Before Booking That 'Perfect' Vacation Rental, Make Sure It's Not a Scam

04/17/2015 12:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

by Eric Jordan, Condé Nast Traveler

Zoonar GmbH / Alamy

When paying for a vacation rental, be careful of wire transfers and other methods of payment outside the system set up or recommended by the booking platform.

I know I've written about vacation rentals recently. I don't want to be redundant, but in the last six weeks I've received several letters from readers who have run into difficulties with properties. The most troubling of these involve internet fraud: $3,000 wired to a bank for a Paris apartment (Airbnb); $1,360 wired to a bank for a condo in Florida (Flipkey); $12,000 wired to a bank for a villa near Nice (HomeAway); and there was the case I wrote about in September and March -- $3,000 wired to a bank for a chalet in the French Alps (HomeAway). All of those payments went to someone other than the owner of a vacation rental.

Notice any similarity with the transactions? Yes, all wire transfers, which offer little protection, particularly if you have not verified the property with the owner directly. HomeAway, which also owns VRBO, recommends you always speak to the owner before you rent:

"Call the owner or property manager. The cardinal rule for booking a vacation rental is to always pick up the phone and call the number of the home owner or property manager that is listed on the website. With the prevalence of phishing in online industries today, it is always best to communicate with a person live."

Airbnb handles things a bit differently. It allows you to communicate through the website with ease and requires payment through its system:

"Paying outside the Airbnb system is not secure, and we cannot provide access to [our secure structure] when reservations aren't booked directly through our website. If someone asks you to pay outside of Airbnb, please report it to immediately."

Of course, because Airbnb requires payment within the system doesn't mean people won't try to circumnavigate the process. Sometimes they may simply want to avoid paying fees, but they also may not be who they say they are.

The bottom line is, no matter which service you use to find and book a vacation rental, remember that it isn't the same as booking a hotel room. Rental agreements are between you and the owner, not necessarily a brick-and-mortar business with accounting and customer service departments. While some booking platforms facilitate payment and offer protections, you still have to follow the rules. And even then, nefarious individuals are looking to beat the system all the time. Remember to verify the listing and the owner through reviews and/or direct communication.

As far as payment is concerned, use a credit card whenever possible. They offer protections against fraud, provided you meet the timeline for filing a dispute, usually 60 days from the date of payment. If you can't pay with a credit card, then unless you are absolutely sure you are dealing with the actual owner or manager of a legitimate listing, use the secure billing systems offered by the booking platforms. HomeAway Payments, for instance, offers a guarantee of up to $10,000 against internet fraud.

For more information about how to protect yourself and get the vacation rental you bargained for, read the recommendations offered in the September and March Ombudsman posts I mentioned, as well as Paul Brady's Six Tips for First-Time Airbnb Renters.

Booking a vacation rental, or a shared apartment or house, can be a great way to find a unique place to stay and meet interesting people while exploring your destination. Most of the money wired in the examples above, however, is lost to those readers for good. Please don't let an avoidable mistake tarnish or derail your plans, too.

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