Protect Yourself From These Common Vacation Rental Scams

Jonathan Murray —  November 16, 2013

"Warning!" on flickr, by lamoix (CC BY 2.0)There’s no question: Trust within the vacation rental industry is a huge issue for owners and travelers alike. With little or no recourse for many of the people who get scammed, the industry may seem practically evergreen to these criminals—but it doesn’t have to be.

While the details may change, the main themes of schemes seem to change little from one decade to the next; chances are you’ve heard from at least one Nigerian prince or heir since the 1990s and do little more than roll your eyes today.

Vacation rental scams aren’t so different. There are two main objectives for scammers:

  • to lure people into sending money.
  • to trick people into providing personal information that they can then use to steal their identity.

There is no way to isolate yourself from scammers, but learning the warning signs and being aware are big steps towards keeping your income and business more secure.

Scams that target travelers

There are two primary scams that target your potential guests. While the scams are similar, one could leave you in the middle of a mess you’ve had no hand in.

The fake listing
A rental property is offered at a great price. The problem is that the property is someone’s home, or it’s for sale, or it simply doesn’t exist.

A guest shows up for check-in, only to find out that nobody knows what they’re talking about – despite the hefty deposit they sent months ago.

Real listing, fake contact info
Sometimes, a listing is 100 percent genuine—almost. The vacation rental photos are accurate, the description is exactly what you wrote, and your property is available. The difference? The person at the receiving end of inquiries and attempted bookings is not you.

This is a scam that’s commonly used on Craigslist, although it can be used on other – typically unverified – platforms. Luckily, you can create automatic alerts to help monitor sites like Craigslist on your behalf. While still possible, it’s less likely to see these scams on larger listing sites because of verification processes and because they actively monitor for fraudulent listings.

Unfortunately, the end of this scam can have visitors literally landing on your doorstep, ready to start a vacation they’ve paid for and very upset to find out that they have nowhere to stay.

Scams that target owners

Scams that target owners are so common that most owners have at least some idea when they should be suspicious. Phishing (which targets your personal information) is a always an issue—and monthly phishing attacks increased 40 percent last year—but many vacation rental scammers just want your money.

An overpayment on the deposit check
This can be a tricky scam to identify immediately because the inquiry can be similar to other—legitimate—inquiries:

  • A business person whose company will be paying for their rental.
  • A young couple whose parents are paying for their trip.
  • Confusion over what fees to pay, and when, to confirm your vacation rental.

The common red flag is that you end up receiving payment—often via check—for more money than you’re owed. The problem is that the check you received isn’t real; it’s fake, forged, or stolen.

Inevitably, there’s some urgency for the difference to be refunded to your “guest” and, by the time you realize you’ve been ripped off, your real money is long gone.

Often, a scammer will send the same message—using the same name—to multiple owners, so turning to Google search to check odd inquiries and connecting with other owners will help keep you up-to-date on the latest variations on this scheme.

Protection for owners

Your best protection against scams is awareness; from a practical point of view, there is often little that the authorities can do.

Check with your bank to see what they recommend, both to protect yourself and if the worst should occur.

Some online payment systems may also offer protection in case of fraud. Transactions through HomeAway Payments, for example, are guaranteed against Internet fraud.

Protection for travelers

Travelers are, in some ways, more readily protected against fraudulent vacation rental listings. HomeAway/VRBO offers a Carefree Rental Guarantee and FlipKey/TripAdvisor has a Vacation Rental Protection Plan available; both plans are sold over-and-above rental fees, and cover a number of scenarios—including fraud.

VRBO, for example, has also compiled a list of recommendations to help travelers protect themselves.

Have scammers been an issue for your vacation rental business? Share your experience in the comments section below.

photo by lamoix
Jonathan Murray

Jonathan Murray

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Before starting MyVR, he co-founded Lift Media (acquired), a lead generation company that worked with clients like American Express, Netflix, and Fandango. He started MyVR after being frustrated with setting up his own Sonoma cottage as a vacation rental. He studied engineering at Bucknell University and received his MBA from Stanford University.
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