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Vacation rental scams on the rise; here's how to avoid them

Authorities are on the lookout for vacation rental scams that target tourists that flock to Pinellas beaches, including Clearwater Beach. (JIM DAMASKE   |   Times )

Authorities are on the lookout for vacation rental scams that target tourists that flock to Pinellas beaches, including Clearwater Beach. (JIM DAMASKE | Times )

The Craigslist ad features photos of a "truly magnificent" penthouse with wide windows overlooking the sparkling azure waters of Clearwater Beach.

With four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms, the 5,283-square-foot Sandpearl home is furnished and includes a wine cellar, granite countertops and a beachside cabana.

It could be yours for just $200 a night.

For tourists, it's a slice of Florida paradise. For Clearwater police Detective Rob Lazzaro, the low price is the first indication that it's a scam.

Lazzaro has received reports on more than 20 vacation rental schemes since late December. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office has been investigating more than 12 cases since January. And detectives expect more cases to trickle in during spring break and summer.

"We're not through. We're definitely not through," said Lazzaro this week. "During this next month is when all of the people are going to show up to their so-called rentals and figure out that they've been scammed."

Here's how it works: Someone scrapes the description and photos of a legitimate condo or home listing from Realtor websites like Zillow and then pastes all of the details into a new ad on websites like Craigslist, VRBO.com and Homeaway.com. An unsuspecting tourist clicks on the ad and emails the poster, who directs them to send a deposit.

Victims send money via PayPal. Sometimes, they're also instructed to mail a money order to a local Pinellas address that is then forwarded to another location, either out of state or overseas.

Others have legitimate bank accounts. Lazzaro heard of one case where someone in Cambodia incorporated a fake business through Delaware and opened a Bank of America business account.

"Whatever they can get away with, they try it," said Sheriff's Office Cpl. Robert Somers, who works in the economic crimes unit.

Some victims decide to do more research after sending their deposit and realize their vacation rental is a sham. Others don't find out until they arrive at the gated properties and talk to staff.

And the money, once it has been sent, is gone.

Lazzaro, of the economic crimes unit, has seen cases that mostly involve condos, including units in the Sandpearl Residences and the Grande on Sand Key, but has also found fraudulent ads for homes in Island Estates and north Clearwater Beach. Somers has seen mostly waterfront homes, some of them in Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, and also receives reports of vacant properties advertised online as monthly rentals.

Making arrests in these cases presents challenges, detectives say, since the networks of people operating the scams span across states and countries.

Last year, Lazzaro spoke to the Jenks Police Department in Oklahoma about a man who was accused of collecting money from several victims on behalf of a woman he had met online. One of the victims, who was from Canada, had wired a $2,253 deposit to him for a Clearwater property, police records show. After finding the legitimate rental ad, she called the property owner, who told her he didn't advertise on Craigslist. He called Clearwater police.

The Sheriff's Office recently forwarded one case involving a local person to prosecutors. They did not release more details because it remains an open investigation.

Most of the listings Lazzaro, the Clearwater detective, sees are on Craigslist, where ads are free and posters can remain anonymous. Lazzaro said he flags fraudulent ads on the website all the time, but if the ad looks legitimate enough, Craigslist might keep it. If the site decides to delete it, the poster can just create another ad.

A few months ago, Lazzaro posted on the vacation rentals section to warn Clearwater visitors about the schemes lurking online.

But Craigslist, explaining he wasn't advertising a property, deleted it.

"I was trying to prepare for this spring break," he said.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

>>fast facts

How to avoid a vacation rental scam

• If the photos contain a marking on the right that reads "MFRMLS," the listing was likely scraped from a legitimate Realtor website.

• Copy and paste the first one or two sentences of the ad in a Google search to check if the same posting shows up in websites like Zillow.

• Call the property owner directly to inquire about a rental.

• Check the prices for nearby rentals. Are they more expensive? That could be a red flag.

Vacation rental scams on the rise; here's how to avoid them 03/16/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2016 12:31pm]
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