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Spotting Vacation Rental Scams

May 15, 2018

My family loves Key West, FL. We happened upon it during a cruise, which would have been a disaster, if not for the great group of friends we were with. (Who would have imagined eight-foot waves in the Bahamas?). Our day trip in Key West, on my birthday no less, was the salvation of that vacation.  

Fast forward a few years, we decided to return to Key West for New Year’s Eve. This time, we and wanted to rent an apartment within walking distance of downtown. Fortunately, we were not novices to renting apartments for vacation, and my 19 years as a Consumer Protection Investigator had taught me to triple check any contract. 

As we began our search, we quickly learned that Key West is quite popular for New Years, and having waited until October to start our search, our options were limited. Most of the places we contacted politely controlled their laughter, letting us know that in order to secure a rental for New Years, you had to book by July. Undaunted, our search continued until we found the perfect place - a 3-bedroom, single family home, close to downtown, with modern beautiful decor and a reasonable price. What was not to like? We had done it--found the "perfect" place in spite of the competitive demand (Sign #1).

The emails had some misspellings (Sign #2) but were very courteous and professional. They had a website with two other properties, so they seemed to be a business. Racing off to work, I implored my husband to make the Paypal deposit as directed by the "business" and use a credit card, of course. When he went to make the deposit, he noticed that the email address was a personal g-mail address, not a business email address (Sign #3). Luckily, that was a red flag for him and he called Key West City government to see if they required a license for rentals and if this "business" had one. The answer was yes followed by a no (Sign #4).

Since we had been provided with an actual property address, I then found the owner of the property and called her. I was surprised that she actually picked up the phone and then not surprised when she immediately told me not to make any payment. This was the second call she had received that week on the scam.

As summer is approaching, if you or your client are considering renting an apartment for a vacation--do it! It's a great way to integrate into an area and many rentals have more space and amenities than some hotels. But be cautious and do your research. In the example above, we saw 4 classic signs of a scam before confirming that it was indeed a scam. If you see three, cut your lost time and look for another place. 

Remember:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Look somewhere else.
  • Check the rental licensing laws and make sure your company has one.
  • Check the property records to locate the owner of the property. These records are generally public information and can be found by searching property tax records.
  • If the name of the owner is not the same as the company, try to locate the owner and ask if the rental is legitimate.
  • Check complaint records on larger rental companies to ensure they don't have a negative history. 
  • Check out the rentals on the larger, well known sites such as TripAdvisorVRBO and Airbnb and be aware that CraigsList, while a good site overall, contains a lot of vacation rental scams. 
  • Use a credit card, not your debit card and by no means pay by cash, money order or check until you get to the rental and inspect it. 

Fortunately, our story had a happy ending. Disgusted but determined, we continued our rental search and in the true Key West spirit, we received referrals from the locals which resulted in finding rooms in a wonderful hotel. We had an amazing New Year’s trip and avoided a scam.

What are your top tips for spotting vacation rental scams?

Guest Contributor: Sue Rogan, AFC®, CASH Campaign of Maryland


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