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How to Avoid Airbnb Scams and Find Legit Vacation Rentals Online

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If a vacation house listing sounds too good to be true, it could be. Do a reverse Google image search to make sure the photos aren’t from a stock site—like this image.

Photo by Shutterstock

If a vacation house listing sounds too good to be true, it could be. Do a reverse Google image search to make sure the photos aren’t from a stock site—like this image.

Worried about getting scammed on your next vacation rental? Follow these tips to avoid the hassle and arrive with peace of mind.

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In an ideal world, going on vacation would be as seamless as scoring a cheap flight, arriving with no delays, and checking into a hotel or vacation rental with Instagram-worthy views and an unlumpy mattress. But as frequent travelers know, that’s not always the reality. Sometimes weather or political unrest disrupts travel plans. Other times, you can fall victim to an elaborate scam. There are innocuous ones like fake TripAdvisor reviews convincing you to eat at a subpar restaurant, and others are as nefarious as hacking into your frequent flyer account and stealing your miles. One of the worst, though, is showing up to check into a vacation rental only to realize that it doesn’t actually exist, leaving you with no place to stay and potentially out hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars. 

Recently, Allie Conti, a former staff writer at Vice, detailed her experience on Vice.com about how she stumbled into an Airbnb scam that left her able to recoup just $399 of the $1,221.20 she spent on a listing that she didn’t even end up seeing in person. Minutes before she was set to check into an apartment in Chicago, her host called and told her there were plumbing issues at the original listing but that he could move her into another property that he managed. After agreeing to the switch, she realized the new place was more of a “flophouse than someone’s home” and left to check into a hotel. In October, CNN reported that a British couple spent nearly $12,000 for a two-week vacation in Ibiza at an Airbnb that didn’t exist—someone had merely cobbled together images from a condo complex’s website and uploaded the listing to the site.

On Wednesday, November 6, Airbnb cofounder, CEO, and head of community, Brian Chesky, unveiled a brand-new guest guarantee system and the rollout of a new verification system for hosts and homes. Chesky called it “the most significant steps in designing trust on our platform since our original design in 2008” in an all-staff email released to the press and on Twitter.

While Airbnb doesn’t publicly share the exact percentage of fraudulent listings on its site, it says that fraudulent issues “are incredibly rare” among the 2 million people who check into an Airbnb every night. Vrbo, which is part of the Expedia Group that also owns HomeAway, says that it is able to keep fraud on its site “closer to zero than 1 percent of all bookings” by using both technology and human review systems to detect fraudulent listings on its site. 

Nevertheless, here are tips for making sure the vacation rental you’re booking is legitimate (plus more information about what Airbnb’s new guest guarantee system entails).

Book a pre-vetted home

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The vetting and verification process for most rental homes online is fairly minimal, putting the burden on travelers to report fraudulent listings to the companies. But in light of recent issues, Airbnb announced that it will begin the process of verifying all 7 million listings on its platform. By December 15, 2020, each home and host will be verified by Airbnb for “accuracy of the listing (including accuracy of photos, addresses, and listing details) and quality standards (including cleanliness, safety, and basic home amenities),” according to a statement released to the press. Those that meet Airbnb’s standards will be clearly labeled as such moving forward. It is unclear if this will include on-site inspections. 

Previously, only premium services like Airbnb Plus, Airbnb Luxe, and Onefinestay, the collection of high-end rental homes operated by Accor Hotels, included a separate vetting and verification process. Before homes can be marked as an Airbnb Plus or Luxe, or listed in Onefinestay’s exclusive City Collection or Villa Collection, the properties are vetted in person by representatives from each company for factors including quality and comfort. In fact, only 1 in 10 homes makes the cut, Onefinestay told AFAR. While you won’t necessarily find many affordable deals in these collections, you can book with confidence, knowing that the listing is not only legitimate but also guaranteed for cleanliness.

Read the reviews

It’s best to pick a listing with multiple positive reviews. If a property has no reviews or several damning ones, it’s best to stay away. Airbnb recommends looking through the feedback from past guests to see if a listing is accurately portrayed online.

Make sure the listing isn’t too good to be true

Five-bedroom penthouse in New York City for $100 a night? That’s probably not real. To see how a listing’s price compares, click the price button at the top of the Airbnb search results to find the average nightly price for properties in that place on those dates. Vrbo and its sister site, HomeAway, don’t share average pricing for locations, but simply scroll through the results to see if the price is similar to the other results.

