It is a rare occurrence in the world of luxury villa rentals when a guest gets scammed. But it can and does happen occasionally. Here are tools and tips to avoid these scams and cheaters who offer fake homes, take deposits and run, or other tricks used by criminals who want to steal your money and time without giving you a villa holiday in return.
Finding The Home
Is the luxury villa owner advertising the home on only one site? Or, is the home on a number of vacation rental websites where owners will typically seek publicity and marketing to increase bookings? The more places the home is being marketed, the more likely it is a legitimate rental. The number of complaints about a fraudulent rental would soon get the home deleted from multiple sites, leaving the scammer with few options to find new victims.
First, is there a private website for the vacation rental? Most scammers are “on the go” and don’t want to go through the trouble of building a good one. Some may be more technologically sophisticated, however, so it’s a good idea to follow through on your other verification steps.
Check the ownership and age of the domain name. Whois.net can provide this data, however some totally honest owners have opted for private registrations of their domains, in which case you will need to use other methods to find out more.
Web tools such as “The Way Back Machine” can help show the history of any given URL. If you are able to see the history of the property website going back several years, and see that it has only undergone normal and legitimate changes (i.e. text and descriptions but the home for rent remains the same) it’s probably a safe bet.
Check the IP address (“internet protocol”) details within the emails sent directly from the owner. Look in the email’s “header” for IP Addresses that might indicate the physical location of the sender, i.e. the header may show that the email came from Nigeria but the home is in Orlando. There are many free IP Lookup tools on the internet. While not always an exact indication, if the header reveals a location not in line with where the owner states that he/she is living/contacting you from, exercise a bit of caution.
Look for comments about the home that might have been made on the internet, either in other ads, or by guests that stayed there. However, this is not foolproof. If a property is a “fake” the criminals will certainly change the name or other details of the “property” each time they run a scam, so this method is not the most reliable. Sometimes owners innocently enough title the home by different names for different advertising and marketing purposes.
If the home was found on a property listing site, look to see in the profile if there is information about the age of the ad. Any listing site worth its salt will have suspended an ad for a home that has received multiple complaints. Look for a long track record of successful rentals. But don’t alienate newcomers if you think their home may be your perfect vacation rental. Just make a few more checks to make sure you’re comfortable. And, bear in mind that if an owner is new to luxury vacation property renting, you may be in their learning curve with regard to contracts, deposit procedures, housekeeping, and the like. Be prepared to be patient, but if the property really intrigues you, give it a go.
Make an independent verification of the owner and the property. The first step might be to actually ask the owner to provide a reference from their local Chamber of Commerce, a licensing board, tourism bureau, or their attorney or accountant. If they aren’t willing and able to provide something concrete to make you more likely to book the home, reconsider the rental. Contact the organization or person given, but try to verify their contact info through outside means.
Use Google to research the property owners’ name, phone, rental address, and email address. If this address has any record of unhappy customers or truly criminal activity, most likely someone has mentioned it in a public forum (click on Blogs or Groups when doing a Google search; don’t rely solely on normal search). Make sure the property exists by using Google to verify the location in Satellite view (if available), or other mapping techniques.
Making Initial Contact
Your first interaction with a villa owner or agent may be through email, but why not call or request a return call from them? It could be under the excuse of getting to know a little more about the villa or to ask a question. Use your chat to confirm for yourself that you are comfortable with the owner or agent that you are working with to rent the vacation home. They should be more than willing to accommodate you.
When you call, does the vacation rental owner answer the phone, return calls, or do they only respond to emails? Make sure they are are willing to communicate by telephone and don’t rush or brush you off back to emails.
Ask for references and call the references. If someone is a criminal, they can certainly set up fake references for you to call, so do not rely on this as your only verification.
If something doesn’t feel right to you, back off. Property owners and agents should be polite about answering your questions so you will be comfortable and happy renting the home. If they are rude, seem put out by your questions, or not service-oriented, think twice before sending them a deposit check, and consider choosing another property.
Booking The Home
Always work with written booking contracts for your reservation. Before committing, read through all the terms and conditions of renting the home, including payment details, extra charges and cancellation policy. If you would like something altered or amended, don’t hesitate to ask, as the owner may be quite amenable in order to get the booking.
Avoid paying by anonymous/untraceable methods like Western Union or Moneygram or Money orders. Pay the owner or the villa rental agent directly by personal check, credit card, or other method requested.
Beware of someone who claims not to have received your first deposit, and asks for another one. Consider sending your deposit via a trackable method like Federal Express or UPS.
Only pay by trackable means so you could put a trace on the funds if there is a problem later on. Ideally book the home with a credit card as it can offer a good layer of protection. Credit card companies hate chargebacks. Scammers who have a lot of chargebacks won’t be accepting credit cards for long.
Scammers will always push to be paid by cashier’s checks or money wired. When you hear this, either drop out or take more action to find out if the owner and rental are on the up-and-up.
Please note, the term “money wired” here refers to payments via Western Union or Moneygram, etc. Bank-to-Bank wires are something different and may be acceptable, but it is up to you to feel secure first with the owner and also the reputation of the banking institutions involved.
Some vacation rental owners shun credit cards as a form of payment. Personal checks are their preferred method of payment. Once again, anyone asking for money to be wired may be a red flag that the property is no good.
Go the Extra Mile for Friends, Family, and Guests
When renting a large “destination property” such as a supervilla, a yacht charter, or other luxury vacation experience where a lot of money is at stake (or even a little), pay extra attention to the details. It pays to do your research when multiple friends or family members will be taking time off from work and booking plane reservations to the home, so why not take a little extra time and money to double check on the vacation home? Invest in paying a certified local realtor or reputable real estate agent in that area a modest consulting fee just to help verify that the property and owner is for real.
Before you opt to hire a local realtor on your behalf (see above), first ask the owner if an appointment can be made so the home can be viewed inside and out before payment is made. If they refuse, you know you should just move on to someone else.
It is a truly rare occurrence for anyone to be scammed in the world of luxury vacation rentals, but we hope a bit of extra caution and research can result in a great vacation in a beautiful villa rental or luxury holiday home.