Following our recent post Tips to Renting Holiday Apartments – A Checklist a reader asked for tips on how to avoid holiday rental scams and getting ripped off when booking self-catering accommodation, such as how we handle money, how to make sure places are reputable, and whether there are ways to vet holiday rentals.
We did what we do on GT and went straight to the source, asking the experts for advice. We put the same questions to spokespeople from four holiday rental and apartment rental booking sites. The answers below come from Jaime Dito of HomeAway.com (HA), Fiona Brown of onefinestay (OFS), Cherry Bacolod of Roomorama (RMA), and Ramon Glieneke of Only-apartments.com (OA).
What are some holiday rental scams travellers should know about?
HA: The most prevalent online scam impacting many industries beyond the holiday rental market is phishing or identity theft. In the vacation rental industry this occurs when a homeowner mistakenly provides a criminal with their email password, enabling criminals to assume their identity and intercept email communications with travellers.
OFS: One common scam is that of fraudulent listings, which are either extremely misleading or don’t represent a real property at all. At onefinestay we visit each home before it lists with us. The team have seen and inspected every home on the site, as well as photographing it and creating the listing, meaning guests will never come across a scam listing with us.
RMA: The only scam we’ve heard of on Roomorama is that the property is not as advertised. Since our hosts go through a rigorous validation process by a dedicated team and 80% of our properties are professionally managed, we rarely see scams. Also, we hold the guest’s money in escrow and only send the payment to the host once the guest successfully checks in. This process significantly reduces loss of money due to scams.
OA: We recommend never using different payment methods to the ones specified on our website. We always use secure payment methods, like credit cards or Paypal, instead of wire transfers that are less secure.
How can people be sure the person they’re dealing with is the real owner/manager/agent and the property actually exists?
HA: Call the owner/manager directly using the number on the listing. While criminals have found ways to intercept email communications between travellers and owners, our sites are very secure and travellers can trust the number on the listing. If a number isn’t posted, travellers can call HomeAway customer support for assistance reaching the homeowner. Additionally, travellers can do their own online research by reading reviews and researching the owner/property online. Being proactive is the key.
OFS: Instead of booking directly with an owner, use a trusted well-reviewed company. We’ve seen and inspected each and every home listed on our site, so you can be sure not only that it exists, but that it’s a distinctive and beautiful home in a safe, desirable neighbourhood.
RMA: The best short-term rental experience is achieved when you’ve done a little research. We tell guests to contact the host by email or phone so they get a feel for the situation. Before booking, ask questions, request additional photos, and use Google to do a little sleuthing. If it sounds sketchy back off and look for another property.
OA: We always check that the owner is real: every apartment goes through checks by our quality and product department to make sure the owner exists. Our system is by direct booking and the customer doesn’t get in touch with the owner before the reservation. This helps to avoid frauds. Another tip is to read other customer reviews.
What steps should people researching holiday rentals take to prevent being scammed?
HA: Use a reputable site – one with built in protections and a customer support team for assistance; get a rental contract with everything in writing before sending payment; do your own research and Google the homeowner to get an idea of who they are, as well as the property if you have the address. On HomeAway, read the reviews, as they can be very telling about whether the listing accurately describes the property. Call the owner to confirm your reservation before booking; doing this will rule out the possibility that you’ll be the victim of phishing. Opt in to the Rental Guarantee program for added assurance and pay online using HomeAway Payments, which automatically covers travellers against internet fraud for up to £10,000.
OFS: Booking with a trustworthy company is a good start to ensuring you don’t fall prey to a scam, but while companies can be good intermediaries, many are not selective about the properties they accept into their portfolios, which means properties could still be misrepresented or inadequately described by owners and turn out to be very different on arrival. We are unique in that we curate our collection of homes very carefully, inspecting each one, and have developed a detailed registration process to ensure homes meet strict criteria before offered to guests.
RMA: On Roomorama, always look for certified hosts who have three stays with three positive reviews from previous guests. Read the reviews to gauge how great the host/property is. Keep in constant touch with the host from inquiry to booking to check-in. Their responses to your inquiry will let you know how efficient they are and accommodating they will be. Guests are given a 6-digit payment code that they provide to the host upon successful check-in and only then can they claim the money from us. Guests should not provide the payment code until they’ve seen the room and successfully checked in. Always book short-term rentals through established booking sites. This will minimize the possibility of a scam and if there are problems, the company will be able to help you. You are dealing with homeowners/individuals here and not a robotic booking agent so keep an open mind and always do research.