If you’re still not sure, do a reverse Google image search to make sure that the listing’s photos don’t show up on a stock image site—a surefire sign that the property isn’t real. To do that, go to images.google.com and click the camera icon to the right of the search field to upload the photo in question (you can also drag images directly from your desktop into the search bar). If it matches any other images on the internet, it’ll show you the site from which the photo was probably stolen.

Check the host’s profile

Airbnb verifies users (both hosts and guests) through several factors, including government IDs, email addresses, and phone numbers. Always check the host’s profile to make sure they’ve uploaded these things—you can find it on the left side of their profile page. Airbnb admits on its website that “completing this process isn’t an endorsement of any host or guest, a guarantee of someone’s identity, or an assurance that interacting with them will be safe.” However, it’s likely scammers won’t leave a trail behind them with their real names and IDs on Airbnb, so it’s a positive if they’ve completed this process. 

Another good sign is if someone has a Superhost badge on Airbnb—that means that they’ve maintained consistently high ratings (4.8+ out of 5) from their guests, completed at least 10 stays in the past year, have a cancellation rate of less than 1 percent, and have a 90 percent response rate to new messages within 24 hours. Vrbo and HomeAway have a similar system for reliable hosts called “Premium Partner.”

Only communicate with hosts through the rental company’s website or app.

Do not contact the host outside of the vacation rental site before booking

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You should always contact the host before booking to ask any pertinent questions and vet their personality (for example, will they be cool with you bringing your kids or do they sound uptight?). But only communicate through the company’s secure messaging tool in its app or website. After booking, it’s also best to keep your communication in the app to coordinate check-in and stay in touch during your trip if anything comes up.

Never share your email address or phone number with them before your booking is accepted. If the listing mentions emailing or calling the host directly to book, this is a red flag. One scam involves fraudulent hosts sending over links to other “listings” they manage on sites that look like Airbnb but aren’t (more on that below). If you keep your communications within Airbnb’s site or app, Airbnb blocks all outside links to prevent this from happening.

Make sure you’re actually on airbnb.com (or vrbo.com, or such)

Before you book anything, look closely at the URL you’re on. There are several scam sites out there that look like the real thing, but they’re not. Before booking, make sure you’re actually on https://www.airbnb.com or a country-specific URL like https://es.airbnb.com or https://it.airbnb.com if you’re accessing the site abroad.

“If you click a link that takes you to a page that looks like Airbnb but doesn’t start with this address, it’s a fraudulent page and you should close it,” Airbnb’s website says

You can also download the Airbnb app and use it to book directly  to prevent this from happening.

Never (ever!) pay in cash

Only book with a credit card or debit card through the rental company’s website. If a host asks you to pay outside of the Airbnb or Vrbo website or app through cash, a wire, or bank transfer, it is likely a scam. 

Keep yourself, your payment, and your personal information protected by staying on our secure platform throughout the entire process—from communication, to booking and payment,” Airbnb says. “You should never be asked to wire money, provide credit card information, or otherwise pay a host directly. If you are, please report it to us immediately.”

Vrbo also stresses that the most secure way to book a vacation rental is by paying directly through its website.

“Paying directly through the Vrbo website ensures you are protected against fraudulent behavior,” Melanie Fish, Vrbo’s travel expert, told AFAR.

If your host asks you to pay off the site or through another company, report it directly to the company. On Airbnb, there is a small “flag” on each message sent through Airbnb.com between hosts and guests for reporting suspicious messages. You can call or message Vrbo directly through help.vrbo.com.

Know your rights

In the off chance that you end up being scammed on a vacation rental site, here’s what you should know.

Travelers who pay through Vrbo and HomeAway are protected under its Book with Confidence Guarantee. If you book through those sites, you receive:

  • Comprehensive payment protection for the full rental payment against listing fraud, phishing, the property being significantly misrepresented, and more
  • Customer service available 24/7, to answer any issues or questions regarding the stay
  • Rebooking assistance to find another vacation rental should the booking be wrongfully cancelled at the last minute by an owner or manager
  • Security deposit protection to help recover a wrongfully withheld deposit

Until now, Airbnb didn’t have any sort of guarantees in place for its guests. But starting on December 15, 2019, Airbnb will implement a new Guest Guarantee to give guests peace of mind. The new policy states that, “if upon checking into a listing it does not meet our accuracy standards, Airbnb will rebook the guest a new listing of equal or greater value, or they will get 100 percent of their money back.” More information will be added about this new policy as Airbnb rolls it out.

>> Next: 6 High-End Rental Services That Take Home-Sharing to the Next Level

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