How to Avoid Short Term and Vacation Rental Scams

Even some of the biggest names in the short-term rental business are vulnerable to scams.  While companies like Airbnb constantly monitor their site, with millions of listings there are bound to be occasional scams that sneak through. 

The typical scam scenario usually involves a too-good-to-be-true fake listing, a request for payment by wire transfer, and after your money has been sent, an abrupt end to communications from the fake host.  Your money is gone, you have no place to stay, and you may be stuck trying to make alternate plans last minute in a foreign country.

People who are searching for accommodation from abroad are easy targets for scammers.  Scammers bank on the fact that travelers are unable to verify the legitimacy of short-term rentals in person.  They will use beautiful fake photos or post listings for properties they don’t even own.  They know people love searching for bargains so they price fake rentals lower than other properties in the area.   They may ask for payment outside of a website’s payment system and request money to be sent via bank wire, Western Union, cashier’s checks, or apps like Zelle or CashApp because the person sending money will be helpless to get their money back.  

Your best defense against scams is awareness, careful planning, and research.  Read more about the most devious Airbnb scams to avoid. To learn more about alternatives to Airbnb for international short-term rentals, check out my post here.

Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other professional advice. You should obtain professional advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. Deskless Nomad makes no representations, warranties, or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete, or up to date. Please see the full Deskless Nomad Disclaimer

Tips for avoiding scams

1. Choose booking websites that have secure payment systems, money-back guarantees, and buyer protection rights.  And always pay with a credit card.

Avoid the temptation to save a few dollars by paying outside of the website’s credit card payment system.  Never send the host a payment by bank transfer, cashier’s check, Western Union, or wire transfer apps like Zelle or Venmo.  If you send money by one of these methods you will have no way to get it back if the property turns out to be a scam.  Payment outside a website may also violate the terms of service which could get you banned from the booking site. 

Credit cards will offer more protection since you can dispute the charges through your credit card company.  It also pays to use credit cards that provide travel insurance however most travel insurance policies do not cover rental fraud.  Make sure to read the terms and conditions for your credit card, travel insurance, and the booking website.  

Some rental websites will also provide safeguards like delaying payment release to property owners until 24 hours after a guest has checked in to help protect guests in case of a scam. 

2. Don’t use Craigslist for vacation rentals

There is no safety net.  You are using this site at your own risk.

3. Don’t let anyone convince you that it is not worth the time to research the legitimacy of a rental

Keep your fear of missing out in check and do your due diligence.  Scammers may try to create a sense of urgency and make you feel like you will miss out if you don’t pay immediately.  They may tell you how popular or in-demand their unit is or tell you that no other similar property would be rented at such a great price. 

4. Choose booking sites that vet hosts

Every vacation rental website differs in how they select hosts.  Some websites will do background checks and check the banking details of hosts.  Some rely on customer reviews to provide information to potential guests and others will provide “badges” to label trusted hosts.   Learn about how your chosen website vets its hosts.

5. Choose booking sites or property management companies that handpick rentals

The best websites will handpick and personally check properties for legitimacy, quality, and accuracy of listings.  Examples include Belvilla, Plum Guide, and Villa Finder.  

6. Read the guest reviews

Look for several positive reviews from previous renters.  Use caution if the property has no reviews at all, is newly listed or there has been a long period of time since the last review.  Be wary if the reviews report a lack of communication, inaccurate description of the property, last-minute cancellations, or flat-out say the listing is a scam.  

7. Know the expected price range

Check the rental prices for several properties in the area where you would like to stay to get an idea of the average price for that area.   

8. Review the photos with a critical eye

While vacation rental prices will vary based on location, size of the property, number of rooms, and amenities offered, be wary if the pictures make the place seem underpriced.  If the photos make the price seem too good to be true then it probably is.

Check to see if the photos are being used elsewhere online.  Right-click and save one of the images used in the ad.  Use Google Image Search and upload the image you just downloaded in the google search bar.  You can also paste the image URL (although some sites do not allow images to be publicly accessible).  Google Image Search allows you to see if the property has been listed on multiple sites or elsewhere online.  

Be wary of blurry photos. Scammers often scrape photos from other sites which degrades their quality and makes them blurry.  

A rental listing with limited or no pictures is also a big red flag.

9. Verify that the property exists

Look up the address online using Google Street View to verify the property exists and matches the external photos from the listing. If you know someone who lives nearby, ask them to drive by and look at the property for you. 

You could go one step further and search online for the property owner’s name and see who pays the property taxes.  You can also contact the local tourism office or Convention and Visitors Bureau to ask if the property and owner are known to them. If you find discrepancies, think twice about renting the property.

10. Use the booking website’s secure communications system whenever possible

Be wary if the host asks you to communicate about money outside of the vacation rental website’s communication system.  They may be doing this so the website doesn’t realize a scam is taking place.  Using the secure communications system will also create a digital paper trail if you need to get your money back from the site.

11. Confirm your booking details with the host

If a platform allows instant booking, contact the host to confirm the details of the booking and any services or amenities included such as breakfast, linen changes, etc.  Try to talk to the host at least once by phone in addition to online communication. 

For Airbnb hosts, communicate through the app and ask a question or two that isn’t already answered in the listing.

You can tell a lot about someone’s reliability if they give vague answers or avoid your questions.  Be wary if they don’t answer your messages, are unable to speak on the phone, or if they say they’re out of town for a sabbatical or vacation. Some hosts will list properties on multiple sites and may unintentionally double-book.

12. Choose booking websites with flexible cancellation policies

Some sites will have variable cancellation policies depending on the property.  Make sure you understand the cancellation policy for the particular listing before booking.  For longer stays, do your best to rent month-to-month or have a 30-day lease cancellation clause.

13. Watch for poorly written communications

Scammers often use bad grammar, poor spelling, or less than professional wording and skip capitalization and punctuation in communications.  They may use awkward phrases used by non-fluent English speakers. While you may expect that if you are renting overseas your host may not speak fluent English, it is still useful to review communications with a critical eye.  Airbnb has a helpful guide for identifying suspicious emails and websites.

14. Be wary of website or host cancellations

If you receive notification that the booking website has canceled your reservation and refunded your money, and then receive an email from the host reassuring you the reservation is ok and you need to resubmit payment through an alternate means, be careful.  This is one of the many methods scammers like to use to collect your money outside of secure payment systems.  

15. Trust your instincts

If something doesn’t add up, trust your instincts and move on.

What to do if you encounter a vacation rental scam

  1. Before arriving at your short-term rental, make sure to have the customer service contact details for your booking website handy.  If you arrive and find that the rental was not as advertised, is unavailable, or you encounter any other problems, contact the booking website customer service immediately.  The best websites will work to find a comparable place as quickly as possible.  Some websites require the purchase of insurance for this service and others include it in their initial service fee.  Make sure to read the terms and conditions well before you encounter any problems.
  2. Consider reporting the incident to the local police if applicable.
  3. If the property is in the United States, use the Better Business Bureau’s website scam tracker to report scams.
  4. You can also file a complaint with the FTC online or over the phone at 877-382-4357.  The FTC wants to hear about scams even if you don’t lose money.
  5. If it’s an online fraud you can also report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  6. Contact your credit card if you have difficulty getting a refund from your booking website to see if they can reverse the charges.
  7. If you have separate travel insurance, contact their customer service (although some travel insurance policies do not cover rental scams so make sure you read the fine print).  
  8. You can also get help from consumer advocacy organizations like Elliot Advocacy.

Jamie Dubois

I am a freelance writer, wanderer, kayaker, rock climber, and adventurer.

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