Whether you’re planning a summer vacation, an autumnal escape, a winter getaway, or a spring break, there’s a travel booking app or website to help you book every kind of journey under the sun. That said, when looking for a place to stay, take time to research your target location and your prospective accommodations. A little preparation will give you a better chance of avoiding the travel scams that could ruin your getaway.
How Risky Are Vacation Rentals?
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), scams could lurk among the travel listings on the booking app or website you’ve been browsing. Want proof? In 2023, Airbnb announced that 59,000 fraudulent listings were removed from the site in just that year. That’s after the company announced sweeping changes to its property owner verification system after scammers flooded the platform.
(Credit: Oscar Wong/Getty Images)
The previous year, Booking.com made headlines after over 100 people showed up to stay at a woman’s London home because it was listed on the site without her knowledge. It took the website several days to remove the fraudulent listing after the homeowner reported the incident. Booking.com also failed to contact the customers who booked future stays, so they continued to arrive at the private home for weeks. It’s a traveler’s nightmare, and I don’t want it to happen to you.
How to Book a Rental Property Online Safely
To help identify specific red flags while searching through property listings, I reached out to several online travel booking experts, including Philip Foxall, owner of TNP Vacations. Foxall told me it’s wise to first seek out big-name companies such as Airbnb and Vrbo when booking accommodations online due to their vetting processes.
Another way to avoid fake listings on big booking sites is to book your stay directly through a property owner’s website. Direct bookings come with their own risks, though. “When booking directly, ensure the owner’s website appears professional, with high-quality images and detailed descriptions,” Foxall said. He also urged travelers to ensure that the property owner uses a secure payment method (such as a payment app) and offers travel insurance policies.
When booking directly, ensure the owner’s website appears professional, with high-quality images and detailed descriptions.
If you’re booking accommodations through Facebook Marketplace or another site that has you deal directly with a property owner, ask for everything in writing upfront, including a signed, professional rental agreement, Foxall said. It’s also a good idea to use a credit card for the purchase because your issuing bank likely has some built-in fraud protection services.
Look Out for Three Rental Property Red Flags
Low Prices: If a listing price seems unusually low, it’s probably a scam. Zulfikar Ramzan, a chief scientist at online safety platform Aura, told me, “A too-good-to-be-true price is a huge red flag you shouldn’t ignore. It might mean that the home is not as described, the location is undesirable, or the listing doesn’t exist.”
Multiple listings with different prices: A property with multiple listings and different prices is also a red flag, Ramzan said. “Hosts list the same property at different price points to double book and rent it to the highest bidder—potentially canceling at the last minute.”
Sometimes the multiple listing scam can appear as a so-called “phantom rental.” That’s when a scammer creates a completely fraudulent listing using a fake address and stolen photos. Foxall says even legitimate property owners can become victims of phantom rentals. “Scammers exploit vacant homes or hack legitimate listings, redirecting payments to themselves,” he said.
Suspicious photos: All the experts I talked to said taking time to scrutinize the vacation rental property listing’s photos is worth it. Ritesh Raj, the cofounder of vacation booking platform CuddlyNest, said to look for images that are a bit too polished or look like stock photos. “If the photos look too good to be true or don’t seem to match the description,” Raj said, “it’s worth doing a reverse image search to check their authenticity.”
(Credit: Flashpop/Getty Images)
This list of red flags is not exhaustive, but those are the big three to avoid. Travelers should also know that scammers may double-book guests to maximize short-term profits or use deceptive language in the listing to obfuscate an undesirable location or dilapidated rental.
Questions to Ask Before Booking on Vacation Rental Sites
Before you travel, research the city where you want to stay. Even if you aren’t the victim of a scam, you may find the rental property or area uncomfortable for whatever reason. Be ready to pay for at least one night in a nearby hotel.
I put together a list of questions every traveler should ask themselves before booking a rental property online. Remember to check in with your inner skeptic before tapping “send payment” in any circumstance online, and be especially careful when booking travel to avoid getting stranded in an unfamiliar location.
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Is the price believable? Look at the pricing for similar rentals in the area. If the listing price seems too low, don’t book.
Are the photos legit? Check the quality and content of the listing’s images. Fake listings often have a few photos of the outside of the home but omit photos of the interior. Make sure the number of bathrooms and bedrooms shown in the photos is consistent with the number shown on the listing page.
Whom am I paying and how? Before you finalize a payment, take a moment to consider where your money is going and how it’s getting to the recipient. As with romance scammers, travel fraud scammers often request payment using wire services or other methods that take you away from the booking website.
Is the description legible? A few misspellings or typos are forgivable, but if you have trouble understanding what the listing description is saying, it may be fraudulent. It’s also a good idea to look for phrases or words intended to hide the true nature of the property. For example, a “lively urban setting” could point to a lot of city street noise. A “manufactured home” is another way to describe a trailer or RV.
Is the property listed more than once? Remove the price filter when you search for the property on the website so you can see if there are multiple listings for the same place.
Is this a real address? It’s a good idea to run the address for the listing through Google Maps or other mapping software to verify that the property exists. Google’s street view function can also help you look over the property to ensure that it meets your standards, but be aware that the images may be out of date.
Has anyone reviewed this listing? Avoid listings with no reviews or few reviews since it’s harder to fake large numbers of reviews. You should also read reviews with two to four stars, as those are more likely to be from real travelers rather than friends of the property owner.
Vrbo offers scam protection in the form of online payment protections and corporate assistance if a property is “significantly misrepresented.” I did not see similar protections from Airbnb. Your travel insurance may not cover some of the damages scammers force you to incur, such as fraudulent property damage fees. Protect yourself by taking time-stamped pictures of the property at the beginning of your stay and when you leave to verify the condition of the rental.
What to Do If You’ve Been Scammed
If you find yourself stranded due to a scam, don’t wait to report it. Tell your bank and let the listing website know what happened immediately so you can get a refund and stop the scammer from defrauding other travelers. If you’re in the United States, file a report with the FTC and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
For more advice on braving a rental property, find out how to find hidden cameras in your Airbnb. And if you plan to stay connected during your stay, we tell you how to secure the Wi-Fi in your short-term rental.
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