As New Jersey reopens, many consumers are hoping they can still rent a home at the Shore.
Pent up demand from the coronavirus shutdown means you might have trouble making the reservations you want. That, in turn, might lead you to jump on a deal, even if it sounds too good to be true.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, summer house rental scams were all too common.
We spoke with Adam Levin, a former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs and founder of CyberScout, an identity theft protection and cybersecurity firm, about some tips so consumers won’t fall for a summer rental scam.
Q. What changes with the coronavirus pandemic?
A. Due to Covid-19, people are looking to maintain social distance and avoid crowded hotels and swimming pools. This is going to increase the demand for private short-term rental properties, which will also increase the odds of being scammed, especially when it comes to overbooking the same property.
Know the cleaning policy. Rental services like Airbnb have created new cleaning guidelines for hosts. To avoid being scammed out of money after your stay, discuss if there will be an additional cost for cleaning services before securing a rental.
Q. Will the pandemic make people quicker to jump on a “too good to be true” deal?
A. People are eager to get away after sheltering-in-place — which some people consider being under house arrest — for so long due to the pandemic. This is a vulnerability that scammers will take advantage of. They also know that millions of Americans have seen their salaries cut, are on furlough or are out of work and even those who can afford to do something are looking for bargain deals on vacation rentals. Look out for super cheap rates for premium vacation properties. Below-market rent can be a sign of a scam.
These people will post an extremely inviting offer online and then tell everyone who responds, “You better move quickly. Lots of people are interested and some are offering more than I asked for.” In an effort to “help” you “lock the deal,” they ask for personal identifying information and a credit or debit card number. You bite. They then vanish with your information and use it to their benefit. You don’t have to be a detective to do a little background research on a reservation service you’re about to use – especially before you provide payment information.
Q. We’ve heard about rental scams in which someone purports to be a landlord but has no interest in the house they say they can rent. What research should a renter do?
A. Ask specific questions about the property that a landlord should know the answer to. Some home-rental websites have their own vetting processes and offer guarantees that will protect you in case of fraud. Check before you click.
If possible, drive by or visit the rental property before signing any contracts.
Check for reviews online. Look to see if previous renters are sharing consistent experiences (good or bad) in their reviews – and be alert for fake ones.
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Confirm the address is real. Doing a quick Google search can provide you with public information about the property and its owner. Google Maps can provide a satellite image of the property.
If you’re looking for properties using sites like Airbnb or VRBO, do not go off the site to conduct business. Don’t wire money unless you have confirmed (the items above) have precise wiring instructions which you confirm at the time of wiring. Don’t pay with a prepaid or gift card for a vacation rental. Once the scammer collects the money, it is almost impossible to get it back.
If you’re working with a real estate agent, ask for their license number and request references (and make sure to check both of these).
Q. What other related scams are we seeing?
A. Because you don’t want to be the unwitting star of your own reality show, check the inside of your rental property for hidden cameras. Turn off all the lights in each room and shine a flashlight. Your phone’s will do. Look for light glinting off a camera lens. If you discover any, cover them with a Post-It or piece of tape. Also, avoid talking about personal or financial information – you never know who may be listening.
Q. What’s the fake menu scam?
A. You arrive at your rental house, you’re famished and you find take-out menus that were either slipped under your door, or strategically placed in the house by an accomplice. Unfortunately, the number on that menu is fake — it belongs to a scam artist who is all too eager to take your order while stealing your credit card information. An hour passes, your hunger is off the charts and your patience — as well as your available credit — has been drained. You were dinner.
Q. What about using WiFi in a rental house?
Don’t automatically trust the rental’s WiFi and make sure the WiFi is password protected before using. Never visit your email or financial services accounts on public computers or free WiFi systems. Both could be swarming with identity thieves armed with malware that’ll steal your passwords and hijack your email and financial information or lock-up your device unless you are willing to pay ransom in bitcoin.
Q. What else should our readers know?
Use a credit card instead of a debit card. A debit card is the gateway to your bank account. While the protections on many debit cards are good, many are not as good as those on credit cards. Use credit cards when traveling instead because with a credit card it’s their money, with a debit card, it’s your money.
Never provide payment information to anyone without making sure you’re on the right site, and whoever you’re working with is in a position to provide what they’ve offered to you, whether that’s an equipment rental, an excursion or anything else vacation related.
Q. Any final tips?
A. If you’re not going away this summer, you might be looking for a summer job. There are scammers targeting high school and college-age students looking for summer employment opportunities. Never provide sensitive information on job websites or to anyone claiming to offer summer employment without doing some research. You can figure this out by doing an online search or making a few phone calls. Use your head when providing personally identifiable information to an employer.
When kids are offered a “job,” they provide their information for tax purposes, including their Social Security number, and then never hear back. The reason: The only “job” was a robbery. Their identity is stolen, and because young adults often lack credit monitoring experience, it takes a long time for them to realize their creditworthiness has been botched by this fake opportunity.
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Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].