Vacation Rental Scams – Do not be a victim!

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In a few months my grandmother turns 90 (she’d kill me if she saw that I was publicizing this as she can pass for 70!). Since this is a major milestone in life, my entire extended family is planning on getting together to celebrate, and who do you think was tasked with organizing the whole thing – yours truly! I was thinking South Florida as that is where my Grandmother will be during her birthday and thought renting a house would be a ton of fun. While I love my hotel points, having a house with a pool, common area, grill, backyard, etc. really was the perfect scenario for this type of gathering.

I’ve been checking out houses on VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) and thought I had the perfect house. I sent a message to the owner through the online system and heard back that those dates I requested were available and even though they typically have a minimum of 5 nights for the rental, they’d be willing to rent out the house for only 3 nights. Great! So I went back and forth asking a slew of questions. If they had a grill, pullout couches, where the bathrooms were located, cleaning fees – everything under the sun. I got well written responses back every single time. They even gave me the address of the house and when I was in Ft. Lauderdale in December I drove by to ensure the house actually existed and that the outside looked like the pictures (which it did).

I then asked if a friend of mine who lives near by could check out the place. They responded that the house was currently occupied and they did not want to disturb the guests. I thought it was strange that they did not say, “well it is not available today, but come see it next week or something of that sort.” My mom talked me out of thinking it was strange and thought if I was renting it for a month that would be different, but it is only three days. Whenever I rent a house I always go in with skepticism, so this didn’t sit well with me.

I let that one sly, told the women we were ready to move forward with the rental and requested she send me the contract. I received the contract and booking agreements via email and it seemed pretty legit, with one exception – the bank account was in London! To me that is a HUGE red flag. No way was I sending payment to an offshore bank account.

I called the number on the VRBO site and spoke to the women who said she owned the property. I told her I had a few questions about the contract she sent me and she claimed she never sent me a contract and had no email from me (we had been emailing for the past 3 weeks, or so I thought!). After a few minutes, she realized I had been scammed. While it was a legit listing and she was the owner of the property, it was some scammer I had been emailing with pretending to be the owner. She said this is the third time it has happened in the past few months.

It seems as though the scammer was able to hack into the VRBO system and the message I sent to the owner through the “send a message to owner” option was routed to the scammers email. The scammer then responded back to my inquiry as if they were the property owner. The entire time I was communicating with some random joe shmo who just wanted my money. And the email address seemed pretty legit. Luckily I never sent the person any money. Looking back at the email conversations there were a few things I then picked up on, but would never have raised a major red flag individually.

Some things to look out for when renting a house:

  • If the person immediately is willing to deduct the nightly rent by a significant discount, be weary. This happened with another house I was looking into. They had no problem reducing the cost from $995/night to $600/night. A scammer will take any amount of money so if they know they will lure you in with a discount, they are more than happy to do that. This is not saying that all discounts are scams, but just be cautious.
  • If the person will not show you the house, make sure it is legit. I get that many people will not be able to show you the house, but in those scenarios just keep an eye out for a scam.
  • They are able to put many pull out couches in the house. I asked if there were pull out couches and the scammer responded back saying they can put some more in the house. This was because the scammer knew I had 16 people and the house only slept 12 people. Two pull out couches would ensure everyone could fit comfortably and I’d be more inclined to rent the house.
  • The house listing states no dogs, but when you ask about pets they are more than willing to have you bring your dog. Again, they just want you to rent the house and pay them. They do not care if you bring a lion!
  • You will get a discount if you pay in full now. This happened with us. If we paid in full we would get a 10% discount. This way they ensure they get all of the money right away instead of 50% now and 50% later. And by the time you need to pay the remaining 50% you might have already figured out the scam. They’d prefer 100% now even if it is at a slight loss. This should have been a red flag to us.
  • Wiring money. NEVER NEVER NEVER wire money. This happened to me a few years ago and I immediately knew it was a scam when the first email mentioned the word “wiring”.
  • Sending money to an overseas bank account. The scammer wanted me to send money to a bank account in London. Red flag! With sites like VRBO and Homeaway you can pay through their system.

Of course there are many legit houses out there for rent, but just keep these signs in mind. As I mentioned the email correspondence I had with this person were professional, no typos, but now looking back, way too accommodating.

Feel free to comment below with any other tips you have to ensure no one falls for one of these scams.

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  1. We’re a Home Away (and, by default VRBO, since they’re under common ownership) renter. I forwarded your email to my wife, who handles our rental apartment.

