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Look out for these warning signs if you're booking a home through vacation home rental sites

KVUE Daybreak Photographer JP Harrington booked a four-night stay outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, but quickly realized he was the target of a scam.

AUSTIN, Texas — If you’re planning to book a vacation home rental on a site like Vrbo this Spring Break, a scam that hit one of KVUE’s own will remind you to think twice about how you are paying the bill.

KVUE Daybreak Photographer JP Harrington booked a four-night stay at a nice home outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, using Vrbo, an Austin-based vacation rental company. The cost was $673.96 for four adults, two kids, guests and pets.

“A deal that looked too good to be true,” Harrington said. “It looked like a palace. It looked like it … should be $300 or $400 a night to rent it.”

Excited about the deal he scored for the beautiful home, Harrington sent pictures of the property to his son. He also received a reservation confirmation email from Vrbo.

But soon, the host texted him and began asking questions without using proper grammar.

“What time will you be arriving Flagstaff?” one message said.

“Hope you have been notified about the damage deposit?” the next message said.

The host directed Harrington to check his email for details on how to submit the payment.

“I thought that was weird,” he said.

He checked the Vrbo site to see if the company was asking for a deposit and found another email from the host. It asked him to send $500 using Zelle, a payment app that connects to a bank account. 

The email included instructions for how to use the app and included a Vrbo logo at the top. It was signed by “The VRBO Team.”

“I just started getting suspicious that, why would she want cash? Because I've used these sites before and usually deposits and things are handled through them,” Harrington said.

He called Vrbo to flag the situation. The company confirmed to KVUE that the host and listing were found to be fraudulent and were removed from the platform.

“Paying outside of the Vrbo platform could result in phishing or payments ending up in the hands of someone other than the intended host. Fraudulent behavior and vacation rental scams like these are incredibly rare on our site – closer to zero than one percent of all bookings – and in the rare case they do happen, our Trust & Safety teams will quickly investigate and address the problem. Guests should contact our 24/7 customer support team if they have any questions about their booking or suspect fraudulent behavior,” a Vrbo spokesperson said in an email to KVUE. “The guest, JP Harrington, did the right thing by contacting our customer service team about the situation, and then cancelled his reservation and was refunded in full for the cost of his booking.”

According to the Better Business Bureau, victims of travel scams in the U.S. lost more than $280,000 between February and April of 2021. These scams usually increase in frequency when vacationing or traveling is more frequent, like Spring Break and the summer months between May and August.

“If someone asks you to pay, if they ask you to wire money, if they ask you to use prepaid gift cards or some other platform that you're not familiar with, you want to take a pause and not hand over money,” said Heather Massey, vice president of communications for the BBB.

RELATED: Austin is home to the most hospitable Airbnb hosts in Texas

Here are some tips to protect yourself from a travel scam:

  • Get the details in writing before making a final payment
  • “Too good to be true” deals are usually a tactic to lure potential victims
  • Avoid wiring money because once it’s sent, there’s no way to get it back
  • Call the rental owner to help clarify the listing is genuine

“If the owner claims to be local and they can't answer simple questions about the area or maybe some local attractions to visit, that could be a red flag and especially if they will only communicate with you via email,” Massey said. “Any legitimate property owner would be able to communicate with you via phone call, so email only is something to look out for.”

Vrbo directed Harrington to cancel his reservation and he didn’t end up losing any money. But he hopes his situation will help others be extra cautious.

“Like the old saying goes, 'If it's too good to be true, it probably is,'" he said.

As for the April vacation, Harrington still plans to take it, but he has re-booked in a new place.

Bryce Newberry on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

KVUE on social media: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

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