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Is that rental house for real? How to spot a scam when booking a vacation.

By Harriet Edleson

When traveling, instead of booking a hotel, retirees sometimes turn to short-term vacation rental online sites and platforms. In the process, they can face fraud in the form of fake listings and attempts to move unsuspecting consumers off the site as a way to scam them.

"It can happen that you book a vacation rental, and you find out the entire listing is a fraud," said Michelle Couch-Friedman, founder of Consumer Rescue, an advocacy and educational organization.

The photographs might look exceptional, the price is relatively high but seems fair for the location, yet how do you know what the rental will be like when you arrive and during your stay?

Will necessary repairs have been made before you arrive? Will the place be spotless? If something goes wrong during your stay, will you be able to reach the booking platform or host while you're there? Since many vacation houses require payment in full before you arrive, how can you ensure as much as possible that what you see online will be what you get upon arrival?

Typically, the rental's exact address is not provided until after you make the booking, so Robert, a tech-savvy person in his late 60s, searches booking platforms for vacation rentals using Google Maps to get as much information about a short-term rental's location as possible.

Even if he only has the general location of a property he has found on Vrbo, for example, the intersection of two streets but not the exact address until he actually books a rental, Robert searches an aerial view of the area as well as a street view to see if he can find a property that matches the one he has viewed on the booking platform.

He might be able to view the front of the house, its street number, and whether it has the private pool mentioned on the site. It's a method that helps him determine that the property exists, possibly its precise location, and whether it's near a supermarket, grocery store, and restaurants.

One San Antonio, couple in their early 70s has booked vacation rentals, typically in Florida, at least once a year over the past few years. They like to gather with their grown children and grandchildren in the same space so they can easily eat meals together in the rental house. They have found online bookings a good way to find vacation rental houses.

Read:On 'hush trips,' employees sneak off to vacation spots to work remotely. Is that so bad?

Protect yourself and your trip. Here's how to spot red flags that might signal a fake listing or other attempted fraud.

The first way to protect yourself is to understand the short-term rental market, and how it is different from planning a trip with hotel stays. "It's a different approach than booking a hotel," said Madeline List, a senior research analyst with Phocuswright, a travel market research company. Rather than booking a brand they know with a credit card or with loyalty points, "it's more like when you book a boutique hotel," she said. "We see a lot of strong brand loyalty in that age group, among retirees. They tend to be loyal to a few huge players."

Approximately 17% of people 55-plus have used a short-term rental in the last few years, according to Phocuswright.

"Instead of a few huge players and loyalty programs," List said, the short-term rental market is "incredibly fragmented in terms of who's operating them."

That's why it's important to take extra time and effort when booking a short-term vacation rental.

To protect yourself when browsing and before you book, choose carefully where you search for short-term vacation rentals. Once you start searching, remember that your own due diligence can help you avoid a scam. In addition, adjust your expectations. A short-term rental can create a dream vacation but it's a different experience than staying in a hotel.

Read: Five spring-break destinations for grown-ups

In addition, vacation rental platforms that list properties for rent such as and are not property management companies, said Couch-Friedman. "They will not be at your beck and call. They don't vet these properties. They are listing services."

Booking with listing platforms can help you find a vacation rental that meets your needs and expectations. However, those who anticipate a hotel experience might be disappointed. Some travelers, including retirees, can be "expecting a level of service that is not available through Vrbo and Airbnb (ABNB)," Couch-Friedman said. For example, if you expect housekeeping service every day, a short-term vacation rental may not be for you.

Read:How do healthcare and Medicare work when you retire abroad?

To avoid scams as much as possible, and ensure you'll have a place that closely matches the one you saw photographed on a booking site, here are tips from experts and those who have booked successful online vacation rentals:

Book only on reputable sites

Even those sites can end up with a fake listing but it is less likely. If you are unable to reach a host through the platform or the host asks you to move off the site to conduct business or pay, stop communication immediately.

Familiarize yourself with the site or platform terms

Keep in mind that listing sites or platforms typically do not inspect properties. Vrbo verifies user accounts and conducts certain background screenings on hosts, according to an Expedia spokesperson. Vrbo is an Expedia Group (EXPE) brand. "This includes verifying property listings address, homeowner's name and billing address," she said.

Before you book, contact the host with any questions through the message feature on the platform.

If you want to know more about the location of the property before you book, for example, message the host to ask what attractions and landmarks are nearby. You can then search those places to see if that is an area where you'd like to stay.

Ask how recent the photos are. Another tip: Paste the photos into Google Images to see if they are stock photos or images from another listing, and not an authentic short-term rental listing.

Read all the details about the rental carefully

If you want a property that is private rather than a room in someone's house, make sure that's what the description says. Some sites, such as Airbnb, allow hosts to rent part of their home.

Read the reviews

Vacation rental platforms rely on the experiences of previous guests, and honest hosts aim to obtain verified good reviews so guests will continue to book their rental. "Pay particular attention to whether the host or property manager is responsive to these reviews, as well as whether they have addressed any issues with the home identified in the reviews," said T.J. Clark, chief commercial officer of Vacasa, a vacation rental property management company based in Portland, Ore.

Verify the cancellation policy for the particular listing

It can vary from listing to listing, and can depend on how far ahead you are booking. If you want to be able to obtain a full refund, check the last date by which you must cancel to receive it.

Make payments on the platform using a credit card

Avoid using instant methods of payment such as Zelle, wire transfer, or gift cards.

"Scammers like Zelle because it's instant," said Couch-Friedman. "They will take anything as long as it's not a credit card."

Further, scammers do manage to get into legitimate booking platforms so be careful. If a legitimate company emails you, asking you to pay a security deposit with Zelle, that's a sign of a scam, she said. A legitimate site will never ask you for payment off the site or app with Zelle, Venmo or any other instant payment method.

By only paying through the platform, you have some degree of protection should a problem arise. According to the Expedia Group spokesperson, "guests who book and pay through Vrbo are automatically covered by our Book with Confidence Guarantee, which offers comprehensive payment protection, 24-hour customer service and emergency booking assistance if needed." In addition, the Fair Credit Billing Act gives consumers 60 days to challenge disputed charges of more than $50. These include undelivered or unacceptable goods and transactions by unauthorized users.

Document any repair issues and notify the host or booking site immediately

Use your phone to take photographs and videos that will show the time you took them, in case you need evidence that you found the space in unacceptable condition upon arrival.

Consider sites that rely on property managers

"As representatives of the property's owner, property managers have a vested interest in providing the best possible experience for their guests, including ensuring that the listing images match the in-home experience," said Vacasa's Clark.

Purchase travel insurance

There are many kinds of travel insurance so find one that will meet your specific needs. For example, if you are concerned about being unable to travel because of illness, purchase travel insurance that includes "cancel for any reason." Ask if the policy you are considering will protect you if the rental you paid for turns out to be a scam.

-Harriet Edleson

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

03-25-23 1341ET

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