Ashley Spadafora came close to becoming a victim of cyber fraud early this year while trying to rent a house in Key West to celebrate her 21st birthday.
Spadafora visited Craiglist, her favorite site, where she inquired about several rentals until she found a house.
“I got a couple of replies and the one that I got he sent back the documents and terms and agreement and the method of payment,” said Spadafora, who is a college student in Orlando.
But she became suspicious after the so-called landlord requested a payment through Paypal or bank transfer which is the same as sending cash.
That’s when she decided to verify even further.
“I have an uncle who lives down in the Keys. I asked him if he could go to the house,” she said.
When her uncle knocked on the doors, he met the owners. They told him the house was not for rent.
“I did almost get scammed,” she said showing a grin in her face.
Vacation rental scams have become more prevalent in recent years and Spadafora’s experience is a cautionary tale for consumers out there planning to rent a vacation home. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission receives thousands of complaints each year and warns consumers to be vigilant when searching for vacation rentals online.
“The vacation rental boom in the Keys – it has blown up,” said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay.
Ramsay said these types of schemes focus on getting your money with no way to trace it.
“Send me cash. Send me a gift card and a green dot card. Some other untraceable means,” Ramsay said.
Cyber thieves clone popular sites and create fake online listings that appeared legit showing pictures of homes, real homeowners’ name and contracts. Some have lured consumers to rent properties that are in foreclosure or don’t even exist. And they often ask for cash transfers instead of credit card payments.
“Many times we have traced these accounts…bank accounts where the money was transferred to and found out that has already been closed,” said Mark
Coleman, a detective with Monroe County Sheriff Department.
Helen Martinez found out how the scammers work when a Jacksonville family showed up at the home she owns in the Keys.
“They arrived at the house and they told our plumber ‘we are here to check-in. We are guests and checking in today.’ My plumber called me immediately,” said Martinez, a Miami resident.
Cyber thieves cloned Martinez profile using her information and pictures of the home. The couple told her they thought they made reservations through TripAdvisor.com.
She called the site.
“What they [TripAdvisor] explained to me was that these individuals clone their websites so when you are actually going through the web site, you have to be very careful,” Martinez said.
Martinez drove down to Key Largo to meet the heart-broken couple.
“She was telling me that they have planned this vacation for like five months so they were very excited and they were trailing down their boat and they were divers,” Martinez said.
At the end, Martinez welcomed the Jacksonville couple to stay in her Keys’ home.
As for Spadafora: she celebrated her 21st birthday in a real Key West rental.
“We had fun. It was a nice place,” she said.
Law enforcement and tourism officials suggest consumers consider the following guidelines when booking rentals:
-Use a major credit card for lodging transactions. Most rental firms accept credit cards and major credit card companies normally protect the consumer in the event of fraud.
-Never transfer money electronically to someone you have not met in person.
-Be wary of property owners who say they are out of the country and ask you to send a check to another person or another town.
-Most real estate firms and rental agents are member of a local chamber of commerce or lodging association. Those groups may be able to help verify the rental owner or agent.
-Sometimes deep discount is a red flag that something is not right with the listing.
-In the Florida Keys, for example, all vacation rentals are licensed. Ask the agent for a copy of the transient license before paying.