If a vacation house listing sounds too good to be true, it could be. Do a reverse Google image search to make sure the photos aren’t from a stock site—like this image.In an ideal world, going on vacation would be as seamless as scoring a cheap flight, arriving with no delays, and checking into a hotel or vacation rental with Instagram-worthy views and an unlumpy mattress. But as frequent travelers know, that’s not always the reality. Sometimes weather or political unrest disrupts travel plans. Other times, you can fall victim to an elaborate scam. There are innocuous ones like fake TripAdvisor reviews convincing you to eat at a subpar restaurant, and others are as nefarious as hacking into your frequent flier account and stealing your miles. One of the worst, though, is showing up to check into a vacation rental only to realize that it doesn’t actually exist, leaving you with no place to stay and potentially out hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars.
In October 2019, Allie Conti, a former staff writer at Vice, detailed her experience on Vice.com about how she stumbled into an Airbnb scam that left her able to recoup just $399 of the $1,221.20 she spent on a listing that she didn’t even end up seeing in person. Minutes before she was set to check into an apartment in Chicago, her host called and told her there were plumbing issues at the original listing but that he could move her into another property that he managed. After agreeing to the switch, she realized the new place was more of a “flophouse than someone’s home” and left to check into a hotel. That same month, CNN reported that a British couple spent nearly $12,000 for a two-week vacation in Ibiza at an Airbnb that didn’t exist—someone had merely cobbled together images from a condo complex’s website and uploaded the listing to the site.
Following these two events, Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky unveiled a brand-new guest refund policy and the rollout of a new verification system for hosts and homes in November 2019. Chesky called it “the most significant steps in designing trust on our platform since our original design in 2008” in an all-staff email released to the press and on Twitter.
While Airbnb doesn’t publicly share the exact percentage of fraudulent listings on its site, it says that fraudulent issues “are incredibly rare” among the millions of people who check into an Airbnb every night. Vrbo, which is part of the Expedia Group that also owns HomeAway, says that it is able to keep fraud on its site “closer to zero than 1 percent of all bookings” by using both technology and human review systems to detect fraudulent listings on its site.
Nevertheless, here are tips for making sure the vacation rental you’re booking is legitimate (plus more information about what Airbnb’s guest guarantee system entails).
Book a pre-vetted home
The vetting and verification process for most rental homes online is fairly minimal, putting the burden on travelers to report fraudulent listings to the companies. But in light of the issues uncovered in 2019, Airbnb announced that it would verify all 7 million listings on its platform by December 15, 2020. According to a statement released to the press on November 6, 2019, each home and host was to be verified by Airbnb for “accuracy of the listing (including accuracy of photos, addresses, and listing details) and quality standards (including cleanliness, safety, and basic home amenities).”
However, instead of relying on on-site inspections by Airbnb itself, this verification process is “essentially a combination of the company and the community. So we’re going to use technology, we are going to use guests, we’re going to basically get a competent score,” Chesky said while speaking at the New York Times’ DealBook conference in November 2019.
Currently, you can see if the host’s identity has been verified by Airbnb on their user profile page. However, it is unclear from a listing’s page whether or not it’s been officially verified by Airbnb. Airbnb did not immediately respond to a request to confirm if all listings had been verified by the December 2020 deadline it set for itself.
To book a home that has gone through an in-person vetting and verification process, look to premium services like Airbnb Plus, Airbnb Luxe, and Onefinestay, the collection of high-end rental homes operated by Accor Hotels. Before homes can be marked as an Airbnb Plus or Luxe, or listed in Onefinestay’s exclusive City Collection or Villa Collection, the properties are vetted in person by representatives from each company for factors including quality and comfort. In fact, only 1 in 10 homes makes the cut, Onefinestay told AFAR. While you won’t necessarily find many affordable deals in these collections, you can book with confidence, knowing that the listing is not only legitimate but also guaranteed for cleanliness.
Check the host’s profile
Airbnb verifies users (both hosts and guests) through several factors, including government IDs, email addresses, and phone numbers. Always check the host’s profile to make sure they’ve uploaded these things—you can find it on the left side of their profile page. Airbnb admits on its website that “completing this process isn’t an endorsement of any host or guest, a guarantee of someone’s identity, or an assurance that interacting with them will be safe.” However, it’s likely scammers won’t leave a trail behind them with their real names and IDs on Airbnb, so it’s a positive if they’ve completed this process.
Another good sign is if someone has a Superhost badge on Airbnb—that means that they’ve maintained consistently high ratings (4.8+ out of 5) from their guests, completed at least 10 stays in the past year, have a cancellation rate of less than 1 percent, and have a 90 percent response rate to new messages within 24 hours. Vrbo and HomeAway have a similar system for reliable hosts called “Premium Partner.”
