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Vacation Rental Scams and How to Avoid Them

March 16, 2009 By Doug in Miami: Travel News  | 3 Comments

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There are so many schemes afoot these days, our very language is changing daily to accommodate new words like phishing, vishing, SMiShing, and pharming, while older terms like Ponzi are entering our pop vernacular, leaving many people befuddled.

In the online world, it all started with those emails from the Nigerian Petroleum Company, telling you in broken English that they needed you to hold on to their $34,000,000 for them, which they would gladly share with you, if you would simply help them out with a few bribes and transfer fees.  Soon, you were getting notices that someone you never heard of had been in a fatal accident and needed an heir, that you’d just won the Spanish lottery, or that a mysterious business was looking for people to process their payments.

Then, the tactics moved beyond email: Ebay bidders who wanted to pay you for your merchandise above and beyond your asking fee, if you would kindly remit the balance of the money to their friends in some distant banana republic.

More recently, apartment and vacation rental sites have become a popular hang-out for scammers,  who promise fantasy getaways in exchange for an advance deposit.  The only trouble is these getaways are more fantasy than you might realize: they often don’t exist—and if they do, the advertisers aren’t the actual owners.  So, how can you tell the real McCoys from the impostors? Here are a few helpful hints.

AN OFFER YOU CAN’T REFUSE

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It may be a brave new world out there, but fortunately, many online crooks have some tell-tale qualities which can make them fairly easy to recognize.

First, consider the source: vacation rental rip-offs are often found in anonymous posting sites like craigslist, and in other online services who do little if any verifying of the properties advertised on their sites.  And even if the property is the real deal, advertisers will often throw in some hidden charges or leave out important details about the home’s location.  More reputable businesses like zonder.com screen their applicants.  Their website makes this guarantee:

Finally, booking a vacation home is risk-free. All properties that carry the Zonder Trust Seal are covered by the following guarantee:

  • The property exists and the calendar is accurate.
  • The property is accurately represented with respect to the sleeping capacity, the location, and the general quality of the property.
  • The price you see is the final price you pay – no hidden charges! (Pool heat, phone and similar charges are generally separate)

This website, miamibeach411.com, handpicks its own vacation rental listings, including only local and reputable businesses, assuring that you’ll know ahead of time what you’re getting into.  Some other companies actually own their own vacation homes, providing you with an extra sense of security.  Recently, however, Miami Beach outlawed the use of single family residences as vacation rentals, putting some of these businesses at a disadvantage.

To see if your vacation rental site guarantees its listings, check out their terms of service.  Do they assume any liability whatsoever if you should discover that you just booked a condo in Brigadoon? If they don’t, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker, though.  It just means you’ll have to do your homework.

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Your second indication that things are rotten in Naples is that the ad sounds too good to be true: amenities out the wazoo and a price you haven’t seen since the Brady Bunch had a variety hour.  It may be a phony property that someone’s listed to get you to send them money, though even some established real estate agents are known for creating these phony ads in bait-and-switch schemes: “Oh, sorry, the $500 a month 2 bedroom apartment with the private sauna was just rented, but we have something similar for $1900!”

The third clue? Lousy grammar! Does the text sound like it was written by a Siberian goat herder? It probably was! Unfortunately, however, in an area like South Florida, it may be a little harder to tell…

An additional tip-off is that the description is very general.  Area-specific information, such as references to nearby landmarks and contact numbers—are often left out.  If someone would rather talk to you by email than give you their phone number, chances are it’s not just that they’re over their minutes.  Furthermore, the story is often rambling, improbable and the writer will go to great pains to talk about God and charitable causes.

Yet another red flag is that scammers like to have all their money up front.  And they prefer not to deal with credit cards: they’ll often want you to wire them money.  Don’t.  Sometimes, they’ll request a reservation fee up front, only to tell you later that the property is no longer available and that your “special deal” has expired.  They then disappear with your deposit.  Nonetheless, if you paid with a credit card with good fraud protection, you should be able to recover the amount.

