Property manager Joyce Gonzales of the Sand Pearl Residences in Clearwater Beach, FL, has had to turn away more than five families who traveled to Florida with the promise that their vacation rental would be waiting for them. Unfortunately for these vacationers, they were victims of a costly scam.
Michigan mom Shelly Stamis responded to an online advertisement for a vacation home at only $200 a night. “We looked at the pictures, and it was right on the beach, and it was definitely in our price zone, so we booked it,” she told NBC News. Shelly sent $1,500 to a bank account in Florida only to find that the home had never been for rent.
Florida has become the top travel destination in the world, with 87.3 million tourists in 2011 alone. Yet due to the high demand for lodging, vacation rental scams are on the rise in the area. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, these scams ended up costing Americans over $1 billion last year, with 15 million scam reservations made.
Scammers are copying descriptions and photos of listings from Realtor websites and creating their own advertisements on sites like Craigslist. The unsuspecting traveler responds to the ad, and the scammer tells them to put down a deposit to secure their reservation. This money gets sent to a PayPal account, mailed to an address, or even deposited into legitimate bank accounts for fake businesses.
Police are finding it difficult to make arrests in cases like these. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi reports, “It’s a tremendous problem here in Florida. If they’re located in our state, we’re going to go after them with everything we’ve got. But, unfortunately, a lot of [the scammers] are out of the country.”
Authorities recommend the following tips to avoid falling for a scam:
- Search for the property on Google to see if it exists on any legitimate real estate site. If it does, contact the property manager via the information found on that site, and not through Craigslist.
- Use a credit card that has a fraud prevention guarantee.
- Check the prices of other rentals in the area. If they are more expensive, it may be a scam.