How to avoid a vacation rental scam

So, you want to book a beach house for a week on Saint Simons Island, or maybe Hilton Head. You book and pay for the perfect home - right on the beach!  The pictures look great, but when you arrive, the beach house isn’t there. In fact, it never was! You’ve been scammed and your $3,000 is gone forever!

Here to explain what happened is real estate expert John Adams.

Question: John, lots of Atlanta families have a tradition of renting a beach house for a week every summer.  Does this really happen???

Answer: Unfortunately, yes, it happens with surprising frequency.

Q:  But how could this happen?

A: This scam has several variations.

The simplest one involves stealing photos of beautiful homes from legitimate sites, creating your own fake site with all the pictures and a glowing description. They even add lots of fake reviews from happy vacationers, some dated recently.

Then they run ads on craigslist directing unsuspecting renters to the fake website. The payment page shows credit card logos for Visa, MasterCard and American Express,, and there are multiple guarantees of satisfaction or your money back.

Q:  So if I pay by credit card, aren’t I protected?

A:  Yes, but that never seems to work out.  When you try to pay by credit card, the scammer tells you that their card processing service is having difficulties, and they offer you a discount to send a bank wire or a money order. Once they get the money, it’s all over!

Q:  But why would a renter not use a more respectable vacation site?

A:  The scammers who put these things together are really good.

They’ve studied the most successful vacation rentals, and they know what works. But usually, it’s the price. The advertised rental may be as much as 50 percent below market, and some folks can’t resist a bargain.

Q:  But how can the scammer continue to get away with this?

A:  After a successful scam, they close up shop and disappear. Think about it, the website is free, craigslist is free, the phone number is free, and the pictures are free.  Clever, isn’t it?

Q:  Isn’t this illegal?

A:  Sure, but in a scam like this, it’s really hard to catch the scammer.  But there are ways to protect yourself.

  1. ALWAYS pay by credit card, and know the terms for asking for a refund. Most cards require that you dispute the charge within 120 days of the transaction date, but DISCOVER and AMERICAN EXPRESS have NO LIMIT for chargebacks, so they offer the highest level of protection.  NEVER pay by wire or check or money transfer. Period.
  2. ALWAYS use reputable vacation rental sites such as and to find your rental. If you are determined to rent through a private owner website, find a way to verify information about the property. Better yet, see it in person. Alternatively, you can find someone nearby and pay them to meet the owner and take pictures.
  3. Work through a local REALTOR® and verify they are members of the local board of REALTORS®. That may be a little more expensive, but you won’t get scammed!
  4. Use search engines to search the property address, and see what information you can dig up. If the home is for sale or is being advertised for foreclosure, you are probably being ripped-off.
  5. Spend time on the phone with your contact, then verify online that they truly exist. Are they on Facebook, LinkedIn, and are they listed as the owners of the property? Look up the property on Google Maps to see if the neighborhood matches the pictures.

If you follow these rules, you’ll have much less chance of being scammed.

Q:  John, what’s the bottom line?

A:  If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!