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The height of summer vacation planning is here, and families are on the hunt for affordable travel options. As house sharing has become an increasingly popular alternative to staying in a traditional hotel, online classifieds have become a favorite place for scammers to target their victims.

The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation provides this information to guide you in your vacation planning and help you avoid any problems in your search.

Common Problems

There are a number of problems you may encounter when renting a vacation property. Vacation rental advertisements are designed to get consumers interested in renting a particular property. However, sometimes an ad may promise more than reality delivers. For example, scammers may post pictures of beautiful or grand properties that are not actually for rent and once they have the deposit, they disappear.  Another tactic is to show unavailable properties or double-book a property and then offer a second-rate replacement.

Tips on How to Avoid These Problems

  • If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

There’s a big difference between a good deal and a deal that is too good to be true. If you’re not sure what a reasonable price is in a particular area, research it. Always check rental prices on different sites for several similar properties in the neighborhood you’d like to stay in so you get a better understanding of the going rates for that area.

  • Be wary of your source.

While you may think you can get a better deal on sites like Craigslist, you’re more likely to get scammed. Vacation booking sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO offer hundreds of customer reviews of the properties listed. Trust your instincts. Begin your search with a little skepticism so you will be more likely to see red flags. Take notice of emails with bad grammar and foreign phone numbers.

  • Less isn’t always more.

Don’t just be satisfied with the initial photographs posted on the advertisements. Ask for more by utilizing programs like Skype and FaceTime to get a better visual of the property. Most homeowners will be happy to provide you with this if it isn’t already available on their websites. Use Google Earth or other mapping systems to verify that the property actually does exist.

  • Ask questions.

Know ahead of time the number of rooms and beds there are, and whether sheets and towels are provided and at what cost.  Know the location with relation to the beach or center of town. Ask about your responsibilities during your stay, such as when payments and security deposits are due, if there is a cleaning fee, and what is expected of you at the end of the stay. Asking questions ahead of time means fewer surprises at the end.

  • Put your agreement in writing and keep good records.

Make sure all terms of the contract are clear and were mutually agreed upon. Get any verbal agreements in writing. Double-check the contract to avoid any foreseeable problems. Keep your own log of payments, receipts, complaints, and any contact with the owner or manager. These records may be helpful in resolving any disputes that may occur.

  • Protect yourself.

Use a credit card instead of cash or check. It may be harder to get your money back if there is a dispute if you paid with cash or a check. Credit cards offer more consumer protection than any other payment method. Visa, MasterCard and American Express will all allow you to recover money you lose to fraud. For more information, contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at 1-877-382-4357 or at http://www.ftc.gov.

  • Read Reviews

Carefully read the reviews and pay attention to the bad ones. If you know someone who traveled to the destination you’re considering or rented a property from the owner you are considering, find out what his or her experience was like. Also, see if the Better Business Bureau or the local chamber of commerce has any information.

  • Report Scams or Fraud

If you become a victim of a scam or fraud, report it immediately so others don’t fall victim to the same trap.

Know Your Rights

If a property is not in the condition you expected or your security deposit is not returned as agreed, and you are unable to resolve your complaint with the owner or manager directly, you may have some options, including legal recourse. You may first want to seek mediation assistance through your local consumer group. You can contact Consumer Affairs for a list of mediation services in your area. If mediation assistance is unsuccessful, the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law (M.G.L. c.93A) or Small Claims Court are alternatives for resolving complaints.  The law requires you to send the owner or company a 30-Day Demand Letter before filing a claim in court. The letter must outline your complaint, the harm you suffered, and how you want the problem to be resolved. It is important to note that the 30-Day Demand Letter is only viable if you are dealing with a Massachusetts-based business or merchant.

For more information on the Consumer Protection Law or the 30-Day Demand letter, visit our office’s website.

If you have additional questions, contact the Office of Consumer Affairs by calling our Consumer Hotline at (617) 973-8787, or toll-free in MA at (888) 283-3757, Monday through Friday, from 9 am-4:30 pm. Follow the Office on Facebook and Twitter, @Mass_Consumer. The Baker-Polito Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation is committed to protecting consumers through consumer advocacy and education.

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