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TravelCommon vacation rental scams and how to avoid them

Common vacation rental scams and how to avoid them


As Irina Strembitsky and her mom planned a winter getaway last fall, they never imagined they’d become victims of a vacation rental scam. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and Strembitsky says it ruined their much-anticipated trip.

Using Airbnb, the two booked a cute condo in a full-service oceanfront building in Boynton Beach, Florida. However, on the day they showed up with suitcases in hand, ready to settle in, the owner texted them with bad news: The property was unavailable. The previous guests were refusing to leave. But no worries, he told them, he had a similar vacation rental for them.

Given no other options, the mother-daughter pair followed him there.

The replacement vacation rental turned out to be neither nearby nor similar. Strembitsky says the second property was a tiny, unkempt stand-alone house with no pool, no gym and no beach. Worse, it was 12 miles from their desired location where their friends were staying. As a result, the short, warm-weather respite was wrecked by what Strembitsky believes was a vacation rental scam from the start.

Unfortunately, Strembitsky’s experience is not an isolated incident.

Vacation rental scams are on the rise, and if you’re not careful, you could easily fall prey to one, too. The array of schemes you might encounter during your property hunt is vast.

Here’s how to recognize red flags and avoid the most common vacation rental scams on your next trip.

The host offers a discount if you book off the listing platform

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All major vacation rental listing sites have systems in place to protect their users from scams.

If you’re using Vrbo, you’ll have the Book with Confidence Guarantee. Airbnb offers its guests AirCover. Both of these promises protect guests who book and pay for their vacation rental through the respective listing platform, but these safety nets will only protect you if you stay within the confines of the platform from start to finish.

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If the guest agrees to book outside of these platforms, the guest may be exposed to unexpected calamities, such as:

  • A property that you can’t access upon arrival for any reason (including a non-existent property or an owner’s last-minute cancellation)
  • A vacation rental that is significantly different from the listing
  • A host who, post-rental, attempts to keep your damage deposit without reason

A hallmark red flag of a vacation rental scam is a host who attempts to lure you off that protected platform with the promise of a discount or deal.

Airbnb and Vrbo hosts are not permitted to ask potential customers to circumvent the system and contact them off-site. If a host asks you to book the vacation rental directly, you are likely headed into a danger zone.

At the very least, you’re dealing with a person willing to break the rules of the listing site — rules they agreed to. And more often than not, there is a scammer on the other end of this type of request, and one who doesn’t even have a property to rent to you. Their only goal is to grab your cash and disappear.

If you allow a “host” to lure you away from the vacation rental listing site to make your reservation, you’re stepping outside the safety zone. If the property turns out to be problematic or nonexistent, you will have no access to the protections offered by the original vacation rental listing platform.

It’s critical to make all payments within your account on the vacation listing site and to make all inquiries before, during and after the rental via the listing platform’s messaging service. If anything goes wrong, you’ll have the evidence you’ll need to ensure those security measures will apply to you.

Requesting a wire transfer for payment

If you’re searching for the perfect vacation rental and a host asks you to pay with a wire transfer, reconsider. Wire transfers are instant and irreversible, and they remain a common payment method for scammers worldwide.

Consumers who use a credit card to pay for their vacation rental are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act. If something goes catastrophically wrong, the traveler can file a credit card dispute and reverse the charges. No such protections exist if you use a wire transfer as the payment method. It’s essentially the same as handing over a wad of cash. Once it’s no longer in your possession, you can’t get it back.

Both Airbnb and Vrbo are set up to accept secure, encrypted credit card payments, and that’s how you should always book your vacation rental. Paying with a credit card provides an additional shield against scammers — one that is nearly impossible to penetrate.

Requesting a Zelle payment

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The cash app Zelle has surpassed wire transfers as the preferred payment method for hosts of fake vacation rentals. These scammers set up fraudulent rental listings for properties they don’t own on Airbnb, Vrbo, Craigslist and other listing platforms, complete with photos they’ve lifted from other sites. Once they have a victim on the hook, their next task is to convince their prey to pay for the vacation rental via Zelle transfer.

Zelle transactions are even more alluring than wire transfers because they’re instantaneous, irreversible and very simple to complete. In fact, many bad actors will even offer to assist their target with setting up a Zelle account. The entire scam can take just minutes from start to finish with a few clicks on the victim’s phone.

