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How to Avoid Vacation Rental Scams

Illustration by Widjaya Ivan

A consumer advocate blog we frequent, Elliott.org, featured a story yesterday about a women who lost $4,500 in a vacation rental scam. Because the deception was perpetrated by compromising the vacation rental owner’s e-mail via phishing—and not because the well-established home rental site itself, HomeAway.com, was compromised—the renter was out of luck.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, HomeAway sent an e-mail to all of its customers earlier this month about phishing scams. And it’s not only a problem for HomeAway—many vacation rental sites have logged similar hoaxes that have cost travellers thousands of dollars.

There may be hope, though. This week, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, PayPal, AOL and ten other companies announced a joint effort called DMARC, promoting new Internet standards that will make e-mail more secure.

Until that happens, here are some ways you can protect yourself when renting a vacation property:

  1. Never—ever—wire money. Instead, use a credit card. At the very least, your card protection might cover you.
  2. Always verify the e-mail address via the phone number listed with the home rental company. Call the property owner or manager to be sure that you have the right address.
  3. Ask for proof. Request that the owner provide you with past renter references and anything that verifies his or her name as the property owner (e.g. business license, utility bill).
  4. Do a Google search of the owner’s name and e-mail to see if they match up and whether there are any complaints against them.
  5. Follow instructions on the home rental website. If the site says to only contact the proprietor via phone or to contact the property manager (rather than the owner), then do so.
  6. If a rental company offers security protection, purchase it. HomeAway, for example, has a Carefree Rental Guarantee, which covers phishing as well as foreclosures, bankruptcy and double booking. It does not, however, extend to wire transfers (another reason to just never, ever, pay by wire transfer) or amounts over $10,000.
  7. Trust your gut. If a deal looks too good to be true (significantly cheaper than similar properties nearby), it probably is. If the “owner” has poor grammar, a non-professional manner, can’t be reached by phone or just gives you an uneasy feeling, move on to a different property.


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