RESEARCHING YOUR PROPERTY

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A wee bit of online know-how can save you a world of trouble: the same Internet that makes it so easy for people to get your information also helps you find out about them.  Once you have the owner’s name and the property address, there are a number of things you can do.  First, try googling them.  Do you have an email address for the owner? Google that, too!

Once you have the address, you can often look at surface street views of the neighborhood, and even take a virtual walk around to check things out! Doing this will, first and foremost, help you make sure it’s a real address, and that the building and the neighborhood fit the description given.

Another useful tool is zabasearch.com.  You can look up names and verify addresses for people all over the US.  Then, there’s intelius.com, which is no doubt on every bounty hunter’s favorites list.  Just enter a person’s name, and it will tell you their age and almost every place they’ve ever lived—for free! It’s scary.

Perhaps the most useful tool of all is the property appraiser’s website.  Here is the one for Miami-Dade.  Florida is one of those states that enables you to see who the owner of any property is by entering their name, parcel, or property address.  To find the property appraisal website for the county in which your prospective rental is listed, simply google the name of the county you’re interested in with the terms “property” and “search”, and it will take you to a page where you can look up this information.  This trick is useful to research regular apartment rentals, as well.

Also, in order to keep up with the latest schemes, check out lookstoogoodtobetrue.com, which not only tells you how to avoid them, but lists some of the current capers afoot. 

BE CAUTIOUS—BUT NOT DISHEARTENED

It’s good to keep in mind that vacation rentals are an excellent alternative to the stuffy hotel experience, veritable homes away from home, and their popularity is soaring.  So don’t cross them off your list just yet.  While the scams and their variations are becoming more frequent, it’s still relatively easy to check out your property beforehand, ensuring that your vacation is fun and relatively trouble-free.  Now all you’ll have to contend with are overpriced drinks and never-ending taxi rides!

Related Categories: Hotels Miami: Travel News,

Douglas Eames is a freelance writer, homespun philosopher and budget bon vivant who divides his time between Southern California and South Beach.

See more articles by Doug.

See more articles by Doug

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3 Comments on

"Vacation Rental Scams and How to Avoid Them"

Marsja says:

I believe I was Scammed… yesterday Paid up front for a condo rental at the Islander Condinioms on 1255 collins miami florida. If any one has any information about that particular location pls contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). I feel helpless because I do not live in the area. The person posted the ad on craigslist and I thought it was legit untill a recieved a suspicious reciept. They claim to be the owner of the building but after doing some research I found that each condo is owned individually. I paid the deposit and rental fee up front and i need help finding out information.

Posted on 03/23/2011 at 11:05 AM

Doug says:

Hi Marsja, I’m sorry to hear about your predicament.  There was a girl allegedly doing this on South Beach named Monica Brown who was recently arrested.  I wonder if your situation could be related.  I would contact the local police immediately, as they’re already familiar with the Monica Brown case.  They can likely find the person’s identity because they had to have a way of gaining access to the condo.  Good luck! Here is the story on Monica Brown:
http://www.miamibeach411.com/news/craigslist-scam

Posted on 03/23/2011 at 11:22 AM

Bruce says:

Scammed on Craigslist 4/23/12—- trying to rent apartment in South Beach Florida.
Craigslist ad:

$70 / 1br - 1700ft² - Outstanding location in SOBE !!! (South beach )

Date: 2012-04-23, 11:38AM EDT
Reply to: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) [Errors when replying to ads?]

The spacious bedroom features a luxurious king size bed with matching nightstand’s and a large closet, Walk in shower. The living space includes a sofa, armchair, pouf, coffee table, a 32’HD flat screen TV with over 90 cable channels, a DVD/CD player, an iPod radio/stereo, WiFi and fast broadband connection. The air conditioning is excellent & quiet .

*** Money was sent by way of Western Union ($752.00) ***  Once money was received and picked up I lost communication with person—- Michelle Navarro (maybe not real name)
who claimed to be owner of unit:  1500 Ocean Drive, Unit 508, Miami, FL.

If anyone else has had a similar situation please contact me to let me know their results.

Posted on 04/23/2012 at 10:37 PM

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