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In July 2016, a man tried to book Rhiana Scholz’s vacation condo in Ocean City, Maryland, on Craigslist.
The listed weekly rate was a suspiciously low $1,100, with a $300 security deposit. The only problem? Scholz was not the one who listed her vacation house on Craigslist. It was a scammer.
“It was NOT available that week and my rate was $1,750 plus $200 deposit,” Scholz told USA Today in an email. “I was just furious. My first thought was a family showing up for their vacation, excited, with all their luggage, and security telling them someone had already rented it.”
Turns out, Scholz’s situation is not a one-off. The Ocean City Police Department has received 94 similar cases of online vacation rental scams since 2011. The victims lost an average of $1,000 in the schemes, with some getting bilked out of as much as $2,800. Last year alone, the Ocean City Police Department received 20 complaints of rental fraud, 86% of which originated on Craigslist. That is the highest number of fraud cases since at least 2011.
Scammers will grab pictures and logos from legitimate vacation rental management websites and doctor the contact information to make a fake ad with enticingly low prices. Usually, they will ask for a security deposit or some other portion of the payment upfront. And when customers show up at the rental, they find it has already been booked or the address doesn’t exist at all. By that time, the fraudsters have disappeared into the wind.
“These aren’t some kids in a basement, saying, ‘Hey, let’s make a little extra money,'” Sgt. Todd Speigle of Ocean City Police Department told USA Today. “These are professional criminals, and this is typically the second or third layer of a greater scheme.”
The scams also hit larger vacation markets like Florida, with similar Craigslist schemes reported in Naples and Clearwater, among others.
“The vacation rental industry is not very regulated,” Rick Rose, who runs Palm Beach Vacation Rentals, told USA Today. He said there are roughly 60 hotels in his area, versus 1,500 vacation rental units. “There are not enough human resources to ensure every single vacation rental is being operated legally. In terms of municipal resources, what are you going to regulate?”
In the online vacation rental market, travel fraud jumped 16 percent in 2017, according to an index by fraud protection company Forter, and 55 million bookings a year are made on websites posing as online travel agencies or emulating hotel websites, according to a study by the American Hotels and Lodging Association. So, the best thing for potential renters to do is thorough research before booking.
If possible, physically go to the property to check it out before putting any money down. Craigslist says 99% of scams can be prevented through face-to-face contact. If you are too far away from your destination to see it in person, analyze the site’s details and be wary of lookalike web addresses.
On Airbnb, for example, you should see “https://www.airbnb.com” as the url. If something like “airbnb1.com” or “airbnb.bya.com” is listed, it is most likely a scam. Experts also advise to never pay outside the rental site’s platforms.
“It’s such an electronic world now,” Scholz told USA Today. “It’s really hard to know who people say they are, but it’s how we function.”
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