Scams on Airbnb and other vacation rental sites like VRBO and Flipkey are rare, but they DO happen. Learn how to spot the scams on Airbnb and other sites using tips based on our extensive experience. Over the past 10 years we’ve spent more than 2,000 nights at Vacation rentals (We’re not kidding-we live on the road!) After all this time–which includes over 100 Airbnb stays–we’ve figured out how to avoid bogus deals.
Vacation rental scams: The Craigslist “scrape”
We were really enjoying our Airbnb rental in Prescott, Az one autumn when there was a knock at the front door. Since we didn’t know anyone in town we assumed it was a salesman. So we were surprised to see a young man on the porch with several pieces of luggage. Um, a long lost friend visiting? Nope. He said, in all earnestness, that he was ready to move in and where should he put his luggage? Well that’s awkward! Fortunately, since we booked the cottage through Airbnb, we were fine; unfortunately for him he hadn’t–he had been scammed.
Our caller 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. The 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.
Fortuantely for us, a quick call to our Airbnb host confirmed that we were fine. The guy on the porch was not. This was a Craigslist rental scam. Our host explained that her Airbnb listing had been “scraped.” Someone had taken her photos and posted a fake ad on Craigslist, lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim. Our Airbnb host also shared that this had happened to her before. She’s tried hard to stop the scammers, but they remove the fake internet listing before the police can take action and then post it again at another time. Though this was not one of the scams on Airbnb, hinky things can still happen on that sight as well.
Scams on Airbnb: the fake listing
Also known as the “travel scam,” this is basically the same situation as our Craigslist example above, except that listing is on Airbnb. You might think, “wait! How can this happen? Doesn’t Airbnb have systems to catch fake listings?” The answer to that is YES, they do, and they constantly monitor their site. But according to their own site, Airbnb has nearly 6 million listings (as of September 2020) in over 100,000 cities. With that kind of volume there are bound to be a few bad apples that sneak into the bunch every now and then.
We had firsthand experience with Airbnb scams a few years ago. We requested a reservation at an Airbnb apartment in Rome, Italy. It looked like a nice apartment in a good neighborhood, and the price seemed more reasonable than others nearby. Not “half the price crazy cheap,” that would have set off alarm bells right away. No this one was just about 10-15% cheaper than similar apartments.
But . . . once we put in our request the “owner” contacted us right away suggesting we wire the payment to them directly rather than working through the normal Airbnb channels—something that is specifically outside the company’s guidelines. This set off warning flags—sure enough, we contacted Airbnb, who confirmed it was a false listing and took it down. This was one of the scams on Airbnb that we didn’t get snookered by–we eventually found a terrific, legitimate, listing and spent a fabulous month exploring Rome.
Scams on Airbnb: the advance fee ploy
Here someone offers to pay you (or give you something) if you pay through a service outside of Airbnb. This one is really a variation on the “fake listing” scam we discussed above. It’s just a slightly more elaborate scheme, trying to sweeten the deal for paying outside the system by giving you something in return. There’s definitely a theme to these scams on Airbnb: scammers are trying to get you to pay outside the system. Bad. Idea.
The vacation rental “phishing scam”
When someone sends you an email or link that looks like it’s from Airbnb, but it’s really not. These messages are designed to trick you into providing confidential information such as passwords or other email addresses. How do these “phishers” know to send you an email? They don’t–they’re taking a calculated risk. Phishing isn’t unique to Airbnb; VRBO, FlipKey and others are prone to the same issue.
According to market research firm Statista, the industry is forecasting over 600 million vacation rental users worldwide in 2021 alone. When you think of those kind of numbers, it’s not that far-fetched that an email blast to 10,000 people with the subject line “There’s a problem with your vacation rental reservation” might actually get someone to click on it.
How to Avoid Scams on Airbnb & other Vacation Rental sites
- 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 cheaper than the going rate should be suspect.
- Read property reviews carefully. As we discuss in finding an Airbnb in Arizona, read all the reviews very carefully. Only the stupidest scammers keep up listings that say, “this guy scammed me!” If a property has no reviews at all, or there have been long periods of time between reviews, we proceed with caution.
- Review all listing photos with a critical eye. Scammers who post fake listings often scrape photos from another site, which degrades their quality. (Think of a document that’s blurry because it’s been copied and then the copy is re-copied multiple times, or if you took a photo of a hard copy picture with your phone.) Consumer advocate Christopher Elliot provides an excellent example of this in his article about a fake VRBO rental.
- Work through legitimate rental companies. When booking a vacation, reputable sites such as Airbnb and VRBO (or established local rental agencies) offer a level of protection should there be an issue. They all have business reputations to maintain so it’s in their best interest to resolve any disputes to everyone’s satisfaction. A legitimate site will also act as a go-between for payments and resolving any problems.
- Stay (and pay) within the system. Booking sites and rental agencies do charge a fee, which many people don’t like paying. But they also provide a valuable service in exchange for this fee, which includes protecting you should anything go amiss with your reservation. Avoid the temptation to save a few dollars by going around them—a trick scammers often use. Be very cautious when someone asks you to pay them directly. Additionally, paying outside the system violates Airbnb’s terms of service, which could cause you to get banned from the site.
- Don’t use Craigslist for vacation rentals. Craigslist is a terrific site for buying and selling a lot of stuff, but vacation rentals are not among them. Craigslist is an internet listing site only, there is no “book within the system safety net.” On their own site, they even address how to avoid a Craigslist rental scam: “Do not rent or purchase sight-unseen—that amazing “deal” may not exist.” (Full disclosure: Early in our travels we booked some apartments on Craigslist, back in the day when online rental sites were in their infancy. But we have not done so for years because there is no consumer protection, and therefore would not likely do it again.
- Be suspicious of emails regarding reservations that don’t make sense. Never provide any personal information unless you have verified the communication is legitimate. Airbnb has a very helpful guide to decoding suspicious emails, which explains what their links look like, and even lists all the internet domain names they use.
Vacation rentals in Arizona are a fabulous lodging alternative when traveling. However, the Internet makes it very easy for scams on Airbnb and other sites to proliferate, resulting in false listings. Don’t be that guy stuck out on our porch. Always do your due diligence, particularly when the property or price seem too good to be true.
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