As the weather warms and it inches closer to summer, Canadians are turning their thoughts towards vacation. COVID-19 travel restrictions, however, have people considering options closer to home, such as cottage rentals.
But the increased demand for cottage rentals has also brought an increase in risk. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC), online rental scams increased by 15 per cent between 2019 and 2020 with Canadians losing approximately $586,000. With the continued demand for cottage rentals this summer, experts at the CAFC warn that online scams could once again pose a threat to Canadians.
To find out what to look for and how to avoid online rental scams, Cottage Life spoke to Tony Anscombe, the chief security evangelist at ESET, an IT security company.
There are a variety of online rental scams out there, but when it comes to cottage rentals, Anscombe says the most common scam involves fabricated properties. “When you list a property, there are in-depth pictures,” Anscombe says. “Someone will copy the pictures from a property that’s already been listed and use them to make up a fictitious property.”
The fraudster will then take your money for the stay, and when you arrive, you’ll discover that the address doesn’t match up with the right property, or there’s someone else living there, unaware of the listing.
Here are a few red flags that could indicate you’re dealing with a fraudster.
Requests to pay off a website
Fraudsters don’t like to use official booking sites. Anscombe says this is because official sites, such as Airbnb, VRBO, and cottagerental.com, hold the renter’s payment in escrow. “A renter will pay the money to rent somewhere and the [booking site] doesn’t release the money until after the check-in time of the person arriving at the property.”
Fraudsters will instead ask you to pay off site and before you check-in, using mechanisms that don’t offer fraud protection, such as e-transfers. “That should be a huge warning bell,” Anscombe says.
Pressure to pay quickly
Beware of anyone who applies urgency to the transaction, especially if they’re asking you to put down a deposit or pay the full amount. According to Anscombe, fraudsters will often say they’ve received interest from a second party and if you don’t act fast you’ll lose the rental. “This means you don’t have time to do your research,” he says. “It puts you in a defensive position.”
Another ploy is that the fraudster may offer you a discount if you book right away.
Below market rates
This warning sign often goes hand-in-hand with the pressure to pay quickly. Anscombe says that fraudsters will offer rates well below the competition to attract renters. Once they have the renter hooked, they’ll tell them that the price only applies if the renter books right away. “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Anscombe says.
As technology advances, so do the scams. As a result, warning signs might not always be evident. These steps will show you how to avoid the scams altogether.
Do your research
If you are going to book a cottage rental, make sure the property actually exists before you pay. One of the ways to do this, Anscombe says, is to perform a reverse image search on the listing’s pictures. “If you go to Google Images, you can either upload an image that you’ve downloaded or you can give it the image’s URL,” he says. “What the reverse lookup of images will do is tell you everywhere else that this picture is seen.” This way, you can tell if the image has been taken from another listing.
As an added layer of precaution, rely on family and friends’ suggestions. If someone you know has rented and been to a property before, you’re likely in the clear.
Contact the owner
If you have your doubts, don’t be afraid to reach out to the owner for further verification. Ask for something that will prove they own the property, such as a copy of a utility bill.
Anscombe did this himself recently when booking a vacation rental for his family. “[The owners] are well aware that these scams are taking place, and they should be more than happy to show they are the true owners,” he says.
Stick to reputable booking sites
As mentioned above, any host trying to lure you offsite is bad business. Reputable booking sites, such as Airbnb, VRBO, and cottagerentals.com, have security measures built in to protect you against instances of fraud.
Although, that doesn’t mean you should put all your trust in these sites. Scams can still slip through. Read the terms of service for whichever booking site you’re using, and make sure it offers fraud protection. That way, if you are targeted by a scam, you should get your money back.
Report the scam
If you do come across an online cottage rental scam, Anscombe says you should report it to the CAFC. “The reason it’s important to report these scams is the more people report them, the more weight gets put behind the prevalence of the scam,” he says. “So, more resources will get assigned to trying to take it down.”