If you've ever booked a vacation rental, this will seem perfectly normal at first.
You find a good listing, maybe on Craigslist or maybe on another vacation rental site. It's exactly what you need and the price is definitely right.
Your interactions with the owner lead you to believe you're dealing with a friendly and helpful person—who even recommends, for everybody's peace of mind, handling the booking through Airbnb because of its scam protections.
You breathe a sigh of relief. This is all legit, you tell yourself.
The owner sends you a link to the property's Airbnb listing so that you can complete the reservation securely.
You click the link and see the listing on Airbnb. You flick through photos. You see glowing reviews. Everything seems great!
Except for one thing that you don't realize: You're no longer on Airbnb. You're on a scammer site that looks exactly like Airbnb. By now, though, you're so excited about the property, and you've already built a rapport with the alleged owner, so you may not even notice that you're about to hand your money to an impostor.
It's not Airbnb's fault. It's being scammed, too.
The scam, as reported by the travel blog Goats on the Road, HuffPost, and other outlets, has been floating around for a couple of years, but the trick is as old as email phishing: You feel like you're looking at the genuine article, but you're not.
In messages sent within Airbnb, phone numbers and external links are obscured. That's why the renters may start on another site or find ways to convince you to start communicating somewhere else.
Here's how to make sure you don't fall prey to this scam—and these rules apply to any vacation rental website that acts as the payment intermediary between you and a homeowner, like HomeAway or VRBO.
1. Never click on a link sent to you.
Only book without leaving the Airbnb site, from start to finish. If someone sends you a link to an outside page, don't click it. Ask for the headline of the listing and find it yourself at the Airbnb site. If the host is unwilling to cooperate or comes up with an excuse—"It's a private listing," say—that's a red flag. There's no such thing as a private listing.
2. If for some reason you click on a link sent to you (don't do that), carefully inspect the URL and the page.
Does your browser indicate the site is secure? Is the ".com" immediately followed by a / or by another dot and more characters? These fake pages are really good, so even an eagle eye may not spot the fraud. Not everyone has the computer savvy to know what to look for, and if that describes you, the next step will cover you.
3. If you can, only search and book through the mobile app.
Airbnb's mobile app will never steer you to a fake page. You can be confident that everything listed on the app is protected by Airbnb's usual standards. That means don't start on Craigslist. Also make sure you're not looking at the property's listing page in your smartphone's Web browser—remain in the official app itself.
4. Only communicate within Airbnb's messaging system.
It's against Airbnb's rules to conduct business or request payment outside of the site, so a legit owner would never do that. (See section 14 of the Terms, "Prohibited Activities.") This rule isn't only in place because the website wants the commission, but also for your protection. If you leave Airbnb's site at all, the company won't help you if you're scammed. The other major home rental websites that act as middlemen have similar rules. Ultimately, these sites are just marketplaces. If you leave the marketplace and get lured to a lookalike and click links you obtained somewhere else, that's your fault.
5. Never give your credit card information to a third party.
Airbnb already collected your card and charges you on behalf of the landlord, remember? If the landlord asks for that info, too, alarm bells should ring.
6. Never, ever, ever, ever wire money. Ever.
Not even if the landlord pressures you by saying you'll lose the property if you don't. When you pay for travel, always use a credit card with scam protection. That way, if things go pear-shaped, you'll still get your money back.