Some scammers will even create fake messages that appear to be coming directly from Vrbo — letterhead and all. These emails, which arrive almost immediately after you hit the confirm button, inform the potential renter that Vrbo prefers Zelle payments and give additional instructions to complete the transaction.

If you receive a notice from a site like Airbnb or Vrbo asking you to transfer your money into an escrow account using the Zelle app, you have definitely met a scammer. Vrbo will never request payment through any nontraditional method like Zelle, Venmo or gift cards, but criminals will gladly accept any of those payment forms from you.

Again, always insist on using your credit card to pay for your vacation rental and deposit. If the host refuses, move on.

A vacation rental with a rate that is too good to be true

The mantra, “If something looks too good to be true, it is,” applies during your vacation rental search.

The price point of fake vacation rentals is often significantly lower than that of similar properties for obvious reasons. Namely, the appealing rental cost is the primary lure of these listings. If you’re scrolling through Airbnb or Vrbo and stumble upon a fabulous-looking vacation rental at an unbelievable price, slow down and take a closer look at the listing. Owners do not slash their rates for no reason. You’ve either found a scammer’s fake listing, or there is likely something wrong with the property.

Although you may really love the vacation rental and its rate, it’s critical to do some research before booking any property. Comparison shopping across the listing site and even across competitor sites will give you an idea if the property you’re considering is unusually priced. If it is, then reach out to the owner and ask some questions about the discount rate before you book the property.

Be particularly wary of vacation rentals that you find on multiple sites with significantly lower rates for the exact same property. Duplicate yet differently priced vacation rental listings are frequently a sign that a scammer has lifted the details of the home from one of the platforms and is just phishing for victims.

A vacation rental with no reviews

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To make sure a potential vacation rental is a good fit for your needs, it’s vital to read through the reviews left by other renters. Keep in mind that the reviews may not be in sequential order, so look at them all.

Even the most spectacular vacation rental and owner start out with zero reviews, of course, so no reviews under a listing does not necessarily mean you’re dealing with a scammer. But remember, fraudulent listings will never have a positive review on the major listing sites that require a confirmed stay before a guest can review the property. For the same reason, negative reviews are also unlikely.

Fake rental listings are posted and taken down very quickly. They’re only there to phish for victims, and after one is caught, the listing is typically removed and the scammer begins again elsewhere with a clean slate and a fresh scam.

If the property you’re interested in has no reviews, contact the owner and ask some questions. Scammers usually don’t answer queries, preferring to focus on less quizzical potential victims. If you ask a question and no one answers, you’ve likely dodged a fake vacation rental fiasco.

A sloppy vacation rental listing

Legitimate vacation rental hosts want to present their property in the best light. After all, their goal is to make their listing stand out and attract customers.

For that reason, you shouldn’t overlook grammatical errors in a listing. Typos and odd phrases describing a property and its location are yet another sign that the listing may have been created by someone other than a reputable vacation rental host. Of course, if your host and rental are international, you may encounter some language barriers in your messages to one another, but the listing itself will typically be translated by the platform you’re using.

In addition to the words, the photos attached to the listing can also provide important clues as to whether you should consider the property or not. Scammers don’t typically spend much time creating beautiful listings with unique photos. In fact, many fraudsters simply attach stock photos or images scraped from other listings.

To gather more information about the vacation rental you’re considering, put some of those photos in Google Lens or through a Google Image search. Google will instantly do the investigative work for you and scan the internet to see if those images exist elsewhere.

Many scammers have been cut off at the pass after savvy travelers (and consumer advocates) discover through an image search that the listing’s photos don’t belong to the vacation rental they’re considering.

Beware of vacation rental images spun from artificial intelligence

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Unfortunately, scammers have fully embraced the use of artificial intelligence to generate photos and text to aid in their schemes. Increasingly, I’ve encountered listings in which photos pass the Google Lens test but fail the AI test.

If you cannot determine whether or not the images or descriptions you’re looking at are fake, use a Chrome extension like Hive AI Detector that will have a “look” at the photo and give you an opinion about the likelihood that the image is AI-generated.

