Retirees often use short-term rental sites and platforms to rent their vacation homes online instead of booking hotels. In the process, they can face fraud in the form of fake listings and attempts to move unsuspecting consumers off the site as a way to scam them.
“It can happen that you book a vacation rental, and you find out the entire listing is a fraud,” said Michelle Couch-Friedman, founder of Consumer Rescue, an advocacy and educational organization.
While the photographs may look amazing, the cost seems high for the location. However, how can you predict what the rental will look like when you arrive and throughout your stay?
Are there any repairs that need to be done before you arrive? Is the property clean? If something goes wrong during your stay, will you be able to reach the booking platform or host while you’re there? How can you make sure that the vacation house you see online is what you receive upon your arrival?
Typically, the rental’s exact address is not provided until after you make the booking, so Robert, a tech-savvy person in his late 60s, searches booking platforms for vacation rentals using Google Maps to get as much information about a short-term rental’s location as possible.
Robert can search both an aerial view and a street view for the location of any property he finds on Vrbo.
The front of the home, the street number and the location of the private pool may be visible to him. It’s a method that helps him determine that the property exists, possibly its precise location, and whether it’s near a supermarket, grocery store, and restaurants.
In their 70s, a couple from San Antonio has booked vacation rentals at least once every year, usually in Florida. They love to be able to gather with their grandchildren and grown kids in one space, so they can share meals in the rental house. Online bookings have proved to be a great way to locate vacation rental homes.
Read: On ‘hush trips,’ employees sneak off to vacation spots to work remotely. Are you mad?
Take care of yourself and your travel. Here’s how to spot red flags that might signal a fake listing or other attempted fraud.
The first way to protect yourself is to understand the short-term rental market, and how it is different from planning a trip with hotel stays. “It’s a different approach than booking a hotel,” said Madeline List, a senior research analyst with Phocuswright, a travel market research company. Rather than booking a brand they know with a credit card or with loyalty points, “it’s more like when you book a boutique hotel,” she said. “We see a lot of strong brand loyalty in that age group, among retirees. They tend to be loyal to a few huge players.”
Phocuswright reports that approximately 17% have used a rental property for a short period of time in the last five years.
“Instead of a few huge players and loyalty programs,” List said, the short-term rental market is “incredibly fragmented in terms of who’s operating them.”
That’s why it’s important to take extra time and effort when booking a short-term vacation rental.
You can be sure you are safe when you browse and book short-term vacation rentals. You can avoid scams by doing your research before you even start looking. In addition, adjust your expectations. A short-term rental can create a dream vacation but it’s a different experience than staying in a hotel.
Read: Five spring-break destinations that are suitable for grownups
In addition, vacation rental platforms that list properties for rent such as Vrbo.com and Airbnb.com are not property management companies, said Couch-Friedman. “They will not be at your beck and call. They don’t vet these properties. They are listing services.”
Listing platforms can help you locate a vacation rental that suits your needs and expectations. People who expect a hotel experience may be disappointed. Some travelers, including retirees, can be “expecting a level of service that is not available through Vrbo and Airbnb
” Couch-Friedman said. A short-term vacation rental is not the best option if you need housekeeping services every day.
Read: What happens to healthcare and Medicare when you retire overseas?
To avoid scams as much as possible, and ensure you’ll have a place that closely matches the one you saw photographed on a booking site, here are tips from experts and those who have booked successful online vacation rentals:
Reputable sites only.
It is possible for sites like these to have a fake listing, but this is rare. Stop communication with any host if you are unable or unwilling to communicate via the platform.
Be familiar with the site and platform terms
Remember that most listing platforms or platforms don’t inspect properties. Expedia spokesperson says Vrbo checks host profiles and verifies user accounts. Vrbo is part of Expedia Group
brand. “This includes verifying property listings address, homeowner’s name and billing address,” she said.
Contact the host to ask any questions before you book.
To find out more information about the property, such as the nearest landmarks and attractions, you can message the host. You can then search those places to see if that is an area where you’d like to stay.
Ask about the date of the photos. Tip: Copy the photos to Google Images and verify that they are stock photos, images from another listing, or photos taken for short-term rental.
Be sure to read all details regarding the rental.
If you want a property that is private rather than a room in someone’s house, make sure that’s what the description says. Airbnb and other sites allow hosts to rent out a part of their house.
See the reviews
The reviews of past guests are a key component of vacation rental platforms. Honest hosts strive to get good reviews to ensure that guests continue to book their rentals. “Pay particular attention to whether the host or property manager is responsive to these reviews, as well as whether they have addressed any issues with the home identified in the reviews,” said T.J. Clark, chief commercial officer of Vacasa, a vacation rental property management company based in Portland, Ore.
Check the cancellation policy of the listing.
The amount of the refund can vary depending on the time you reserve your property. You must cancel by the end of the day to receive a full reimbursement.
Pay the platform with a credit or debit card
Avoid instant payment methods such as Zelle, wire transfer or gift cards.
“Scammers like Zelle because it’s instant,” said Couch-Friedman. “They will take anything as long as it’s not a credit card.”
Scammers can also get into legitimate booking sites so be cautious. If a legitimate company emails you, asking you to pay a security deposit with Zelle, that’s a sign of a scam, she said. A legitimate site will never ask you for payment off the site or app with Zelle, Venmo or any other instant payment method.
You have some protection if there is a problem by only paying through the platform. According to the Expedia Group spokesperson, “guests who book and pay through Vrbo are automatically covered by our Book with Confidence Guarantee, which offers comprehensive payment protection, 24-hour customer service and emergency booking assistance if needed.” In addition, the Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers 60 days to challenge disputed charges of more than $50. These include undeliverable or unacceptable goods, and transactions by unauthorized parties.
Notify the host or booking site immediately if you notice any repairs.
Take photos and videos with your smartphone. They will also show the time. This is useful in case you require proof that the space was not in acceptable condition when you arrived.
Sites that rely on property management are worth considering
“As representatives of the property’s owner, property managers have a vested interest in providing the best possible experience for their guests, including ensuring that the listing images match the in-home experience,” said Vacasa’s Clark.
Travel insurance available
There are many options for travel insurance. Choose the one that suits your needs. For example, if you are concerned about being unable to travel because of illness, purchase travel insurance that includes “cancel for any reason.” Ask if the policy you are considering will protect you if the rental you paid for turns out to be a scam.