Vacationers heading to popular hotspots like New York City may find the hotel prices a shock. During the height of the tourist season a hotel room can run hundreds of dollars a night, sending some to look for cheaper options. They are out there, but so are the scams that can ruin your trip.
Some of the apartments and homes advertised as "Vacation Rentals" on websites like Craigslist.com and Backpage.com appear to be amazing deals. They promise you'll pay just $50, $75 or $125 a night for fancy Manhattan apartments, and are complete with photos showing charm and luxury. However when "20/20? checked a random sampling of these low-price ads, it was tough to find even one that was legitimate.
We followed up on two tempting deals ads and contacted the apartment "owners" by email, asking to rent for a week. In each case we were sent a contract and asked for a security deposit and half the week's rent in advance. One "owner" instructed us to send the money in advance by Western Union. The other asked for the deposit to be transferred to the bank account of a middle man. Once they had our money, they promised to meet us when we arrived and give us the key.
We followed through and sent $360 for a bright and beautiful one bedroom apartment in the fashionable West Village neighborhood in Manhattan. It would have been an incredible deal, but when we showed up at the appointed time, there was no one to greet us. The "owner" had stopped responding to our emails, asking to be let in. If this had been our real vacation, we'd be out of luck and cash, with nowhere to stay.
How do the con artists pull this off? To start, they steal the photos from legitimate apartment ads-for much pricier properties. We traced the photos for our West Village apartment "deal" to a real rental-in Panama! If you look closely at the photo accompanying this post - used in the ad we responded to -you might notice the palm tree outside the window. That's a tipoff that the apartment is elsewhere. The con artists then use those photos as bait, along with the impossibly low prices.
Once you've been taken there is little you can do. That's because the con artists may use others to insulate themselves. One "owner" we dealt with asked us to send money to a middleman in Galveston, Texas. When we contacted that gentleman, he told us that he received the money as a bank account transfer, and then sent it onto a contact in Nigeria. He appeared to be an innocent party in this transaction, and told us he believed he was handling donations from Americans, sent to pay for cancer treatment of others overseas. So if anyone wants to complain about this ripoff, they will hit a dead end.
We spoke to the real owners of some of the apartments listed for rent, and some were aware of the ongoing scam. One told "20/20? that "for many years we've had scammers taking our pictures and then re-posting for $100 a night or less." There was also frustration that their complaints went nowhere: "nothing gets done. Its a shame." The bottom line, as another owner told "20/20?, is that "rent of a NYC 1 bedroom apartment is about $4,000 per month. What are they thinking if they think someone can get it for $100 a night."
So what to do? Stick to more reputable vacation rental websites like "Vacation Rental By Owner" (VRBO.com), Roomorama.com, and AirBNB.com. Even then, don't let your guard down. Be wary if you're asked to send a payment by Western Union or by bank account transfer. And if the price is way below the market average, steer clear.