Read the reviews
It’s best to pick a listing with all positive reviews from its previous guests to make sure it’s accurately portrayed online. If a property has no reviews or several damning ones, it’s best to stay away. In addition to reading the reviews, you should also make sure the Airbnb you’re considering fits the following criteria before booking it to make sure it’s a quality listing:
- Operated by a Superhost
- An overall rating of 4.90 or higher
- A perfect 5.0 cleanliness score
Thankfully, we’ve done the work for you in some our favorite destinations. All of the Airbnbs in the following roundups on AFAR pass muster for the previous criteria at the time of publishing:
- 12 Cozy Airbnbs in Vermont to Book for a Great Escape up North
- 8 Airbnbs in Sedona to Book for a Desert Getaway
- 10 Stylish Airbnbs in Palm Springs
Make sure the listing isn’t too good to be true
Five-bedroom penthouse in New York City for $100 a night? That’s probably not real. To see how a listing’s price compares, click the price button at the top of the Airbnb search results to find the average nightly price for properties in that place on those dates. Vrbo and its sister site, HomeAway, don’t share average pricing for locations, but simply scroll through the results to see if the price is similar to the other results.
If you’re still not sure, do a reverse Google image search to verify that the listing’s photos don’t show up on a stock image site—a surefire sign that the property isn’t real. To do that, go to images.google.com and click the camera icon to the right of the search field to upload the photo in question (you can also drag images directly from your desktop into the search bar). If it matches any other images on the internet, it’ll show you the site from which the photo was probably stolen.
Do not contact the host outside of the vacation rental site before booking
You should always contact the host before booking to ask any pertinent questions and vet their personality. (For example, will they be cool with you bringing your kids or do they sound uptight?) But only communicate through the company’s secure messaging tool in its app or website. After booking, it’s also best to keep your communication in the app to coordinate check-in and stay in touch during your trip if anything comes up.
Never share your email address or phone number with them before your booking is accepted. If the listing mentions emailing or calling the host directly to book, this is a red flag. One scam involves fraudulent hosts sending over links to other “listings” they manage on sites that look like Airbnb but aren’t (more on that below). If you keep your communications within Airbnb’s site or app, Airbnb blocks all outside links to prevent this from happening.
Make sure you’re actually on airbnb.com (or vrbo.com, or such)
Before you book anything, look closely at the URL you’re on. There are several scam sites out there that look like the real thing, but they’re not. Before booking, make sure you’re actually on https://www.airbnb.com or a country-specific URL like https://es.airbnb.com or https://it.airbnb.com if you’re accessing the site abroad.
“If you click a link that takes you to a page that looks like Airbnb but doesn’t start with this address, it’s a fraudulent page and you should close it,” Airbnb’s website says.
You can also download the Airbnb app and use it to book directly to prevent this from happening.
Never pay in cash or via Venmo
Only book with a credit card or debit card through the rental company’s website. If a host asks you to pay outside of the Airbnb or Vrbo website or app through cash, a wire, bank transfer, or Venmo, it is likely a scam.
“With few exceptions, the full cost of your reservation is collected by Airbnb. If you paid for any part of your reservation outside Airbnb, it may be fraudulent,” Airbnb says. “These fees must be detailed in the listing description and included in the price breakdown prior to booking, and are usually charged before the stay, at check-in, or within 48 hours of checkout.” Those rare exceptions may include security deposits, resort fees, incidentals like parking fees, and local occupancy tax.
Vrbo also stresses that the most secure way to book a vacation rental is by paying directly through its website.
“Paying directly through the Vrbo website ensures you are protected against fraudulent behavior,” Melanie Fish, Vrbo’s travel expert, told AFAR.
If your host asks you to pay off the site or through another company, report it directly to the company. On Airbnb, there is a small “flag” on each message sent through Airbnb.com between hosts and guests for reporting suspicious messages. You can call or message Vrbo directly through help.vrbo.com.
Know your rights
In the off chance that you end up being scammed on a vacation rental site, here’s what you should know.
Travelers who pay through Vrbo and HomeAway are protected under its Book with Confidence Guarantee. If you book through those sites, you receive:
- Comprehensive payment protection for the full rental payment against listing fraud, phishing, the property being significantly misrepresented, and more
- Customer service available 24/7, to answer any issues or questions regarding the stay
- Rebooking assistance to find another vacation rental should the booking be wrongfully canceled at the last minute by an owner or manager
- Security deposit protection to help recover a wrongfully withheld deposit
Airbnb’s Guest Refund Policy, which was introduced on December 15, 2019, covers travel issues, including:
- Bookings canceled shortly before the scheduled start of the reservation
- A host failing to provide keys or a security code to enter the accommodation
- A listing that is materially inaccurate with regards to the size of the accommodation, its location, special amenities like pools, and whether the booking is for an entire home, private room or shared room, and whether another party, including the host, is staying there during the booking
- An accommodation that is not clean, contains safety or health hazards, or contains vermin or pets not disclosed in the listing