Although vacation rental owners aren’t prohibited from using AI to create the images used to advertise the property, it’s unethical unless fully disclosed in the listing. I would advise against booking a property if the photos are AI-generated because the reality is likely to disappoint. A reputable vacation rental host should be able to show you current, unaltered photos of their property — ones not “imagined” by a computer program that creates its final product as a composite stolen from other similar photos.

Sense of urgency

Scammers across every industry rely on keeping their victims confused, so they must complete their ruses quickly before their victims become aware of what’s going on. If you’re considering a vacation rental and the owner sends you a message that you must complete the transaction immediately because they have multiple people interested, consider this to be a bit of a red flag as well. Of course, if you’re looking for a property during the high season or a popular anticipated event (like we saw recently during the eclipse), there may be cause to act quickly.

If no such reasons exist, don’t be intimidated by high-pressure sales tactics meant to cause you to overlook red flags. There are thousands of vacation rental properties out there, and if one doesn’t work out, there will be others. Take your time, and do your research. Again, only pay through a major rental site’s own booking platform so that you are covered by its protections.

Always contact the owner before booking

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It’s a good practice for travelers to contact the host with at least one question before confirming a vacation rental. It really doesn’t matter what your question is; the point is to make sure there is a human to contact prior to booking.

You can learn a lot from that first interaction. Pay particular attention to the following points:

  • Are they knowledgeable about the home and its surroundings? When answering questions about the property and its setting, the host should be able to describe specific details confidently. Is there anything to know about parking or access? Can they tell you the best pizza shop nearby? What about the closest family-friendly beach? Be wary of an owner who doesn’t sound very familiar with the property or area.
  • Do their responses seem canned? Many online criminals are not based in the U.S. and don’t have a firm grasp of English. As a result, they’ll be unable to have an easy conversation with their victims. That’s where AI again often comes into play. Be careful with responses that sound canned and don’t quite match what you’ve asked. You may be having an AI-aided dialogue with a scammer.
  • Is there a long, complicated explanation of oddities? Scammers often tell long-winded, complex and often sad stories meant to confuse you further and evoke sympathy. For instance, if you ask the host why they’re asking you to pay off-site, they may launch into a story about their mother being elderly and sick, living abroad and depending on the rental income. Or, if they don’t seem to know many details about the property, they may tell you someone else has been managing it for them as they’ve been recovering from an illness to explain away your concerns. Make sure your questions are answered in simple, easy-to-understand explanations that make sense.

Bait-and-switch scams

A true bait-and-switch vacation rental scam occurs when the host entices a guest to book a stay based on photos and descriptions of a property that is not the actual unit that will be provided — like what happened to Irina Strembitsky. In fact, in many cases, the bait property doesn’t even exist. The person who has put up the listing will inform the guest just days — or, in some cases, hours — before check-in that the property isn’t available after all.

The scammer will then typically present some options (in this order):

  • Ask the guest to cancel through the listing platform’s app.
  • Ask the guest to go to another property, which will almost always be inconvenient and not at all similar. Then, when the renter complains …
  • Again, ask the guest to cancel through the listing app.

For this scheme to work, the scammer has to convince the guest to initiate the cancellation. If the guest cancels — later than the last day the reservation would be eligible for a refund — the listing platform sends the payment to the “host,” and that completes the transaction. The thief takes the money and runs, leaving the bewildered traveler without a place to stay and without their cash.

Although the victim here might still be able to get their money back through the listing agent, it will be a battle, which, as I know from experience, frequently does not go in favor of the traveler without the assistance of a third party like a consumer advocate or, in extreme cases, an attorney.

In Strembitsky’s case, when the host told her that the comfy little seaside condo she booked wasn’t available, he asked her to cancel, but she wisely refused. So, he guided her to a property 12 miles down the road that was not at all what she wanted. The owner continued encouraging her to cancel her original booking, implying that she would get a full refund if she did.

That wasn’t true, and Strembitsky suspected so.

“Something made me think it was a trick,” Strembitsky told me. “Not only that, but it was a busy weekend in Boynton Beach, and there was nothing else available. So I kept calling and emailing Airbnb asking for help.”

Inexplicably, the Airbnb agents that Strembitsky “spoke” to in a chat appeared to be unable to grasp the problem.

