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State expects uptick in complaints about online Spring Break rentals

Posted: 6:59 PM, Mar 15, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-15 22:59:09Z

INDIANAPOLIS — Spring break usually means sun and fun, but for others - it can also mean losing your money and sanity.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office issued an alert Friday about booking accommodations online.

Betsy DeNardi, director of Consumer Protection at the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, said many travelers are shunning chain hotels in favor of finding rentals on sites like Craigslist, Airbnb, and VRBO.

The agency is expecting an uptick in complaints as Spring Breakers arrive at their destinations and realize they’re not getting what they paid for.

"You show up and you actually don't have a place to stay or the place you thought you were going to stay is not what it looks like when you arrive there," DeNardi said.

Other common complaints include when a rental agent cancels on the consumer at the last minute, leaving them with no place to stay.

"You need to look closely if it's a place that someone else owns and lives in,” DeNardi said. “Make sure you check the details of the reservation to make sure there's not a clause that if the owner decides to stay home that you no longer have a place to stay."

Ask what the rental’s cancellation policy is—whether you cancel or they cancel—and if there is a cancellation, find out if you get a refund or if the agent will find you another place to stay.

Even better - get any details in writing.

Also, don’t rely on the glossy photographs you see online.

“Do additional searches, not just looking at the pictures they sent you or they put online,” DeNardi said. “You can go to Google Maps and look at the address of the property and look at a street view.”

You should also look for reviews on the property and ask for references from other renters.

"We encourage people to do a lot of independent research before you give someone money to rent a location," DeNardi said. “Keep those tips in mind when you’re booking any vacations in the future whether it’s Spring Break or summer vacation or you’re going away for the holidays.”

To file a complaint about a rental or to report a vacation scam, go to www.indianaconsumer.com or call 1-800-382-5516.

VRBO provides information on how to avoid scams , including to “always communicate with the owner through HomeAway's secure, private messaging platform, which protects you from phishing and identity theft.”

Airbnb said you should never share your email address before a booking is accepted or transfer funds outside the Airbnb system, and always carefully examine emails claiming to be from Airbnb.

According to Airbnb, examples of common scams include:

  • Advance Fee Scam: Someone offers to pay you or give you something if you pay through a service outside of Airbnb.
  • Phishing Scam: Someone sends an email or link that looks like it's from Airbnb or another trusted site. These messages are designed to trick you into providing confidential information such as passwords or other email addresses. Phishing messages may contain malware, which is malicious software that gains access to your computer to gather your personal information, including passwords.
  • Travel Scam: Someone offers you a great deal on a listing if you pay or send a deposit using a wire transfer. After receiving your money, they don’t give you the reservation they advertised.
  • Overpayment Scam: Someone offers to pay a host more than the price of the reservation, and then asks the host to give them cash to cover the difference.
  • Third-party Booking Scam: Someone offers to reserve and pay for an Airbnb listing through their third-party website or service, often claiming to have an Airbnb coupon or discount. These reservations are typically paid for using stolen credit cards.

Tips from the Better Business Bureau on how to avoid vacation rip-offs:
· Talk with the owner. If you are not using a service that verifies properties and owners, do not negotiate a rental solely by email. Many scammers don’t live locally, so get the owner on the phone and ask detailed questions about the property and local attractions. An owner with vague answers to your questions is a clear red flag.
· Check public records. Investigate on Google or another search engine. Look up the address and use Google Street View to confirm the property matches the one advertised. Also, verify distances to beaches, attractions and airports while on the site.
· Look for reviews and ask for references. While you’re vetting properties, don’t forget to check bbb.org and other online reviews. Some vacation rental websites provide an opportunity to rate the rental property as well as the owner or property manager.
If the property you’re considering doesn’t have any online reviews, ask for references and call them. Again, listen for vague answers, which could indicate the reference is simply a friend of the scammer.
· Don’t wire money or use a prepaid debit card. You should never pay for a vacation rental by prepaid debit card or wire transfer. These payments are the same as sending cash. Once you send the money, you have no way to get it back. That’s why scammers depend upon these forms of payment. Paying with a credit card is your best bet to avoid being out money because of a shady vacation rental. If your rental ends up being a scam, you can dispute the charge and dramatically limit your liability.