Top 10 house rental scams and how to avoid them

red sign indicating house for rent placed in a garden in front of a house or cottage

Like many of you, I often rely on companies like Airbnb, Vrbo and the like for this type of service.

These platforms serve as an excellent bridge between the supply and demand for housing, and I have always found them useful at least. But, from what I have been able to read, scammer hosts are a common enough phenomenon to be mentioned in the guidelines of those platforms.

To be clear, this is not intended to criticize the mentioned platforms. In fact, it is likely easier to incur into the following scams when not using such services. In these situations, it’s crucial to exercise even more caution.

So, hoping to help you avoid nasty surprises, here are the 10 most common house rent scams and some tips on how to avoid them.

1) Multiple listings

Hosts who list the same property at different price points to give it to the highest bidder in case of double-booking.

Your reservation may be cancelled at the last minute or, alternatively, the host may try a Property Switch tactic on you.

Keep in mind that just because a property is listed on multiple platforms doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a scam. In fact, you might even find it beneficial to book through the most cost effective platform while selecting from the ones known for their safety.

How to deal with them

Remove the price filter from your search to see if a particular property is listed at different prices. If it is, don’t book it. This may be useless in case of listing on other platforms.

You can perform a reverse image search of the listed photos. Copy the  images and run them via Google or to see if they have been used on other websites or if they appear as listings of different properties.

Perform the same search using the accommodation and host information.
Just in case, most platforms offer full refunds for host cancellations, so don’t cancel your reservation on their behalf. You may find yourself paying cancellation fees or even the entire booking.

man searching a room or apartment using an house rental online platform on his laptop
Looking for the right deal. (Credit - Cottonbro Studio via Pexels)

2) Deceptive descriptions and images and bad maintenance

Hosts may offer their accommodations with inaccurate or misleading descriptions of properties and services, as well as fake, stock or altered images to misrepresent their rental property.

In other words, you show up at your accommodation only to find missing amenities or that the property is very different or in much worse condition than described. Sometimes you might just find yourself in a poorly maintained property.

How to deal with it

Avoid poor or absent property descriptions in the first place, or those without accurate photos. Do your research before accepting the rental.

If the platform allows it, find specific bad reviews searching for terms like “photos,” “images,” or “accurate” in the filter.
Check that the host has posted photos of all rooms in the house, including bathrooms, and run a reverse image search as for the Multiple Listing. Try to understand if you are dealing with stock images.

Ask your host for specific information about the amenities and cleaning rules and observe their responses.

Use google map to explore in advance the area where you are going to stay and check the amenities described.

a smartphone that is using the google maps app
Useful Tool (Credit - Photomix Company via Pexels)

3) Property Switch

One of the most common scams. Sometimes it could just be a sincere hosts’ mistake or mishap. Point is, once you arrive at the address the host, or a representative, will tell you the property is no longer available.

The most used excuses regard about stuff or services broken or damaged by the last guests. Sometimes it might be just a case of Multiple Listing or Deceptive Description. They will offer you alternative accommodation.

In case of an honest mistake, you will be shown a place similar to the booked one, or even better, perhaps even nearby the first one. Furthermore, it is likely that the host will notify you in time and not at the last minute.

A red flag is when you are warned of the problem only once you get to the place. From there you could end up in a horrible place and in a completely different area.

The scammers will count on you to be tired and more agreeable.

How to deal with it

Note that if you do agree to the swap, you’ll pretty much lose all rights to a refund.

If the hosts offer you a partial refund for the lesser quality room, get them to arrange this through the app before you accept it.

I know for sure that Airbnb and Vrbo dedicate a support team for situations like this that provides 24-hour assistance. I guess it goes for all this kind of service providers. Contact them immediately if you find the situation unacceptable or suspicious.

a beautiful residence with swimming pool, garden and annex
Sometimes it is too good to be true. (Credit - Thibault Om via Pexels)

4) Account Hacking

It is an identity theft that allows hackers to cut you out of your account and use it to steal your money through fake bookings.

Scammer hosts may send you links to book their property, or false confirmation phishing emails. Those links will take you outside the platform to similar-looking sites that asks for your login credentials.

How to deal with it

Sometimes fake and cloned landing pages and sites can be identical to their original counterparts. Often the only way a non-programmer can recognize them is from their URL.

Always check that the URL of the visited page is legitimate. Especially before entering any personal or financial information or login credentials. This is a general rule for safe internet browsing.

Some services allow you to hide your contacts, email addresses and telephone, to privilege only communications within the platform.

Check that the domains of the senders of an email are the official channels of the service. In general, always follow good phishing prevention practices.

In case of hacking, immediately blocks the authorizations for payments to the platform from your accounts.

Reports the incident to the customer service and, if necessary, to the competent authorities.

Some credit cards also offer good economic protections against this type of fraud.

5) Fake reviews

Not an exclusive of house renting, of course. We will talk about and how to deal with them sooner or later (work in progress).

