Sites like AirBNB, HomeAway and VRBO make it easy to connect homeowners with prospective renters. Homeowners have an online brochure showcasing their property. Renters scan the listings looking for the perfect business or vacation stay. Communication happens directly between the two parties using the site’s closed email system.
Recently, my mother shared an email with me that she recently received regarding a rental property we own in Phoenix, Arizona. There were two instances, one right after another, of what could have easily passed initially as a legitimate rental situation. Thanks to her quick thinking, no money was lost.
First, she received a rental request from a secretary who said she was inquiring about our home on behalf of her boss. He was traveling to Phoenix from Dubai with a few co-workers. The secretary asked several legitimate questions such as the home’s distance from the airport and whether daily cleaning was available.
My mother promptly answered each of her questions. Then, the secretary explained she could not book our home without confirming it was acceptable to her boss. A few hours later, the secretary emailed my mother with the good news. Her boss loves the home and definitely would like to stay there. There was just one problem.
Her boss does not like to use credit cards online. He does not think they are secure. He would like to send a check for the total rental amount, in United States dollars, of course.
A day after this incident, my mother received a rental inquiry from two engineers in Poland. They were traveling to Phoenix for business and also asked a slew of legitimate questions. After a flurry of email exchanges, this person also expressed distrust with credit card use online and also, on the phone. They wanted to send my mother a check too.
In both instances, my mother explained to the renters that payment is only received using a credit card though VRBO’s site. She never heard from either party again.
Had my mother accepted the check (which is against VRBO’s policies by the way), she would have been out the rental income generated by a legitimate person who could have rented our home and the money from the foreign visitors.
It usually works one of two ways. The check that the scammers send is more than the amount due. After you receive the check, they will ask you to return the difference using a wire transfer service. You do. By then, the bank discovers that the check is void and you’ve lost your money.
Or the renter’s check could be an incorrect amount. After you receive the check, they will cancel and ask for a refund. You wire the money back to the renter. Your bank notifies you the check was written on a closed account and you were scammed.
Looking at the correspondence between my mother and the prospective renters, the scam:
- • Demonstrates a poor grasp of spelling, grammar, capitalization and punctuation
- • Gives you far more information than the typical traveler
- • Is a religious figure, sea captain, doctor, or officer in the armed forces
- • Wants to arrange a surprise trip for someone else
- • Wants to pay by certified check, cashier's check, or unsecured wire transfer
- • Offers to pay more than your stated rate
- • Unsolicited payment information in the initial inquiry
- • No inquiry comments or traveler phone number provided
- • Refers to your home improperly in the body of the inquiry (e.g. asks about your lovely apartment when you own a cabin)
- • Submits inquiry for specific dates but will often tell homeowners that dates are flexible
- • Gives you an uneasy feeling that something isn't quite right
The "secretary" certainly displayed quite a few of these characteristics even before revealing that she will mail a check as payment.
Her emails were grammatically poor, she was using a free or even fake email address, there's no phone number and she had flexible dates. These were enough to warrant suspicion from my mom but she went along with it until, of course, the check-as-payment offer.
To avoid check scams like this, HomeAway encourages owners to accept VRBO online transactions via HomeAway Secure Payments. With this secure online system, renters can pay with a credit card or an eCheck.
They also advise to avoid these following practices:
- • Sending cash is not recommended, but paying in cash in person to the owner or manager upon arrival can be OK.
- • Sending a check made out to cash.
- • Using an instant money transfer such as Western Union or Money Gram.
They say that using any of these payment methods will void any guarantee from VROB and HomeAway so be careful.
This scam is spreading, and the criminals are targeting any rental property they can. Be aware and share this tip with your family and friends so they know too.
Rental scams are nothing new and online scams are always evolving. Check out these Craigslist scams and tips on how to avoid them.