Vacation rental expert offers tips on avoiding scams

By | January 27th, 2011

Anthony Lipschitz is the chief executive of iStopover, a site that connects homeowners who have spare rooms, apartments or homes to rent with travelers looking for affordable accommodations. With several high-profile cases of vacation rental customers being ripped off — including, ahem, some of my colleagues — I wanted to find out how to avoid becoming a victim.

Apart from the recent stories about vacation-rental scams, how big a problem is this?

It’s a problem, but like everything else in life, you do have choices. If you choose to use pure classified sites then you have no recourse if you do get scammed. You should always use a site that has a telephone number and dedicated support, so you know who you’re dealing with and who to go to if something does go wrong.

What you see isn’t always what you get, right?

Right. Unfortunately there are some very creative photographers out there.

It’s amazing how a wide angle shot can make a 2×3 closet look like a massive bedroom. Look for a site that offers accurate photos and property descriptions that have been verified. The sites you want to connect with are the one’s with a live support team that offer help to both the guests and the hosts. They will make sure the listings are as described and that the property owners are who they say they are.

So how do you know who you’re renting from?

You need to read reviews, check out the host’s profile and message back and forth until you feel entirely comfortable and have a good feeling for who the person really is. We find many successful bookings take place once something in common is found too. Bottom line: I recommend get to know your host.

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But how is that possible when you’re on the other side of the country?

Many peer-to-peer site have awesome built in tools like host profiles from these very real, often very interesting people. Use these tools; they are there to help the consumer. We use Facebook authentication and other social networking tools to facilitate one-on-one interaction with your host. It’s all built into the site.

How about timeshare pitches?

Yes, avoid those. They never told you the complimentary continental breakfast was hosted by Tommy “The Closer” Tedesco, a fast-talking timeshare peddler who won’t take no for an answer.

People get themselves into these situations when they book places with gimmicky promotions. If you see something like “free round of golf along with complimentary breakfast,” I highly recommend you find out where the course is, what will be served and if “Tommy” will be joining you.

One of the most frequent complaints is that the rental property stretched the truth when it comes to location. How do you verify a property’s location?

Properties like to use terms like “close to” or “near” or “only minutes from” – but then you find out “close to SeaWorld” is actually 20 miles away. Sites that incorporate a mapping tool like Google Maps should be a prerequisite for anyone traveling as they show you the exact location 99.9 percent of the time. On our site, we also have an interactive neighborhood map of your destination.

And then there’s the whole issue of money transfers.

There are 1,001 ways to hand over your hard-earned cash for a vacation rental. I would look for a service that acts as a third-party, trustworthy clearinghouse. That way, your money is not released to the host until you provide a secure “reservation code” at check-in. It is the ultimate safeguard against bad or misrepresented accommodations.

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