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Beware of Phishing 'Vacation Rental' Sites

A reader recently reported losing a large pre-payment on a vacation rental in Paris. She was the victim of a phishing scam she later found was widespread.

She started off doing everything the right way. She booked through VRBO, part of the world's largest vacation-rental listing group, and also checked the listing on other sites. She exchanged emails with the agency representing the property and the individual property owner verifying details of the rental. She Googled the name of the property owner and found he was legitimate.

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But then she made the big mistake: paying for the rental up front with an electronic bank transfer.

By now you've guessed that the pre-payment to an account at Barclays vanished from the Barclays account instantly. When she asked her bank to trace the payment, it could do no more than verify it arrived at Barclays. And her bank not only confirmed the scam but also told here to close her account immediately and open a new one to prevent the scammer from back-tracing the payment to her former account and draining more funds from it.

Clearly, this reader was the victim of a phishing scam: Someone obtained an email address closely resembling a property owner's, adopted a phony corporate name, opened a bank account in that name, and posted what looked like a genuine website. She ultimately found other victims of the same crooks.

Individual consumers have almost no chance at recovering any money from a scam such as this. The only protection is to avoid paying cash—by check or electronic transfer—to any agency you can't fully verify. The only way to prevent a potential scam is either to pay by credit card and take advantage of the legal protections credit cards enjoy or buy travel insurance that protects you against fraud. That's why so many renters now demand that owners take credit cards, and why so many now do.

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