OA: The reputation of the website is important: many holiday rentals websites have their own system to guarantee that the owners really exist. We ask owners to send us specific information about the apartments to prove their ownership and avoid fraud. We also have a system whereby reviews and comments about an apartment can only be published by customers who have stayed there.
What are some signs to look out for that should spark concern?
HA: Requests for expedited payment, significant discounts offered for expedited payments, limited payment methods, especially instant-cash wire transfer services such as Western Union or MoneyGram, and/or the name on the listing page not matching the name of the person you’re communicating with or the name on the payment request. If the traveller has sent their payment and then cannot reach the owner, immediately contact us to report the problem.
RMA: A host’s name or property that doesn’t come up in a Google search or an invalid telephone number. If it’s a professional property manager, check to see if the name is listed in the local property manager association site. Also be on guard if the host has atrocious grammar or spelling.
OA: The most common signal is if the owner appears in a hurry to receive their payment and asks to get paid using a non-secure payment method. Customers should also be worried if the owner suddenly stops sending information or does not answer mails or phone calls.
If they’ve made a booking on your site, what should they do if they think they’ve been scammed?
HA: Contact the HomeAway customer support team immediately. We will contact the owner and deactivate the listing until the owner can be reached for clarification or until the account is re-secured (in the event of phishing). If a traveller has purchased the HomeAway Carefree Guarantee, the Trust and Security team will process the claim and issue the reimbursement. If a traveller has purchased the Europ Assistance Travel Insurance on HomeAway.co.uk, they will have to work with Europe Assistance directly.
OFS: Our full management of the booking process and portfolio of homes means that guests are not exposed to the risk of a scam. If for any reason the home doesn’t fit the bill, they can contact us 24/7 and we’ll endeavour to fix the problem or relocate them to a home that does right away.
RMA: If a guest is scammed while booking through Roomorama, they will never lose their money as their payment is held in escrow. The host can only get the money by entering the unique 6-digit payment code that’s provided by the guest. If the guest is scammed or the property is not as advertised, they should not give the host the payment code and he won’t get the money. The guest’s money can be refunded in 2-3 business days or we can transfer the funds to a new booking.
OA: If it happens using our site, the customer should contact us directly without hesitation. As soon as a customer notices that something is amiss (for example, if an owner does not answer mails or asks for some payment conditions that are not indicated on our site), they should contact us and we’ll manage the communication with the owner and solve the problem as soon as possible.
What action will you take on behalf of the traveller?
HA: If a property is determined to be fraudulent, we will remove it and any connected accounts from our sites, and cooperate with any law enforcement officers investigating the situation.
OFS: If a guest encounters any kind of problem at the home where they’re staying, they can call our 24/7 Guest Services team. As we centrally store details about every home, we can often help them over the phone or we’ll dispatch a member of the team to help.
RMA: We encourage guests to leave negative feedback with the host so other users will be warned. We can’t take down the listing immediately until a proper investigation by our fraud team can be made. Once proven that it is a fraudulent account, we’ll take down the listing as soon as possible.
OA: We will always be responsible for communication with the owner in a case of suspected fraud as we have the resources to verify the identity of the owner and take legal action in case of fraud.
Do you offer consumer protection or a rental guarantee?
HA: The HomeAway Carefree Rental Guarantee covers travellers in the event of fraud, phishing, significant misrepresentation, inadvertent double booking, wrongful denial of entry, wrongful security deposit loss, and in the event of a foreclosure/bankruptcy. The cost to travellers ranges from $39-$149 and covers up to $10,000. See http://guarantee.homeaway.com. On the UK site, the coverage levels for Europ Assistance vary, as do the entry costs; more info here.
OFS: The way that we operate means that a rental guarantee isn’t required. We take full responsibility for the guest experience and visit every home – not only before it joins the portfolio, but before every guest’s arrival when the team cleans the home, and ensures all is in working order.
RMA: We have the secure payment code system in place, which effectively protects our consumers. We currently don’t have a consumer protection program but we are looking into that right now.
OA: Since we are transactional (a customer makes a direct booking via our site) the guarantee comes before the apartment listing is published. The process of publishing ensures the quality of the apartment and the protection of the customer.
Do you provide refunds or help consumers get refunds?
