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Protecting yourself from rental scams this vacation season

LONGMEADOW – For the second time in the month of May, an out-of-towner arrived at a home on Oakwood Drive they had paid to rent.

The trouble is, the owners of the home had never put it up for rent.

On May 24, police received a report that a man walked into the home expecting an empty rental property when the residents were home. Similarly, on May 12, a person arrived at the house via Uber while the homeowners were away. In both cases, the unexpected arrivals claimed they had rented the property through an online service.

While Police Lt. Robert Stocks stressed scams of this nature haven’t been common in Longmeadow – he recalled one other incident in the last six months – he acknowledged having a stranger appear at your house unexpectedly can be an unsettling experience.

“The thing you have to remember is in these cases, both parties are victims,” Stocks said. “The person who thought they rented the house and handed over money is a victim of fraud and, while there isn’t necessarily a crime committed by the renter, the homeowner is put in a difficult and uncomfortable position.”

With the spike in popularity of rental sites such as Airbnb, Tripping.com and HomeToGo among others, the chances of falling victim to a fraudulent rental listing have gone up dramatically.

Stocks explained the scammers simply extract photos and information about properties they do not own from other sources and create a false listing in order to lure vacation-goers into sending money to rent the property. Homes that have recently had changes in ownership or have been listed for sale are generally easy targets because detailed information and photos of the home are readily available through MLS database listings and real estate websites.

Stocks said if a resident finds their property listed on a site, there are steps that can be taken to resolve the problem. Notifying the Police Department is always a good option and officers may conduct periodic checks on the property to ensure its security. Additionally, homeowners could also contact the sites directly.

“Sites like Airbnb are legitimate businesses and they want to keep good ratings and a good reputation, so in most cases, they have very good customer service departments that can address these fraudulent listings,” Stocks said. “In this case [on Oakwood Drive], we actually contacted Airbnb for the homeowner and they helped us determine that the property was not listed on their site.”

Those interested in renting accommodations for their next trip or vacation through one of these rental sites should take care and look for certain tell-tale signs of a false advertisement.

First of all, Stocks encourages vacationers to stick to well-known and well-established websites with credible credentials. He cautioned against responding to listings on online bulletin boards like Craigslist, which are prone to this kind of illegal activity.

Stocks said at times you can spot a cloned listing – one that appears to be copied and pasted from another source. He also noted you should be wary of listings that are vague when it comes to details about the property or if the listing doesn’t seem to fit the neighborhood.

“If it’s a house with a small lot that is advertising a huge pool, then it might be something you want to take a closer look at,” Stocks said.

Stocks said it’s a good idea to see the property in advance, if possible. Listing parties who either only want to communicate via email as opposed to over the phone or in person or renters who make excuses as to why they cannot show you the property should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Last, but not least, Stocks reminds that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

“In the latest case, the person claimed he rented the house for something like $25 a day for 10 days,” Stocks said. “I don’t know of many houses you can rent for $25 a day.”