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Watch out for vacation rental scams

NBC's Kerry Sanders reports on an online scam that is taking Florida vacationers for thousands of dollars by renting out homes that are not actually available.

Imagine: You're planning a getaway for your group of friends, you find a great vacation house at an affordable price, you send a check and when you show up, you learn the property isn't a rental at all — in fact, someone is actually living there. 

That’s exactly what happened to Louise Bedard of Montreal, Quebec, who found a beach house for rent in an upscale neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It looked just like what I wanted ... a perfect house," she told NBC News' Kerry Sanders. Bedard found the property online and signed a contract for a 24-day rental. When she and three generations of family and friends showed up for a girlfriend getaway, however, they learned they had been scammed: The person advertising the home didn't own it, and the home was never for rent.

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“Vacations should be fun and hassle-free,” said Sterling Ivey of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has oversight in Florida over regulated industries that sell travel vacation plans. “Unfortunately, there are some in the travel business who are more concerned with separating travelers from their money than in getting them to their destinations.”

Ivey says consumers can reduce their chances of falling victim to unscrupulous sellers of travel by making sure businesses are registered in the state they are doing business in and checking to see if there are any complaints filed against that business.

Carl Shepherd, co-founder and chief strategic officer of HomeAway.com, which claims to be the largest vacation rental company in the world, offers these additional tips:

  • Deal only with a reputable site where the owners and property managers have to join and be vetted;
  • Look to see how well the property is presented. Are there descriptions, photos, reviews and previous renters you can contact?;
  • Pay attention to who is responding. How fast do people get back to you? Is there a phone number you can call? Does the e-mail address you write to keep changing?;
  • Be alert to how a renter asks to be paid. “If they want you to wire money via Western Union, that’s never a good idea,” said Shepherd. “The best way to pay is via credit card.”

Shepherd also encourages vacation home renters to take advantage of any verification procedures and insurance or guarantee programs offered by vacation rental companies. These, he says, can help protect your trip from fraud and a wide range of unforeseen circumstances.

HomeAway, for example, sells a Carefree Rental Guarantee and Airbnb, which lists properties in more than 19,000 cities, maintains a Trust & Safety Center that includes a long list of helpful safety tips for guests.

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.