The Internet has made finding vacation properties faster, easier and cheaper. But not everyone is looking to relax at a charming seaside cottage or a rustic mountain cabin.
Some scam artists have been copying and pasting photos and details of popular destination properties on rental sites, charging unknowing customers large down payments (sometimes half of the entire rental period) and then running off with the cash.
Several recent cases of international rental properties not being available — or booked to more than one customer for the same period — have owners and longtime operators warning consumers to be wary of deals that look too good to be true.
"There are many wonderful rental properties out there that are completely legitimate and only a few scammers," said Christine Karpinski, author of "How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner."
"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,’ " Karpinski said.
One owner, "Barbara," who specializes in international properties, said four clients were scammed earlier this year when they booked waterfront Caribbean properties. Barbara found out later that crooks based in Nigeria hacked into her email system and diverted the reservation to another location.
"Most of the time, people can spot when something is wrong if they pay attention to the communication they are receiving," Barbara said. "The bad guys mostly have been tracked to foreign countries and their use of the English language has not been good. Also, call the phone number provided. It’s not uncommon that it’s disconnected or goes unanswered."
Scammers often use the fastest available method to post a bogus listing, which means they usually never build websites that appear legitimate.
"Craigslist is terrific, especially for long-term rentals," Barbara said. "But unfortunately it’s one of the first places scammers go because they can get in and get out. Of course, the Craigslist people are doing all they can to prevent this, but stuff gets through. It’s just another reminder to do all you can to speak with the owner."
Karpinski said the benefits of staying in a vacation rental home far outweigh the minimal risks. These properties are more spacious and often less expensive than hotel rooms. They’re appointed with all the comforts of your home. They’re private. They tend to be kid-friendly. Often, they’re pet-friendly as well.
Her top tips to safely book your vacation home:
1. 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 lowballing the rental rates.
"If one listing is, say, half the price of all other comparable ones for the same amount of time, beware," Karpinski said. "Put yourself in the owner’s shoes: Why would he or she voluntarily forgo that much income? Five, 10, or maybe even 15 percent off, perhaps, but 50 percent? No way."
2. Cyberstalk the owner. Do some cross-referencing across various websites: 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. Google the phone number listed on the advertisement. Many property owners and managers list their homes on many different websites. Check to see if they are the same.
3. 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.
4. 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 online. Ask specific questions and listen carefully to the answers.
5. Pay only by credit card. Never, ever pay by wire transfer.
Most importantly, listen to your gut because it’s usually right.
"There was a couple on a national TV show that said they went ahead with the rental even though it didn’t feel right," Karpinski said. "What’s up with that? Scammers usually count on people not paying attention," or heeding their intuition.
"Renting a vacation home is like anything else. It’s not risk-free, but when you take steps to mitigate the risk, you can feel 99.9 percent confident that you’re not getting scammed."