Vacation rentals on platforms like Vrbo/HomeAway, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb now come with additional "service fees" ranging from 7% to 17% on top of the owners' rates. To avoid these fees, many people turn to social media and Craigslist for alternatives. Social media platforms, particularly Facebook groups dedicated to vacation rentals, have become a breeding ground for a prevalent scam known as "Look There But Pay Here." Scammers infiltrate these groups, posing as property seekers, and then target unsuspecting vacationers who post ISO (in search of) requests. By understanding the tactics employed by scammers and following essential tips, you can protect yourself from falling victim to these fraudulent schemes.
Understanding Social Media Vacation Rental Scams
The "Look There But Pay Here" Scam Unveiled
Vacation rental scams thrive on social media platforms, with Facebook groups dedicated to vacation rentals being particularly vulnerable. Scammers join these groups under the pretense of seeking properties to rent and patiently await ISO (in search of) posts from vacationers. Once they identify potential targets, scammers initiate private messages, directing victims to view legitimate listings on trusted websites such as Airbnb, VRBO, or Booking.com that actually have no availability. To deceive vacationers, scammers claim that there has been a recent "cancellation" not reflected on the calendar, and they offer "cost savings" by arranging direct payments via bank transfers, Cash App, Zelle, or PayPal's "Friends and Family" option. However, the listing does not belong to them, and once the payment is made, scammers block victims on Facebook and vanish with their money.
Scammer Teamwork and Warning Signs
The Role of Scammer Teams and Identifying Red Flags
Scammers often operate in teams, employing a "spotter" within vacation rental groups who collects member information. This collected data is then passed on to another scammer who contacts vacationers through Messenger, even if they are not group members and sometimes even lack a genuine Facebook profile. Red flags to watch out for include receiving private messages from non-group members, unsolicited requests to book ASAp, insistence on paying by irreversible payment methods, and reluctance to provide a link to the property's website page. Or, if the link is provided, you could see that the property is already booked for your desired dates while the person who messaged you claimed a "cancellation". If you communicate by email, you may see widely different timestamps as many scammers actually reside in foreign countries. Exercise caution and verify the authenticity of individuals contacting you, particularly if they pressure you for immediate payment through insecure methods.
Essential Tips for Protection
Safeguarding Yourself Against Social Media Vacation Rental Scams
Avoid engaging with individuals in groups who do not post a link to their property's website page publicly and solely communicate through private messages. Conduct thorough research on property owners, looking for consistent online profiles, positive reviews, and testimonials from previous renters. Steer clear of making payments by irreversible methods. Discrepancies in listing policies and what is being offered is also a red flag. Trust your instincts and promptly report any suspicious activity to the group administrators or relevant authorities.
When using Facebook groups dedicated to vacation rentals, avoid using certain keywords like “desperate”, “cheap”, "does not cost an arm and a leg”, and “does not break the bank”. They can attract scammers offering unrealistically good prices or fake availability.
Exercise caution when dealing with individuals who only communicate through private messages on Facebook or fail to provide the property's booking website publicly.
Pay attention to language use, as scammers may be vague about the property type or use inappropriate emojis. Foreign scammers often use phrases like "enquiry," "kindly," and may address you as "friend."
Example of a typical scammer comment in a Facebook group. Notice excessive emoji, grammar, generic "property" (vs cabin, condo, etc), and insistence on private messaging.
Look out for inconsistencies in rental agreements and flexibility in terms that deviate from the original listing, such as allowing pets when it's prohibited or agreeing to accommodate more guests than stated.
Be wary of scammers claiming availability due to cancellations and pressuring you to pay quickly. Legitimate owners maintain accurate availability calendars and adhere to their rules.
Scammers often avoid phone calls, and their messages may have unusual timestamps or exhibit different writing styles, indicating a team-based scam operation.
If someone offers a significant discount of 40-60%, it is likely a scam. Familiarize yourself with the going rates for similar properties in your desired location and season to identify suspiciously low prices to avoid falling for unrealistic scam “deals”.
Watch for vague or evasive responses to simple questions and overreactions from scammers when questioned about legitimacy.
The high-pressure insistence and urgency to close the "deal" and make you pay (often by dropping the rates on the spot) are also typical scammer tactics. A legitimate owner will provide you with a quote and let you decide without pressure.
Scammers often act indignant or even belligerent if you question the legitimacy of their "offering", whereas a legitimate property owner will be glad to answer any questions you may have to put you at ease.
Before booking directly, independently verify the rental's existence through internet searches, cross-referencing multiple portals, and reviewing online presence and reviews.
Avoid sending money through Cash App, Zelle, Venmo (without purchase protection option), or PayPal "Friends and Family," as these options lack protection. Use safe methods like credit cards, Venmo WITH purchase protection option, or PayPal "Goods and Services."
While booking sites may offer guarantees like payment protection, these guarantees often have limited coverage. Most protection comes from filing chargebacks with your credit card issuer.
Remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Prioritize your safety, conduct thorough research, and spread awareness to protect others.
By understanding the tactics employed in "Look There But Pay Here" vacation rental scams on social media and following the essential tips provided, you can safeguard yourself from becoming a victim. Stay vigilant, conduct thorough research, and prioritize secure booking practices to ensure a safe and enjoyable vacation rental experience.