Why is it that only pests seem to have no trouble following the adapt-or-perish rule of evolutionary survival? Koalas and North Atlantic right whales are barely hanging on, but rats, roaches, and vacation rental scam artists just keep flourishing.
“They are extremely savvy and are always devising new ways to fool consumers,” says Paula Fleming of the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont. She means scammers, not rats or roaches.
According to Fleming, vacation rental cons easily rank among the most common rip-offs in travel. You can probably blame the atomized nature of the vacation rental universe—with multitudes of property owners peppering the internet with offerings across numerous websites and social media channels—and the ease of creating fraudulent listings.
The BBB warns consumers to be on the lookout for listings for properties that “aren’t for rent, don’t exist, or are significantly different than pictured.”
Oftentimes, fraudsters will copy the descriptions and photos of legitimate rentals and repost on scam sites or in social media groups, luring in victims with tempting rates and great amenities for properties the scammers don’t actually own.
“I just saw one on Cape Cod,” Fleming told Frommer’s, “where someone had booked what they thought was a legitimate rental property. They showed up for a long weekend to enjoy during the off-season, and the property was not available and the owner had no idea what was going on.”
Not only will such a situation result in a stressful scramble for last-minute lodging, but it’s also likely you won’t get your money back.
How do you avoid that unpleasant fate? Here’s a field guide to spotting online travel scams hatched by that ever-elusive creature, the felonious baloneyus, colloquially known as the red-handed rental ruiner.
Don’t count on proofreading your way to safety.
One of the most important changes in vacation rental scammery of recent years is that fake travel websites have gotten more professional-looking. There was a time when bad grammar and blurry photos were dead giveaways, but things have changed.
“Looking for typos and pixilated images—these mistakes are signs of scammers, but they’re not 100%,” Fleming warns.
We may believe that good copyediting is next to godliness, but fraudsters have figured out it’s easier to deceive by wrapping their lies in a pretty package. So don’t assume that a slick site is a legit site.
Luxury ski chalet company Consensio has revealed horror stories of travelers getting conned out of exorbitant sums after getting taken in by bogus websites. In addition to the fraudulent sites appearing to be on the up and up, these bilked consumers say, the scammers’ email correspondence is polite and efficient, and the URLs even bear an “https” encryption stamp.
There are also copycat sites designed to mimic the pages of generally trustworthy platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. And as AI programs become increasingly adept at generating decent text, scammers have yet another tool to deploy toward looking honest.
To stay on the safe side, one wise strategy is to steer clear of your web browser and book stays through the official app of a trusted third-party service, like Airbnb or Vrbo, that has a process to verify properties and owners' accounts. Fraudulent listings aren't unheard of on those platforms, but if you use the app instead of a browser at least you'll know you haven't accidentally wandered to a lookalike or scam site.
A suspect payment method is the biggest red flag.
Whatever you do, “do not wire money or use a prepaid debit card” to pay for a vacation rental, says Fleming of the BBB. “I would encourage people if possible never to pay the full payment up front with a check, either.”
Ditto for prepaid gift cards and mobile payment apps tied directly to your bank account.
Basically, if a rental property won’t let you pay via credit card, run. Setting up credit card payments requires meeting the card issuers’ fraud-protection requirements, while direct bank transfers are quicker and, once payment is made, almost impossible to undo. Meaning you won’t get your money back.
Your baloney detector might go off immediately if you’re browsing a travel website and notice that it doesn’t take credit cards, but Fleming advises that it’s crucial to stay alert, baloneywise, when you’re considering vacation rental offers you come across in social media venues such as Facebook travel groups, too.
Since social media tends to be informal, you might forget to stay on your guard and agree to pay for a rental with, say, the sort of mobile payment app you’d rely on to pay back a friend for dinner.
“In some cases people steal the actual rental property [info], post it to social media, ask for you to Venmo or Cash App a down payment, and then unfortunately you show up and it’s already rented out,” Fleming explains. “The scammer got your money, you can’t recoup, and you and your family are out.”
Pay with a credit card, though, and you can dispute fraudulent charges and have a better chance of getting your money back.
Stay skeptical of what’s too good to be true.
Remember that scammers often attract targets in the first place with incredibly low prices. So the BBB recommends shopping around a little to find out what the typical rates for a rental property are in your chosen destination with your preferred specs and amenities at that time of year.
Once you’ve established a baseline, you can determine which listings purport to have semi-miraculous prices.
Fleming of the BBB mentioned advertised rates at “half what you would normally pay.” We asked, “What if the rate is 25% lower than the norm?”
“Red flag for sure,” she replied.
Doing some price comparison could keep you from falling for a suspiciously cheapo outlier.
Take the time to snoop.
Don’t let an ultralow price or claim of limited availability persuade you to neglect your due diligence. Experts recommend taking the following precautions—the more of them you carry out, the better your chances of remaining unduped.
• Speak with the owner of the rental property by phone. If you’re not using a platform that verifies properties and owners, don’t communicate with hosts solely by DM or email.
• Search the property address online and do a reverse image search of the photos to see if there are duplicate images with different addresses and contact info elsewhere.
• Look up the vacation rental business or third-party site at BBB.org to see if the operator is considered reputable.
• Consult online reviews and social media accounts for complaints and other issues.
• Go offline and do some IRL research for a change by asking friends and family for word-of-mouth recs for the region you’re headed to. If the rental property you’re interested in is close by, find out if it’s possible to check the place out in person before your stay.
If you do end up getting scammed, spread the word far and wide. File a scam report using the BBB's Scam Tracker. Report fraudulent listings to social media networks and third-party booking platforms. Raise a stink.
As Fleming puts it, “Hopefully we can help protect each other within our communities from this continuing to increase as an issue year over year.”
If scammers can adapt, so can we.