Recently, I came close to falling for an Airbnb scam in which I would’ve lost $3,300 on an apartment booking in Lisbon. Fortunately, I realized something wasn’t quite right and backed out at the last minute, but there are many people who haven’t been as lucky. After a bit of research, I came across dozens of travelers who have fallen for it — one who even lost $30,000 attempting to book a luxury villa for six months. (See also: What to Do About a Terrible Airbnb Stay)
Here’s how this particular scam works, and what you should always look for when booking through Airbnb.
There are numerous ways this scam can occur, but they all start when you begin communicating with the host about a property that seems like a great deal. Perhaps you send them a question via Airbnb, and they ask you to email them instead, as it will be easier or more convenient. Or maybe you’ve found a property on a different site like Craigslist and you begin with an email conversation. Either way, once you take the communication off the Airbnb messenger, they will begin to hook you in by being helpful and friendly.
They will answer any queries you may have and tell you a convincing story as to why their property is slightly below market value. Once you reach the stage of being ready to book, they will send you a link to the Airbnb listing asking you to complete the booking through the site as it offers protections for both of you. So far so good, right?
When you click the link, you’ll be taken to a site that looks and feels like Airbnb, and for all intents and purposes seems totally legit. You’ll be able to read reviews of the property and enter the dates that you want to book it for, and even the URL will look genuine. You’ll then complete the next stage of entering your dates and making a payment to secure the booking. But if you do, you will immediately lose all of the money.
As a seasoned world traveler, there are subtle differences that I picked up on before paying the $3,000 dollars to secure the property I was interested in, but that many other people might miss. The first red flag was that the property’s full address was listed on the property page, but Airbnb only shows the exact address once you’ve booked and paid. Then I noticed a live chat function at the bottom of the page that I used, but I’m familiar enough with Airbnb that I know it doesn’t offer a live chat function. This was clearly not the real Airbnb site.
The best way to avoid falling for this ruthless scam is to always make sure you book directly through Airbnb, either through their secure app, or by manually entering the URL directly into your browser.
Other common Airbnb scams
Here are some other common Airbnb scams to watch out for.
Advance fee scam
This is where someone will offer to give you a discount or something else in return for paying in advance and not using the Airbnb payment method. They’ll probably justify it by claiming you’ll both save on fees and they’ll pass part of that savings on to you. While it may sound great, you’ll more than likely lose that money and the payment will be untraceable.
You’ll be sent an email that looks as though it’s from Airbnb, asking you to click on a link and enter some personal details such as passwords or payment methods. Scammers will then potentially use this information to gain access to your other accounts. Phishing emails can also contain malware that can harm your computer and also be used to record things like passwords to sites you frequent. (See also: How to Protect Elderly Loved Ones From Financial Scams)
Wire transfer deposit
You’ll be offered a fantastic savings on your booking for paying the deposit using a wire transfer service rather than the Airbnb payment process. Once that payment is received, the property will be taken down and you won’t receive your money back.
Golden rules for booking Airbnb properties
In order to remove any potential for being scammed on Airbnb, follow these safety rules every time you book.
Keep all communication on the site
Never communicate with hosts outside of the Airbnb messaging portal. If they email you or send you a private number to contact them, this should set alarm bells ringing immediately. If they insist on not messaging through Airbnb, cease contact and report them to Airbnb.
Read all the reviews
Check the reviews carefully and look out for patterns of cancellations or lots of undetailed, poorly worded reviews.
Pay on Airbnb only
Always make payments through Airbnb and never respond to any requests to transfer money via bank transfer, credit card, or anything else. Paying outside of Airbnb will make it more difficult to trace the payment or prove that it was acquired fraudulently.
Look closely at the URL
Double check that you are definitely on the official Airbnb site when you’re completing your booking. The best way to do this is to type the site name directly into your browser.
Don’t trust cheap listings
Don’t trust properties that are advertised at way below market value. While you can find great deals on Airbnb, unfortunately, if it seems too good to be true, it more than likely is. Hosts want their listings to be competitive and priced similarly to other properties in the area. If a property is listed cheaper than it should be and there’s not a clear reason why, it’s best to avoid the risk and move on.
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This article originally appeared on WiseBread.com.