This month’s Perspectives column was written by Jacklyn McGlothlin, Attorney at Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP.

With Cincinnati weather bouncing between sunny 67 degree days and days that dawn with snow on the ground, many are dreaming about a summer getaway and that perfect vacation rental on the beach.

Previously, a soon-to-be traveler’s first step would be to call his or her local travel agent to research, plan, and book their vacation spot. If something went wrong, no problem. Just call Carol from the travel agency. Carol knew the properties and there was little risk that the rental would end up being a dud.

Now, the first step in vacation rentals begins with the click of a mouse. The rise of do-it-yourself booking sites and one-off Internet listings offer vacationers a larger array of options. But these options are not without a risk, even for the savviest traveler.

Consumer advocates report an increase in phishing scams, even on established sites. The most common scam occurs when a scammer hijacks an owner’s account and/or listing to communicate directly with hopeful renters and collect payment for a fake booking. Another potential pitfall occurs when the host misrepresents the conditions of a property and collects money before the renters see the deficiencies.

Unfortunately, beyond giving consumers ways to report these issues, not a lot has been done collectively to protect consumers in this arena. Additionally, the transient nature of both the scammer and victim often make investigation and enforcement difficult. But there are ways to protect yourself this season. Below are the top five ways to avoid losing your shirt this summer:

  1. Beware of the perfect listing.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. This goes for both looks and price. When it comes to looks, potential renters can ask the owner for additional photos of the property or use an application like Google’s street view to view the property listing, general condition, and amenities.

When it comes to price, scammers know a good deal is hard to pass up so they often use a lower price to entice travelers to their listing. If the price seems too low to pass up, do a quick search of other rentals in the area to get a feel for the average. If the rental is well below average, renter beware.  

  1. Look for traveler protections.

Read the booking site’s fine print regarding any guarantees for the listings. Some sites, such as VRBO, offer additional protections to travelers. The more you do through the booking site, the more likely you’ll be covered if there should be a problem.

  1. Check the Reviews.

Many sites now offer some sort of verification. For example, Airbnb has a Superhost designation for hosts that meet certain criteria. Airbnb also offers verification under its Airbnb Plus program for homes that receive the highest ratings and have been verified for quality and comfort through a 100+ point quality inspection.

If the booking site doesn’t offer verification, read the property reviews from previous guests. Comb through the feedback and ratings on the items that are most important to your travel experience such as location, amenities, cleanliness, and responsiveness of the host. Pay attention to the dates of the reviews and then cross-reference these reviews with those on other sites if possible.

  1. Communicate with owners through the booking site.

Many scams are the result of communication between the host and potential renter that occur outside of the booking sites’ messaging systems. By using the mechanisms in place to contact the host with any questions, travelers avail themselves to the additional security those sites offer. With these measures in place, it’s less likely that a scammer can hijack the owner’s profile to direct payment to themselves.

  1. Protect your payment.

The best way to protect your wallet from a virtual pick-pocket is to pay securely. Never wire money or send payment to the host directly. Wiring money is like sending cash. Once it’s gone, there’s little a traveler can do to get it back. If using a booking site, it’s best to pay through the site. However, if the listing isn’t hosted through a booking site, travelers should use a credit card. Credit cards offer consumers additional fraud protection if there is an issue.    

What happens if your dream vacation turns into a nightmare? If you find yourself in that situation, take pictures of the rental’s problems areas or misrepresentations and immediately contact the owner and the rental’s booking site if applicable. Some sites offer assistance rebooking and/or getting a refund.

And one more thing. Don’t forget the sunscreen!