Single-family home, townhouse and condo vacation rentals are a popular way to spend leisure time these days — and scam artists know it all too well.
Real estate and identity theft experts say scam vacation rentals advertised over the Internet are popping up all across the country.
And with Florida as one of the popular destinations for vacation rental seekers and the summer vacation season upon us, I thought it important to issue a warning: Beware of the online offers.
"People tend to do things more online than going in person," said Adam Levin, founder of Identity Theft 911. "They tend to assume they're dealing with honorable people."
But Levin, whose company serves some 450 businesses nationwide in the prevention of identity theft, says the online vacation rental scam to the con artist is "low-hanging fruit." He says he is seeing instances of it nationwide as we move further into the vacation season.
Here how it works:
First a scam artist copies a photo of a property up for sale and portrays it as a vacation rental property on sites such as Craigslist. Then an unwitting victim contacts the scammer and secures the rental with a deposit or even the full amount requested without verifying that legitimacy of the property. And the scammer is never heard from again.
"It's not uncommon," said Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the Hillsborough Consumer Protection Agency. "They're just flat-out posing as a landlord on a property they don't own."
Ann Guiberson, president and chief executive officer of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, said she did not have any specific statistics about the problem, but she said Realtors have been talking about the issue.
The vacation rental scam is the latest version of the scheme. Joanne DeMase, a property management manager with Alliance Realty in Spring Hill, discovered that her name and several of her company's properties in Hernando County had been listed on Craigslist under a rental scam.
"There are an awful lot of people out there who want to profit off us," Levin said. "It's a scary world we're living in."
So here's the Edge:
• Contact a real estate agent before you rent the property. You can minimize the likelihood you will become a victim of a rental scam by verifying the legitimacy of the property with a professional.
• Search property records for the actual owner. Many property records, in particular in Florida, are online and searchable. Find the owner and contact the person to ensure the home is a vacation rental.
• Consider using a nationally recognized vacation rental agency. This might be a more expensive way to secure a vacation rental, but in the end, you won't lose all your money.
• Visit the home. Either go to the house or have a friend check it out for you before sending any money.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/consumers edge and find Consumer's Edge on Facebook.