Avoid vacation, home improvement, and alarm system scams

Protect yourself from three of the season’s biggest rip-offs

Published: June 23, 2015 01:00 PM
Make sure a vacation rental home really exists before you book it.

When the weather heats up, so do scams targeting homeowners and vacationers looking for bargains. Stay one step ahead of con artists. You can keep up on the latest scams at the Federal Trade Commission site. This season, here’s how to spot the dirty deals:

Vacation-rental scams

Renting someone else’s home, condo, or apartment, or swapping your house with theirs, is an appealing alternative to staying in hotels and motels. But it appeals to scammers, too, who might solicit an advance payment for an imaginary property.

Often those fakes can be found on listing sites such as Craigslist, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Or you might unwittingly rent a property in foreclosure just in time for the bank to toss you out. Sometimes the rip-off comes from a renter who boosts the price or doesn’t deliver what was promised. Or the property might be in an area where short-term rentals are prohibited.

How to protect yourself

Use a reputable listing site. Try FlipKey, which verifies property owners, or HomeAway and VRBO, which provide a $10,000 rental guarantee (starting at $39) that protects you against Internet fraud. If you use Airbnb, look for hosts that have a Verified ID badge. It indicates that they are linked to another online profile, have disclosed a phone number and an e-mail address, and/or have uploaded a government ID photo to the site. Skip properties with no reviews.
Make sure it’s legit. Search online for the name of the town where you’re renting and terms such as “tenant rights” and “short-term rentals.”
Look it over. Use Google Earth, and Google Maps Street View, and Zillow to make sure the property resembles the pictures on the listing. Get the rental agreement in writing, and read the terms. If you don’t understand something, ask the landlord to e-mail you an explanation.
Pay via credit card or PayPal. Call the landlord before sending payment, and never pay via cashier’s check, Liberty Reserve, MoneyGram, Western Union, or wire transfer.

Home improvement scams

Now that summer is in full bloom, your thoughts naturally turn to all of the around-the-house projects that need to get done. And the next thing you know a friendly contractor is knocking at your door. Well, that guy or gal might be a home-improvement scammer. Some con artists will walk right up to your house and offer to repair your roof, repave your driveway, or do whatever chore you need for a price that seems fair. They may say they can offer you a great deal because they’re working nearby and have leftover material. They often ask for payment in advance but then do either shoddy work or none at all. It can be difficult to catch and prosecute the con artists.

How to protect yourself

Ask for recommendations. Avoid contractors that contact you unsolicited. Get recommendations from friends, neighbors, or relatives.
Review his past. Before hiring someone, check his work history with your state consumer protection agency and the Better Business Bureau. Search the Web using the company or individual’s name and words such as “reviews” and “complaints.”
Check credentials. Verify with your state that the contractor has the required license or registration.
Know your rights. Some states give you three days or so to nix home improvement contracts. Under federal law you have three days to cancel most contracts signed in your home or outside a contractor’s regular place of business.
Don’t rely on spoken promises. Demand a written contract. Getall warranties in writing, too.

Watch out for these timeshare resale and solar energy scams.

Home alarm scams

During the summer, home security and alarm companies hire traveling sales agents to go door to door making unsolicited calls, the Federal Trade Commission says. In some cases, the salespeople use high-pressure or deceptive sales tactics to get potential customers to buy expensive, and sometimes substandard, systems or equipment that they don’t need. Unscrupulous sales agents may say their offer is for a limited time only. Or, the FTC says, they might try to get you to sign a contract by telling you the equipment is free. More than likely, strings are attached. For example, to get your “free” alarm, you may have to sign a long-term and expensive system monitoring contract. The salespeople may pressure their way into your home and refuse to leave. And they may use scare tactics. For example, they might talk about a spate of supposed burglaries in your neighborhood.

Some door-to-door sales agents target homeowners who have signs on their properties for security systems with other companies. The sales agents may state or imply that they are from your existing security company and that they’re there to upgrade or replace your current security system.

How to protect yourself

Get references. Don’t be pressured to sign a contract. Instead, ask for references and call at least two or three. Find out whether the equipment was installed within the given time frame. Were any problems dealt with satisfactorily? If there was an intrusion, were the police contacted promptly?
Do a background check. If you are told that someone is with your alarm company, call the company to verify the claim. If you’re considering installing a new system, contact your state attorney general, your local consumer protection agency, and the Better Business Bureau to see
whether the company has complaints on file.
Request written estimates from several companies. A reputable company will not try to sell you anything before completing a professional assessment of your needs and the layout of your home.
––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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