Don’t be the Victim of a Scam!

shutterstock_158058749This week we received a call from a gentleman asking for our advice.  He explained that he had rented a property through one of the vacation rental “by owner” sites and was now afraid that he had been scammed.  He apparently spoke to the person who claimed to be the owner of the vacation rental who urged him to express mail a cashier’s check in the amount of $5,000 to secure the rental.  Now just weeks from his arrival date, all contact with the alleged property owner has ceased.  The phone number and email address that he used initially were no longer in service and unfortunately he had mailed the check to a post office box.

We advised this very unhappy gentleman to call the listing site’s support team for assistance, and we gave him the phone number.  We also suggested that he contact his bank to see if they could assist in recouping the money.

The sad fact is … this kind of thing happens all the time.  We typically get four or five of these calls every season.  Many of the scam victims will look for alternate accommodations, but for some, as in this case, their vacation money has been paid to the scammer and they are now forced to cancel their plans.   There are bad folks out there and over the phone they might sound like your very best friend.  Crooks often have great personalities … that’s what makes them successful.

There are many red flags you can watch for … the above scenario was full of them.    Not accepting credit cards or personal checks are big red flags.  Use of a post office box is another, and is pretty common with scammers.

Even though the vast majority of by owner listings are totally legitimate with honest, trustworthy owners … there are always going to be the few … just out to scam a buck from the unsuspecting.  I do not think the typical renter knows that by owner sites have no way of verifying that their clients actually own the property that they list.   Owners are not interviewed or required to show any proof of ownership, deeds or legal documentation.   It is an extremely easy process to list a property, upload pictures, and start taking reservations, once the alleged owner pays the annual listing fee … they’re in business.   It really is that easy!

The worst case I’ve seen was a few years ago when I received a call from a repeat guest.  She explained that she had won the lottery … Literally!  Won the lottery!   She and her husband decided to really do it up big at season and they went on line and found a crazy expensive, over-the-top, multi-million dollar property at one of the most exclusive communities in our area.  Two weeks before their arrival, after paying $40,000 plus, the phone number and email address of the “owner” was no longer working.  After contacting an attorney in the desert, property deeds were researched and they found that the house was not owned by the person who had listed the property as a vacation rental.  The legal owners were contacted and they had no knowledge of the person who had listed the property and had never offered the home as a vacation rental.  Apparently old photos from the original sales listing of the house were found on the internet, copied and used in the vacation rental ad.

This past May, I was in charge of putting together a girlfriend weekend.  Even with my experience in spotting a scammer, I was not about to gamble with my friend’s portion of the vacation money.  Luckily our company manages a property for a client who also has a vacation cabin in Lake Arrowhead.  If I did not have this contact I would have turned to a reputable vacation rental company.  I’m good at spotting a scam … but I’m not much of a gambler.

My advice … when spending your hard earned money … stick to the professionals.  If you don’t know who to use call the Chamber of Commerce or Visitor’s Bureau in the area your are visiting and ask for a list of reputable vacation rental companies.

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