One Georgia family is spending their Florida vacation in a hotel when they expected to be spending it in a home on the beach.
Chonda Pettigrew and 10 members of her family had planned to stay together in a vacation rental home in Crescent City, Fla., ABC News affiliate WJXX reports. Pettigrew found the home on VacationHomes.com and corresponded with the person she thought was the owner and paid for the rental.
She had a signed contract with a person named Bruce Christian for a week's stay the home and paid $2,620.
The person known as Bruce Christian has since disappeared. The phone number Pettigrew is now disconnected.The real owners of the home, Mary and Bert Pharis, told the station their home in Crescent Beach is not, and has never been, for rent.
Pettigrew told the station, "I am heartbroken. Devastated. I am a head-start teacher. I have two children. I work hard for my money."
VacationHomes.com did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.
HomeAway.com, one of the nation's leading vacation rental home web sites, said while it's not surprising criminals would target a vacation rental site, especially since vacation rental transactions usually involve a significant amount of money being exchanged, the instances of fraud are actually quite rare.
HomeAway has no affiliation with the rental site Pettigrew used.
"We have approximately 700,000 listings and our sites facilitate more than $4 billion in vacation rental bookings per year, but the incidences of fraud are quite rare," a HomeAway.com spokeswoman said. " In 2011, less than 0.01 percent of HomeAway listings were were found to be fraudulent after they were published, and an even smaller percent of those cases resulted in a financial loss for travelers."
Some sites offer tools to protect travelers during the vacation rental process. HomeAway recently launched a Security Center offering tips and advice on protection. They also offer safety reminders throughout the inquiry process and the HomeAway Carefree Rental Guarantee for travelers, which covers fraud and other common concerns.
Here are a few tips to follow when renting a vacation home: • Book with a reputable site with a substantial inventory. Make sure that the site you're searching has a support team that can answer any questions and offer assistance, if needed, to make you more comfortable with the experience.
• Read reviews. Reviews can be very enlightening, often revealing the best and worst parts of a property, and also confirming guests have actually stayed in the home.
• Talk to the homeowner. This is a critical part of the process and should be done via phone, if possible, to ensure you're corresponding with the actual homeowner. Sites should include the homeowner's phone number so you can call them directly to get details about the home and confirm your reservation.
• Get the name of an on-site contact, in case of an issue.
• Use safe payment methods, preferably credit card. If a homeowner or property manager doesn't allow you to pay by credit card or PayPal, and requests payment via money gram or wire transfer, move on to your next choice.