Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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March 14, 2012

Consumers warned about travel scams before upcoming vacation season

HARRISBURG - Attorney General Linda Kelly today cautioned consumers, both travelers and property owners, to be on the lookout for scams that are linked to summer vacation rentals and vacations.

"Internet sites, like Craigslist, or other online classified ads, are a popular place for consumers searching for last minute rental bargains or homeowners who are hoping to earn more rental income during the summer vacation season," Kelly said. "Unfortunately, these websites are also popular with scam artists looking to lure unsuspecting consumers into their traps."

"Technology, while a powerful and helpful resource, also makes it easy for thieves to copy photos and descriptions from legitimate vacation rental websites and create false Internet ads," Kelly said. "It is important for consumers to conduct thorough research before making any payments or committing to any plans."

Scammers will structure their ads in a way that forces consumers to respond quickly and often ask that rental payments be wire-transferred in order to guarantee reservations.

Kelly noted that consumers who own vacation homes can also be targeted by these schemes.

Scam artists will often look for victims who are advertising items online and then "accidently" send a check for an amount that is larger than necessary. Scammers then send the homeowner a request use a wire-transfer to return the excess money.

Kelly said that it can take a week or more for banks to identify counterfeit checks or money orders. Unsuspecting consumers who fall for these schemes eventually learn that the rental checks they received are worthless, but not before they have transferred hundreds or thousands of dollars to the scammers.

Consumers should also be suspicious of vacation home listings that request detailed personal data, such as social security numbers or bank account information - supposedly to verify your "credit worthiness" as a renter. In reality, these listings are a type of "phishing" scheme, used by identity thieves to steal personal information.

Kelly encouraged consumers who are searching for rental properties to consider the following tips before completing a transaction:

  • Get the details about the transaction in writing, preferable in the form of a contract, including the property information, dates of the stay, total price, and exactly what is included and what is not.
  • Ask for references from past renters.
  • Speak to the owners/managers on the telephone instead of exclusively through email.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau for possible complaints against the owner or rental company.
  • Be careful when reserving properties far from home. It is easy to get scammed if you can't verify the condition and location of properties pictured on the Internet.
  • Proceed cautiously if asked to make an international payment or use a money order or wire transfer.
  • If possible, pay with a credit card. Credit cards typically offer protection in the event that your accommodation is not supplied as promised.
  • Never give out personal financial information (bank account number, social security number, etc.)
  • Consider using a reputable rental company or real estate agent for peace of mind and to assist you in your search.

Property owners are urged to consider the following tips before renting their homes:

  • Be suspicious of inquiries with obvious mistakes regarding your property, like asking about your beautiful condo when you are offering a cabin.
  • Beware of offers to send you more than the price you are seeking with a request that you wire or return a portion of the money.
  • Be suspicious of people who want to use an unsecure form of money transfer, certified checks or cashier's checks.
  • Question offers that give more information than a typical traveler would reveal, such as drawn out reasons for the rental - like work, family issues, or medical problems.
  • Watch out for inquiries that seem too casual; serious renters care about the location, size, and condition of the property and won't offer to send money until all the important details are worked out.

Consumers who are not looking to rent vacation homes are also encouraged to be wary of scams before booking their vacation.

Kelly encouraged anyone traveling this summer to:

  • Make a budget that incorporates your destination, your transportation, and the quality of your desired accomodations.
  • Do your research. Consider using known travel books like Frommer's Guide or a travel agent. When researching online, use well-known travel sites with a valid address that can be verified before any money is sent.
  • Compare Prices. Whether you are making travel plans on your own or through the services of a travel agency, research and compare plans, prices and services. If you choose to use a travel agent, attempt to deal with a reputable company as they may be able to help you if you encounter problems on your trip.
  • Ask Around. Check with family, friends and co-workers who have had successful vacations. They may have useful suggestions and advice.
  • Avoid Fax and Email Offers. Responding to these offers will validate your contact information. If an offer seems too good to be true, it usually is.
  • Confirm your reservations. Once you have booked your trip, check with each provider occasionally to confirm they are still in business and no unexpected situations have occurred. Check all reservations (flight, hotel, rental car, shuttles, etc.) for correct dates, times and traveler information.

Kelly noted that in 2011 the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection received more than 700 travel scam complaints. If any vacation arrangements raise concerns contact the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 or file an online consumer complaint

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