How to deal with them

Look for properties that have lots of reviews. Try to scan them for if they look authentic. Most of scammers are so lazy that they’ll simply copy and paste the same few generic reviews over and over, whith some minor changes.

Properties with very few reviews may genuinely be new to the platform. In this case, the host might even address it in the description and give you a “new listing” discount.

Leave honest reviews for new legitimate hosts, it will help others to choose well. Give them also your advice when requested, you might help them offer a better service.

6) Payments outside the platform

All payments and communications should take place via the official apps or websites. If you receive a message from a host asking you to pay through any other channel, it’s a scam.

You may end up sending money to a host who doesn’t have a real listing. Or the host might receive double payment since you’ll likely get charged on by the house renting platform too.

How to deal with it

If you come across a host that wants payment outside of the platform official channels, consider that as a huge red flag. Don’t pay anything and report the suspicious message to the customer services.

7) Illegal listings

Nations, regions and cities might have local laws limiting the use of short-term rentals and home-sharing services.

How to deal with it

It should not happen, but sometimes it does. The best way to avoid it is to do your research on local laws about short-term house renting.

8) Bogus damages

After the checkout you might receive a message notifying you about damages that you didn’t cause.

If you refuse to pay, the host can escalate the issue with the company, which can then use security deposits to pay for the damage or refer the dispute to a collection agency.

How to deal with it

To protect yourself from this scam, take pictures or videos of the property right after check-in and before check-out. If you notice any damage upon arrival, take photos and share them with the host directly on the app/platform chat.

The good news is that in case of o dispute, companies do tend to side with guests over hosts. They may even stand disputed damages themselves to avoid bigger trouble on their side.

Sometimes, welcome gifts are not for free. (Credit - Elle Hughes via Pexels)

9) Extra fees

Hosts might try to charge you extra fees for standard furniture or normal objects and products like towels, soap, or toilet paper. It is like when you rent a flat with a kitchen and the host asks you money for knives, forks and all the rests needed to use it properly.

At times, though quite rarely, there may be attempts to ‘offer’ you something, only to later inform you that it comes with an additional charge as an ‘extra service’.

How to deal with it

Refuse to pay and insist that the host gives you everything you need.

It may get tense but stand your ground and remind them that most of house rental companies will NOT take this kind of behaviours easily. Quite often, hosts’ desperate opportunism will cave in pretty quickly.

Be sure to mention the situation in your review once you check out.

As mentioned earlier, the second scenario is quite uncommon, but don’t always assume that everything offered to you as an extra comes for free. Stay alert and verify any additional charges associated with extras to ensure clarity and avoid surprises.

10) Hidden cameras

Hidden cameras are a thornier and more complicated subject. Therefore, we have decided to create a dedicated article (still a wip though -An) on how to recognize and search for them.

In general, hosts should only be allowed to have cameras around and outside the property to ensure security. However, these cameras must not be able to film the inhabited interior spaces.

Additionally, hosts tend to be required to report such devices to their guests.

Hosts are generally not allowed to place cameras inside the rented accommodation.

In any case, smart devices that cannot be activated remotely are allowed, provided that the guest is informed of their presence and with the possibility of deactivating them.

The presence of hidden cameras inside the accommodation, besides violating the policies of the platforms, is a crime punishable by law.

an advertising image for a micro spy camera, highlights its compatibility with the devices
Purpose-sized hidden cameras (Credits - via Pinterest)

How to deal with them

Carefully read the clauses of the contract or service regarding privacy or the possible presence of cameras.

As mentioned, we are currently working at a dedicated article on how to find them.

If you find any hidden cam in your apartment which your host didn’t tell anything about, don’t panic. It’s not easy to find yourself being spied, but keeping a clear head is the best approach in any serious situation. Grab your belongings and leave the property as quickly as possible.

You could try to take the SD cards from the hidden camera as evidence, if you think you can. However, it may require remaining in the property longer than necessary and not all spy cameras have internal memory. Also, if the hosts notice that you’ve spotted the hidden camera, they could react unpredictably.

Best plan, once left the accommodation, is to contact the authorities for your own safety, then you should contact someone you trust as well to get them know the situation. Lastly, contact the company support channels.

Extras And Thoughts

Most of the platforms and marketplaces tend to block and ban these scammers when they catch them. However, they remain a problem.

That is why you need to use due diligence and do your proper research to further decrease the chances of being scammed.

  • Read the terms and services offered by platforms and hosts.
  • A too-good-to-be-true price is a red flag you shouldn’t ignore.
  • Learn how to deal with fake reviews it’s a must-have tool nowadays, especially for this kind of online services.
  • To avoid fake listings, look up the address or neighbourhood on Google Maps to verify the location.
  • Beware of hidden USB hacking devices (click here to read about) and unsecured hacking wi-fi traps (work in progress).

As mentioned before, companies like Airbnb, Vrbo, etc offer a good service and level of control and 24/7 active support channels. Often, their teams will offer replacement accommodations and open an investigation into the host.

Generally, these companies offer greater control over the services provided compared to general ads websites as craigslist or dedicated social media or chat groups.

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