It's wintertime and the living is dreary. If you're like many people, you're coping with bone-chilling temperatures and gray skies by daydreaming of sandy beaches, emerald golf courses, and cool drinks sipped on warm, breezy balconies. Yes, it's vacation-planning season again. You'd love to book a charming seaside cottage or rustic mountain cabin for your spring or summer vacation, but recent reports of vacation home scams have you worried.
It's true. Lately, there's been a rash of news stories about would-be vacationers who went online, found the perfect house or condo, paid the rental fee, and showed up to find an occupied residence that was never for rent at all. Yet as scary as these stories are, they shouldn't stop you from going the vacation rental route.
There are many wonderful rental properties out there that are completely legitimate and only a few scammers. To reject the whole concept of renting a great home instead of a hotel room because someone else had a bad experience is like deciding not to have children because you saw the movie The Bad Seed.
The benefits of staying in a vacation rental home far outweigh the (extremely minimal) risks. These properties are more spacious and often less expensive than hotel rooms. They're appointed with all the comforts of home (because, of course, they are homes). They're private. They tend to be kid friendly. Often, they're pet friendly as well.
Plus, by taking certain precautions, you can make the likelihood of getting scammed almost non-existent. Mostly, it's about following the first commandment of Internet commerce: Thou shalt do everything possible to verify the identity of the person to whom thou sendest thy money.
That said, here are eight tips to help you safely book your vacation home in today's environment:
- Beware of super-cheap rates. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The most common way scammers work is by enticing a large number of travelers in a short period of time. They do this by low-balling the rental rates.
If one listing is, say, half the price of all other comparable ones for the same amount of time, beware. Put yourself in the owner's shoes. Why would he or she voluntarily forgo that much income? Five, ten, or maybe even fifteen percent off, perhaps, but fifty percent? No way.
- Do some digging to make sure the owner really is the owner. Many states make it easy to look up property tax records. Google the property appraiser in the county where the property is located to make sure the person you are renting from actually owns the property. You might also Google the homeowner's association and look for a phone number on the website. Call the HOA and ask if the owners really are the owners.
Now, some of the tax records might show that the property is owned by an LLC or trust. But that information actually serves as an extra barrier against being scammed. The rental agreement should mention the LLC or trust. If it doesn't, call the owner and ask. He or she should be able to tell you the name of this legal entity without hesitation.
- Cyber-stalk the owner. Do some cross-referencing across various websites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so forth. Make sure the place of residence (where the owner lives-not where the vacation home is located) is the same as the information the owner provided.
If, for instance, you were renting one of my vacation homes in Florida, you'd see that I always provide my guests with my home and cell phone numbers. My home number is a 512 area code. Now, if you looked me up on LinkedIn, my public profile says that I live in Austin, TX, which would match the information I provided.
Also, I suggest Googling the phone number listed on the advertisement. Many property owners and managers list their homes on many different websites. If you Google the phone number listed on the ad in this format XXX XXX-XXX (area code, space, first three digits, dash, last four digits), many other websites that the property is listed on should show up in search results.
- Look for clues in the reviews. When you are reading the reviews of the property (either on the vacation rental website or on other sites such as TripAdvisor.com), there are sometimes references to the owners' names. A review might say something like "Thanks, Tom and Christine, for allowing us to rent your lovely home…" If the names in the reviews do not match the name of the person renting the home to you, it could be a sign that something is not right.
Also, a lot of times the owner's name and/or the housekeeper's name will be in the review. If you see several reviewers thanking Mary for her wonderful hospitality, and the woman you're dealing with is named Mary, it's probably a legitimate listing.
- Speak with the owner via phone. Sure, it's possible to be scammed over the phone. However, it's usually easier to fool someone when you're communicating via type. If the owner sounds warm and engaging and seems to know her stuff, you're probably okay. If she sounds guarded or uncertain, you might have reason to worry. Also, when you get someone on the phone, you can ask specific questions and listen carefully to the answers.
Ask about the local area. Ask about the best restaurants, the most unusual attractions, and so forth. If you get quick, natural answers, it's probably not a scam. If the owner hesitates, or if you hear the sound of her Googling furiously, you would likely be suspicious.
- Pay only by credit card. Don't use PayPal, don't send a personal check, and never pay by wire transfer.
Scammers are less likely than legitimate property owners to have a credit card merchant account set up. And even if you were to still get scammed, you'd be able to call your credit card's fraud prevention center and report it.
- Go with one of the major vacation rental websites. You're probably safest choosing a site like HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey, or Airbnb. Of course, a respected name doesn't guarantee a 100 percent safe transaction. There have been instances of owners having their e-mail accounts hijacked by scammers, but the major websites tend to have better safeguards in place.
- Listen to your gut…it's often right. Do your research. Call the property owner. Listen carefully to everything he or she has to say. If something just feels "off," move on to another property.
Scammers usually count on people not paying attention, not heeding their intuition. That still, small voice exists for a reason. Listen to it.
Renting a vacation home is like anything else. It's not risk-free, but when you take these steps to mitigate the risk, you can feel 99.9 percent confident that you're not getting scammed, and these are pretty good odds.
It's like driving. You keep your car maintained, check the tires, keep the gas tank full, and buckle your seatbelts. Then you hit the road and stop worrying about it. Be careful, sure, but live your life. When you're sitting by your vacation home's private pool this summer, you'll be glad you didn't let a few people's bad experiences stop you from having a great experience with your family.
Christine Karpinski is the author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment (Kinney Pollack Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-9748249-9-4, $26.00) and Profit from Your Vacation Home Dream: The Complete Guide to a Savvy Financial and Emotional Investment (Kaplan, 2005, ISBN: 1-4195069-1-9, $19.95).
Her books, combined with her seminars, media appearances, and podcast show, How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, Podcast, help thousands of people purchase and manage their vacation homes. Today she serves as an independent consultant for various companies and individuals in the vacation rental industry.
Take the Next Step:
- For all of your traveling needs, check out Expedia.com
- Don't miss the Vacation section of The Dollar Stretcher Library.
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