t assume a vacation rental listing is legitimate because it’s on a familiar website. Be especially vigilant when using classified-ad sites such as Craigslist that don’t have reviews or offer guarantees.
  • Don’t pay for a vacation rental by wire transfer or prepaid debit card.
  • Don’t pay a “processing fee” or other advance charge to secure a “free” trip. It’s most likely a ploy to get your credit card information.
  • Don’t jump on a travel-club membership to get a “free” trip. Research the company online, get cancellation and refund policies in writing, and ask detailed questions about discounts and destinations.

More Resources

  • If you’ve been victimized by a vacation scam, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online or at 877-382-4357.
  • You can check on a travel company’s record, and report deceptive or misleading vacation offerings, with the BBB and the consumer protection office in your state.

Published January 18, 2019

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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