More scammers are ruining people’s vacations: Here’s how to protect yourself

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You’re intent on a beachside rental, perhaps in an unfamiliar location, and while searching online, you find just the spot. The online listing tells you to contact the owner, so you reach out to them through email. A friendly owner responds that they're happy to host you. They ask you to wire them around $1,000 and you comply.

But when you arrive, you find the home has been double booked. You learn that you weren’t communicating with the owner but in fact, a shadow account set up to dupe unsuspecting travelers. And now, your money is gone.

That nightmare of a situation is becoming more common, according to Darius Kingsley, Head of Consumer Business practice at JPMorgan Chase.

"We've definitely seen an increase in some scams around those kinds of customers trying to find either a last-minute vacation rental or looking to save some money," he said. "There's a number of scams out there. Unfortunately a common one that we're seeing is with vacation rentals."

This summer has seen a massive travel boom and fraudsters are ready to take advantage of Americans looking for a place to stay. Many scams go unreported, but in 2022, the Better Business Bureau recorded a median loss of $636.50 due to travel scams. Year to date, they’ve reported a median loss of $500. The FTC similarly has reported that travel-related scams are on the rise.

While the aforementioned hypothetical shows how swindlers can trick travelers, experts say there are several ways Americans can protect themselves from getting ripped off.

"Scammers are, I think from what we've seen, getting a little smarter about targeting people who are looking for vacations, particularly given with COVID and Americans are really wanting to travel more than ever," Kingsley said.

"These scams are mostly preventable if we learn to spot the signs of scams and take our time, slow down and do some research before sending money for that amazing vacation deal."

Here are tips for warding off scams.

Relax, but not too much
Kingsley said that though Americans should take advantage of opportunities to rest, they should remain vigilant for potential scams when on vacation. He explained that Americans tend to be much more susceptible to even robo-call and email scams when they're trying to get some rest and relaxation.

"We go into vacation mode when we travel," Kingsley said. "And we're just happy to be away from work and get out of the house and see somewhere different and really I think sometimes we lower our guard."

Do your research
Kingsley emphasized the importance of research, especially for lesser-known travel companies. He said consumers can start by simply looking up the company they’re renting from.

"Look them up online, and add along with their name terms like 'scam' or 'complaints' or 'review' and see what's out there," he said. "You'd be surprised. If it is a scam, often people will let you know that online, but you might not find that otherwise unless you search for it in that way."

Michael Skiba, also known as Dr. Fraud for his expertise in scams, cautioned consumers to watch out for red flags like new listings with cheap prices. He also said that photos featured in such listings tend to "look staged" and are "pulled from other website sources."

"The whole key to avoiding a rental scam is to filter out the suspicious ones before you book," he said. "Those are huge flags."

The FTC, meanwhile, noted another potential sign of a scam is when rental owners pressure consumers to make a quick decision when booking.

"If someone says you have to decide whether to buy a travel package or rent a vacation property right away, don’t do it," according to the FTC’s website. "Scammers want to rush you. So move on and find another option."

The FTC also recommends consumers use trusted sources like family and friends in their search for vacation rentals.

Be mindful of how you pay
Be careful of how they pay for short-term rental locations, Kingsley said.

For instance, he advised consumers to keep their transactions contained to the hosting or booking site. That way consumers can maintain a paper trail of transactions that booking companies can later use as a reference.

"Some scams will list a property on a well-known vacation rental site, but when you contact the owner, they will ask you to communicate off of the booking site, over email, and arrange for separate payment," Kingsley said. "Don't let yourself get kind of taken offline or separate emails if you can help it."

He added consumers should always pay with a credit card.

"You want to be very careful about sending a check or wires because once that money is gone, it's gone," he said. "With a credit card, you have the ability to dispute that later on."

Monitor your credit card transactions
Sometimes scams can be subtle. Kingsley said that consumers should be watchful of their expenses both during and post-vacation. That way, consumers can be sure no one has stolen their credit card information.

"Continue to monitor any sort of unauthorized charges on your account because that is another place to where…later on, extra charges get tacked on," he said. "So monitor those because they're on your card."

Rinse and repeat
Travelers should continue to be cautious leading up to their stay. Stick to well-known platforms and "review their refund and dispute policies" in case trouble arises, Kingsley said. For instance, Airbnb’s website has "avoiding fraud" and "refund" sections.

"I just really would always urge customers to kind of triple check everything before you do send money," Kingsley said, "before you pay for something."

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