You can do nearly everything online these days, including booking the vacation of your dreams. Whether it’s a long journey around the world or a short trip to a tropical beach, finding a hotel, car and plane ticket can be done with a simple click of your mouse.
The Internet has also made it easy for would-be sunbathers to find homeowners who are ready, willing, and able to rent out their beachfront real estate, cottage, or getaway residence for the right price. According to the Vacation Rental Managers Association, the U.S. vacation rental industry is growing rapidly and is poised to reach $25.8 billion by 2014.
But as with most situations where money is involved, scammers have a way of infiltrating.
The Better Business Bureau recently warned vacationers about potential scams that can include fraudsters creating fake listings for homes they don’t own. Someone else may have legitimately listed the homes for rent elsewhere, or the listings may be for homes that are not even for rent or sale at all.
Earlier this year, for example, a Fort Myers Beach, Fla. family had vacationers arrive at their home—which was not for rent—after someone began selling weeks at the beach house on Craigslist.
Scammers also “phish” for the email or login information of real owners and then hijack their online accounts, says Jon Gray, vice president of HomeAway, a vacation rental marketplace.
Here are some tips for a worry-free—and hopefully scam-free—vacation rental experience:
1. Use a reputable website or agency to find your rental. Companies that specialize in vacation rentals have dedicated staff that can validate whether or not the listed rentals are legitimate. “Fraudsters won’t go where they know they can get caught,” Gray says.
2. Do your research. Check to see that the person offering the rental is the actual owner, and verify that the address is real. Do an Internet search on the property to see if it’s for rent somewhere else. If you do find it for rent on another site, verify that the owner’s contact information is the same in both listings. Read reviews from people who have stayed at the property, and take note of any red flags.
3. Follow up. Call the owner and have a conversation about the rental. Be cautious of foreign phone numbers or unresponsive owners.
4. Use secure payment. Renters should be wary if an owner requests an expedited payment for the rental, offers a big discount for it, or asks to be paid via money transfer systems. Paying with PayPal or a credit card can offer some extra security.
If a scam does occur and a crime has been committed, notify local law enforcement.
Scammers by and large are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to renting a vacation home, Gray says. “The overwhelming majority of people have a great time. It’s a great experience.”
Stephanie Hardiman Simon is a freelance writer and social media professional in Chicago. Her work has appeared in the Portland Press Herald, Nashville Business Journal, and Valley Business FRONT magazine, among others. She is a proud graduate of Washington and Lee University and holds a master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University. Follow her on Twitter: @_StephSimon.