    Turns out she had just received a scam phishing email through VRBO that including a link to a fake Google log in site. Not being familiar with the VRBO email system (most of our rentals are doing via Home Away), she clicked it. She’s now busy resetting passwords.

    This is different from what you experienced (the person renting out the apartment getting scammed), but could help explain how scammers got access to someone’s VRBO login.

    As to your other points:

    – We’re amenable to lowering the rate if the rental is within the next week or two, otherwise the apartment is likely to sit empty. Other than that, the rate is the rate.

    – We’ve never had a request for someone to see the apartment in advance. When we’re busy (meaning there are literally no days the apartment is empty), I doubt we’d consider it (would you want other parties coming through a place you were renting?). But if we’re empty — sure, why not?

    – We can accommodate six people and will not rent to more. Honestly, this is something of a red flag for us.

    – Most people renting places prefer to get paid in cash when you arrive. The fees for taking credit cards through the Home Away site really take a bite out of the rental. We’ve never even considered asking people to wire money.

  2. @LarryInNYC – taking all the money in cash upon arrival is a questionable practice. What do you do if the tenant does not show? You then have an empty home which you could have rented out to another tenant.

    As for the original post, I found it to be rather naive in many ways:
    – vacation rentals are priced on what the market will bear. Faced with the prospect of a rental home sitting vacant, many owners would be more than willing to cut the price, especially if it is for a shorter rental period.
    – what is wrong if the owner asks for the deposit to be wired, especially if there is not enough time to get a check cleared? A legitimate request, IMO
    – foreign bank account? Again a myopic viewpoint, IMO. Many owners of Florida homes are foreigners and it is not so strange if they have a foreign account. C’mon, this is the 21st century!

  3. Something like this also happened to me once!
    I asked for inside photos and they sendet me photos from rooms which i compared with the outside of the house on google street view and there were windows and balconys and views in the photos which didn’t fit to the outside of the house!!
    In the end they asked me for wire the money with western union! There the red flag came up to me!!

  4. @Schrott: In two years of apartment rental, we’ve never had a no show. We did have one party essentially disappear on us for the two months before they were due, but they did show up (turns out they were on a silent meditation retreat somewhere). We have debated whether it’s worth the 5+ percent in credit card fees to have the certainty in advance but in our experience there isn’t a no-show problem.

    As for wiring, Home Away / VRBO offers credit card payments that they mediate and that’s how we handle deposits (there’s always a deposit) and also people who actively want to pay in advance. That would be the normal method of advance payment.

  5. I have rented vacation homes many times from VRBO. I do get nervous. It has always turned out right. I always sent one inquiry email. Then call the phone number, whether I had heard back from the owner or not.
    Some properties do not list a phone number , in that case i do not go further until i can talk to them personally. The way each owner does business is so varied, you must find one who makes you feel right. Some times rents were lowered and better deals for me are offered, because they want to rent the place. I always worry when I have sent any money to them before hand, but it has always been legit. Most owners I have used require a personal check for a partial payment of rent upfront and collect the rest when I arrive. Some have asked for nothing upfront. The properties have ALWAYS been better than advertised.

  6. Schrott- wiring money is not wise- once you send it, it can be picked up anywhere in the world. It is so subject to fraud that VRBO (and every other rental site, auction site, etc) warn against it.
    At so paying 5% in credit card fees– I pay 2.5% and it is well worth it to me to have the deal wrapped and finished. No way to I want to collect wads of cash in person from renters.

  7. I’m a bit skeptical about a rental I’m looking into because they’re asking me to pay through PayPal. Is this acceptable, or do I have adequate reason to be concerned?
    Everything seemed to be in place until quite recently, and I’m starting to think that maybe they’re very good scammers instead of legitimate owners.

    • @Ray – I do believe some require payment by paypal. Have you received a contact. Does the contract look legit? You can always reach out to VRBO or Airbnb (or whatever site you are going for) and they can probably look to see if it is legit.

  8. The English grammar is concerning, but this person is also supposedly foreign.
    I asked whether there would be a contract (2-week stay), and he said there was only a booking confirmation that I can “call” a contract. I asked more questions, and his email seemed defensive, since he didn’t write as formal as before (if it was formal before). He could be frustrated because I made it seem like I was going to pay the deposit right away, then suddenly started bothering him with questions.

  9. He has a lot of positive reviews on VRBO (all positive), but they could be fake. He has a website, but it doesn’t have this particular property on it. He’s listed this property on VRBO and several HomeAway sites. I’m feeling very mixed.

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