HA: We make money by charging homeowners/managers an annual subscription fee to list with our site so we are in no way part of the financial exchange between the homeowner and the traveller and do not collect deposits from travellers or pay owners. If a traveller has fallen victim to a holiday rental scam and has purchased HomeAway Carefree Rental Guarantee (when using HomeAway.com), we will provide reimbursement up to $10,000. If a traveller is using HomeAway.co.uk, they can purchase the Europ Assistance Travel Insurance, which covers losses of up to £5,000. If they have not opted in to the extended guarantee, they may still be eligible for partial reimbursement under HomeAway’s basic rental guarantee in the event of fraud or phishing.
OFS: Guests book instantly online or through our reservations team over the phone and we operate a 24 hour cooling off period. Providing that guests book more than seven days before the start of their stay, they can cancel their booking no questions asked within 24 hours and we will refund 100% of any charges. The company takes payment from guests, and then pays owners a fixed nightly rate for every night that there is a guest staying in their home.
RMA: Guest payments are held in escrow by us until successful check-in. Hosts then redeem their payment by entering the 6-digit payment code on our system, which is provided by the guest. If the guest isn’t satisfied with the place, they simply withhold the code and the host doesn’t get the money. Guest funds can be refunded in 2-3 days or transferred to a new booking.
OA: Once a case of fraud is proven, we refund the whole amount of the reservation to the customer. Once a customer makes a reservation, we ask for a deposit in order to confirm it. The rest is due to the owner directly.
If site users lose a booking through a scam the night before they travel, can you quickly help them find a new property?
HA: Our customer support team will always assist travellers in finding a new place to stay if they discover the home they’ve rented is no longer available. We encourage travellers to call us directly for assistance.
RMA: Yes, we do. They simply need to get in touch with one of our customer representatives so we can help them find a property.
OA: Definitely. In the event of customers discovering they have booked an apartment that does not exist, they can contact our Customer Service team and they will find the most appropriate solution possible, as quickly as possible, usually the same day.
What happens if everything goes well up until they arrive and discover it’s not the place they imagined from the listing?
HA: If a traveller has opted into the HomeAway Carefree Guarantee on HomeAway.com or Europ Assistance on HomeAway.co.uk then they will likely be covered by significant misrepresentation and get reimbursed for their payment. Additionally, once a traveller has set foot in a vacation rental, they’re allowed to leave a review about the property in order to warn future guests that the property is not as described. If there is something majorly misrepresented on the advertisement, we will work with the homeowner or manager to update their listing.
OFS: Onefinestay is not only selective about which properties it lists, but careful to ensure the listings of homes are honest. We photograph each home, displays a map of its whereabouts, and list any ‘quirks’ of the home in the Home Truths section, so guests know exactly what to expect when they arrive. If for any reason the home doesn’t fit the bill, we will endeavour to relocate them to one that does.
RMA: The guarantee is that 6-digit payment code. It is essential to the protection of the guest. If they have a valid reason for not checking in, they will get their funds back or transferred to a new booking.
OA: During our quality inspection, we always make sure that the information published on the website is 100% accurate. For example, before publishing an apartment, we always ask the owner to upload pictures of each area of the apartment and we always check the correct features of the apartment and its right location.
Do you recommend people take out travel insurance?
HA: Travel insurance isn’t for everyone, as it’s a greater upfront cost, but for travellers who tend to worry about the unexpected or who might need to cancel their trip, it might be a good idea. All policies are different though, so if you’re looking to get coverage on fraud or phishing, make sure the terms explicitly list those scenarios.
OFS: We always recommend taking out travel insurance.
RMA: Travel insurance is extremely important, especially for guests travelling for an extended period of time. It’s a small price to pay for your safety and peace of mind.
OA: It’s always a good idea to take out travel insurance, but the customer must always check what the insurance includes and what it doesn’t, in order to avoid any surprises in the event of encountering a problem.
HA: There are a number of resources out there about how you can protect yourself when booking a vacation rental, including our Security Center.
OFS: Always use a trusted website and make sure that you have seen photos of every room before booking.
OA: Always choose a web site that has a secure payment method. It’s a clear signal that the website has a secure structure.
RMA: Short-term rentals require an open mind. It’s not instant gratification like booking a hotel. Do a little research and be open. In no time at all, you’ll be wondering why you travelled any other way before.
Do you have more questions? If so, leave them in the comments at the end of this post and we’ll ask our experts to respond.