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Field-Tested Travel Tip: Avoiding Vacation Rental Scams

If a property seems too good to be true … well, you know the rest.

Don't get locked out by fake vacation rental scams. Always use a reputable site or agency.
Don't get locked out by fake vacation rental scams. Always use a reputable site or agency.Read moreMichael Milne

In September, we wrote about using Airbnb to book places on our travels. So it was somewhat ironic when last week a knock on the door of our Airbnb cottage revealed a young man on the porch with several pieces of luggage who said that he was ready to move in. Uh-oh. Fortunately, because we booked through Airbnb, we were fine; unfortunately for him, he had been scammed.

He had found the cottage on Craigslist at a monthly rate that was half what we were paying. Too good to be true? As it happens, yes. That listing included the same description and photos as those on the (legitimate) Airbnb listing, but the contact information was different. He had signed a lease and mailed the contact a deposit check for $500. A quick call to our Airbnb host confirmed it was a scam — her Airbnb listing had been "scraped," with a fake ad posted on Craigslist  lying in wait for an unsuspecting soul. Our Airbnb host confirmed that had happened before; she's tried hard to stop the scammers, but they remove the fake internet listing before police can take action.

There are several lessons here. Following is our checklist for avoiding vacation rental scams:

  1. If a property seems too good to be true, it's probably not legitimate. Compare the listing to others in the area; anything that looks larger, more luxurious, or less expensive than the going rate should be suspect.

  2. Work through legitimate rental companies. Booking through sites such as Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO, or local established rental agencies offers a level of protection if there's an issue. They all have business reputations to maintain, so it's in their best interests to resolve any disputes to everyone's satisfaction.

  3. Stay within the system. Booking sites and rental agencies charge a fee, but they also provide a service. Avoid the temptation to save a few dollars by going around them — a trick scammers often use. Last year while we were booking an Airbnb apartment in Italy, the "owner" contacted us directly and asked us to wire the payment there rather than work through the normal Airbnb channels — something that is specifically outside the company's guidelines. That set off warning flags. We contacted Airbnb, which  confirmed the listing was false and took it down.

Vacation rentals are a fabulous lodging alternative when traveling. However, the internet makes it easy for scammers to create false listings. Don't be that guy stuck out on our porch. Always do your due diligence, particularly when the property or price seems too good to be true.

Philadelphia natives Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. Follow their journey at