That Vacation Rental Listing Could Be a Scam. These Are the Warning Signs to Look Out for

Janine Lamontagne | Getty Images
  • Before you book that summer rental, be sure to double check it's not a scam.
  • One big warning sign a listing is a fake: Demand for immediate payment on another platform.
  • Other warning signs include phony images and lack of credible reviews.

Before you book a rental property for a summer getaway, you may want to double check that you're not getting scammed.

This week, New York State Attorney General Letitia James issued a warning for consumers seeking rental properties.

"Summer plans can quickly melt if consumers aren't careful when they book their getaway," James said in a statement. "Vacation fraud happens every year, but there are ways to avoid it and protect yourself from getting burned."

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Rental scams can happen at any time of the year, but the good news is there are ways you can spot them before you've been taken advantage of, according to Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director at Elliott Advocacy, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization.

Biggest warning sign

The biggest red flag that a listing is a scam is when you are asked to leave a listing platform such as Vrbo or Airbnb in order to provide a payment, Couch-Friedman said.

A fake real estate owner will ask a consumer to send $500, for example, via an online payment platform such as Zelle. Those transfers are instant and cannot be reversed, Couch-Friedman said.

"The best payment method for any kind of vacation rental would be credit cards, because then you have [the] protection of the Fair Credit Billing Act," Couch-Friedman said. "If you are scammed, your credit card company can get your money back."

So, remember to book a listing you found on a well-known website on that website only. "As long as you stay within the platform from start to finish, from payment to deposit, it's very difficult to become scammed," Couch-Friedman said.

More red flags

Also, be on the lookout for fake listings. These will often appear as new posts with no reviews, Couch-Friedman said. In her notice, James also warned consumers to look out for fake reviews, such as more than one review repeating the same phrases.

The listing may also have grainy photos. By taking a screen shot of the photos and doing a search on Google Images, you can find out if it exists elsewhere. If the image shows up for another listing in a different location, or in an unrelated context, such as a furniture advertisement, then it's a scam, Couch-Friedman said.

It's also a good idea to message the owner before you commit. Of note, this correspondence should only happen on the listing site, according to James. A scammer may not get back to you right away or respond in proper English, according to Couch-Friedman.

Also be sure the host or owner has a valid address and phone number, James recommends.

The good news is that if you read the terms and conditions for the listing site you're using, and you stay on that platform, you can reduce your chances significantly of getting taken.

If you run into legal issues with potential schemes, it is best to contact your state's attorney general, Couch-Friedman said.

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