“It was very frustrating, I just wanted to be moved into the condo that I originally booked or something similar,” Strembitsky explained. “They [Airbnb chat agents] kept telling me I was in a better place.”

However, the photos Strembitsky sent to me and to Airbnb show that the replacement property was not a better option. It seemed clear that Strembitsky had been chatting with bots, not human agents who would have had the ability to see the photos and review the details of the complaint.

I contacted Airbnb on her behalf while she was still at the replacement unit. By then, her mom had given up and flown home, but Strembitsky was still trying to salvage a bit of her Florida getaway.

The Airbnb executive team agreed that the replacement vacation rental was unacceptable. Strembitsky received a $1,200 future travel credit with Airbnb, and the company refunded its rental service fee. She also received a 30% cash refund for the nights she stayed at the unwanted rental.

For Strembitsky, this was an acceptable outcome, as she did end up completing the stay despite being inconvenienced by the location and downgraded property.

“Thank you for your help. I learned a lot from this experience,” she told me. “If this happens ever again, I will not go blindly to another location. I didn’t know what to do, since this had never happened to me before. But now I do. I hope my experience helps others.”

That’s our hope as well, Irina.

What to do if you find yourself in a bait-and-switch vacation rental scam

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Strembitsky contacted me in real time as she was struggling to get herself extricated from the vacation rental she didn’t book or want. Unfortunately, she had already made a few significant missteps that only exacerbated the problem.

If an Airbnb or Vrbo vacation rental host presents you with a last-minute switch to an alternative property, keep a few things in mind:

You are under no obligation to accept a replacement vacation rental

If you are prevented from gaining access to the property on your reservation, the host is required to cancel the rental. Even legitimate hosts resist this requirement because when a cancellation is initiated by a host, they’re penalized in various ways. Their visibility on the listing platform may take a hit, and they can also be financially affected. A host who has too many self-initiated cancellations risks being kicked off the platform. However, that should not be your concern. If a host can’t fulfill your reservation, and you reject the replacement, they must cancel.

Take photos and videos

If you’ve already followed the host to another property and discover, as Strembitsky did, that it isn’t a place you want to stay, it’s important to take photos and videos that clearly illustrate the problem. Make it clear to the host that you do not intend to stay.

Immediately alert the listing agent

As part of the safety protections on both Airbnb and Vrbo, the customer is protected if the vacation rental turns out to be a scam (non-existent) or is otherwise unavailable. Contacting the listing agent in writing is easy through your account on the platform. The listing agent will provide you with a replacement property from its inventory equal to or in a higher category than the unit you originally booked at no additional cost. If no vacation rentals are available, you’ll typically receive approval to check in to a local hotel that will be covered by the Airbnb or Vrbo guarantee.

Bottom line: A checklist before booking your vacation rental

The more you know about the latest tactics used by vacation rental scammers, the easier it will be to avoid falling victim to one. If you keep the following in mind while browsing the listings as you plan your next vacation, you will lessen your chances of being scammed.

  • Always pay with a credit card directly through the listing site. These payment systems are secure and encrypt your data so you don’t have to worry about a hacker intercepting your data.
  • Always keep your payments and communications about your reservation within the vacation rental listing site. There are limited exceptions to this rule: There are some affiliated management companies that list properties on both Airbnb and Vrbo. These will be identified on the listing. After the initial payment, the management company may ask that you make the final payment through their site. If you have any questions as to the legitimacy of this request, contact Airbnb and Vrbo through your account and ask.
  • Never book through an ad on Craigslist or a similar platform. These listing sites are unsecured and unmonitored, and they are a haven for scammers willing to give you a spectacular deal on a non-existent property.
  • Don’t let a host convince you to make an impulsive decision.
  • Have a conversation with the host before booking a property.
  • Contact the listing platform immediately if a host wants to send you to an alternative location.
  • Never cancel a reservation at the host’s request. If there is a problem with the rental, the owner must cancel in order for a refund to be processed back to you. Remember, if you cancel first, your money is immediately released to the host. If that person is a scammer phishing for victims, you’ve unfortunately fallen for the scheme hook, line and sinker — and fate is totally avoidable if you follow the tips above.

If you do find yourself in a vacation rental scam and you don’t know where to turn, send your request for help to [email protected] and I’ll be happy to help you, too.

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