It’s that time of year.
But would-be vacationers should beware. Rental scams are everywhere, from rowdy Boardwalk communities to family-friendly beaches to more exclusive Shore towns.
These scams come in many flavors.
Some swindlers place online ads for properties with which they have no connection. They steal photos of real rental properties or homes that are for sale — usually the attractive-looking ones. They even post the real address, basically listing a property they have no right to offer for rent.
Renters then pay their money to secure the home, but when they arrive on the rental date, suitcases and bathing suits in hand, they learn they’ve been scammed.
Other con-artists post listings for properties that don’t really exist.
Still others work more of a bait-and-switch scheme in which they post photos of a property that looks very different from the one they actually have for rent. When the vacationer shows up — needing a place to stay in a town that may have no vacancies and having already paid their money — they reluctantly accept the lesser rental.
There are even technologically sophisticated tricksters who hijack the email addresses of real landlords who have listed their rentals on reputable web sites. Other charlatans steal legitimate rental listings and they re-post the listing elsewhere with different contact information. The real owner of the home doesn’t learn about the scam until vacationers come knocking on the door.
If you’re in the market for a rental, the best way to protect yourself is to visit the property in person. But even then, it’s possible a fraudster has gained access to a home he or she has no authority to rent.
Of course, it’s not always possible to check out a vacation spot in person before the vacation, so here are some tips so you’re not cheated.
1. View photos skeptically: Legit landlords will always want to show only the best photos of their property. But with today’s technology, photos can be altered. When you see a property you’re interested in, ask the landlord to share additional photos, or ask for photos of specific features of the home. You should be able to compare these and determine if you’re looking at the same property you saw in the ad. You can even ask the landlord to walk you through the property using FaceTime, Skype, ooVoo or similar live video programs.
2. Look for more photo evidence: You can use Google StreetView and other map programs to confirm that the property address is real, and to see what the house looks like from the street. Imagine otherwise showing up to a Sandy-damaged beach area to find that a home no longer stands at the address you’ve rented.
3. Look for paper evidence: Contact the town where the property is located and confirm that the landlord you’re dealing with the actually the owner of the home.
4. Don’t use cash: Using a credit card will give you the most protection if something goes wrong, but many legit landlords will only accept checks. If the person you’re dealing with insists on payment with a wire service, pre-paid debit cards or cash, be suspicious and find another property to rent.
5. Call a real estate agent: If you’re not comfortable renting directly from an owner, call a real estate agent. You also have to do your homework here. Make sure the agent is local and familiar with the community — you don’t want a Jersey Shore rental that’s managed by some guy out of New Hampshire or California — and check to see that the agent is properly licensed in the state.
6. Research legit real estate web sites: There are many reputable web sites that offer rental listings, but you never know if the scammers are also faking out the web sites themselves by adding phony rentals. Learn about how the site you’re using protects customers. For example, some will actually hold rent money in escrow until the time of a rental in case there’s a dispute. See what other customers who have rented the property say about their experiences in reviews and comments, but know these can be fakes, too.
7. Go back for more: If you find a home you’ve enjoyed in the past, consider re-renting so you know what you’re getting. Or, ask friends and family about properties they’ve visited. Sure, a property can change over time, but at least you’ll know you’re dealing with a legit landlord and not a crook.
If you come across a rental scam, file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (I3C).
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com.