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7 tips to avoid vacation rental rip-offs

Don't get taken for a ride when you rent a vacation home this year. Use these tips to steer clear of scam artists.

By MSN Money Partner May 22, 2014 11:28AM

This post comes from Maryalene LaPonsie at partner site Money Talks News.


Money Talks News on MSN MoneySummer is almost here, and rather than stuff your family into a single hotel room for vacation this year, you may be tempted to rent an entire house instead.


Before you wire money to someone you've met only through Craigslist, learn how to protect your finances and family from shady rental operators.


Vacation rental rip-offs tend to be variations of two themes.
  • The person you're dealing with doesn’t actually own the property. They've lifted the photos and listing from another website. Typically, you'll get a contract to sign and return along with a security deposit. Then, when you show up, luggage in hand, you'll be out of luck while the fraudster will have disappeared with the deposit.
  • The second type of rip-off isn't quite so blatant. You will have a place to stay on your vacation, but you'll learn that the home was misrepresented by the owner and not at all what you were expecting.

Either way, here are seven tips to help avoid vacation-time disappointment:


1. Talk or Skype with the owner

To start, never negotiate a rental solely by email. Many scammers don't even live in the country, so get the owner on the phone and ask a few detailed questions about the property and local attractions. An owner with a thick foreign accent and vague answers to your questions is a clear red flag.


Even better, request that the owner chat with you on Skype or a similar service. Get them to take you on a real-time, virtual tour of the property so you can ask questions while they point out features. This tactic lets you get a better view of the property while also verifying the legitimacy of the listing.


However, be aware that not everyone uses Skype, so a refusal to video chat shouldn't necessarily kill the deal on its own.


2. Check public records

If you can't Skype with the owner, take to Google or another search engine instead. Look up the address and use Google Street View to confirm that the property there matches the one advertised. Also, confirm distances to beaches, attractions and airports while on the site.


In addition, many municipalities put tax records online nowadays. Try searching for the property on the local government website to confirm that the name of the person you're talking to matches that on the tax record. If the municipality doesn't have its records online, you may be able to contact the clerk's office to confirm ownership that way.


3. Look for reviews and ask for references

While you're vetting properties, don't forget to check for online reviews. Some vacation rental websites will provide an opportunity to rate the rental property as well as the owner or property manager.


If the property you're considering doesn't have any online reviews, ask for references and then call them. As with when you're talking to the owner, listen for thick accents

or vague answers; either could indicate the reference is simply a friend of the scammer.


4. Use a service that verifies properties and owners

Websites like Airbnb, Vacation Rentals by Owner and Flipkey make it easy for travelers to connect with property owners in prime vacation spots. In addition, these sites often have built-in fraud protection features.

  • The site may handle payment.
  • Owners and properties may be verified.
  • Rentals may come with money-back guarantees.

Couple on vacation © Getty Images

Benefits will vary by site, so check the fine print. Plus, even these protections can't weed out all the fraudsters. You'll still want to do your homework by checking reviews and talking with the owner.


5. Pay with a credit card

When you're instructed to wire your deposit via Western Union, it's time to run for the hills. Don't send a check or cash either. And while your debit card offers fraud protection, it could be some time before the money makes its way back into your account.


Your best bet to avoid being out money because of a shady vacation rental is to pay with your credit card. If your rental ends up being a scam, you can dispute the charge and end up on the hook for only $50, if that.


6. Trust your gut

Throughout the whole process of shopping for a rental property, it's important to trust your gut.

  • Does the owner seem shady?
  • Are there inconsistencies between the property details and what you see on Google Street View?
  • Is it an unbelievably good deal?

Scammers are betting on that last point. Rip-off rentals are usually bargain-basement-priced in the hopes you'll be so excited about the deal you'll push aside the nagging feeling something isn't quite right.


Remember, if the rental you're considering is significantly cheaper than everything else in the area, there is probably a reason for that.


7. Stick with what you know

Finally, when you find a rental you love, use it again and again. Make it a family tradition to return to the same spot for an annual rendezvous. Variety may be the spice of life, but there is a lot to be said for what's tried and true.


Save yourself the stress of finding the perfect rental every year by sticking with the one you know.


Have you ever rented a vacation home?


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