I rent a lot of apartments when I travel in Europe, and I am fortunate that I have never been scammed. But the New York Time's Frugal Traveler writes about being scammed on an apartment rental in London, and I think his tips are excellent for anyone considering renting a property while on the go.
Amongst the Frugal Traveler's wise words are:
"If it's too good to be true, it probably is." This is true about so many travel situations, but particularly when renting an apartment or finding a hotel "deal."
"Always use a credit card." Legitimate businesses take credit cards. And credit card companies will often reimburse you if you have been scammed.
Now, I do take exception to this in some countries. In Italy, for example, many apartment owners will expect payment up front and in cash. However, they don't expect this until you have arrived at the apartment, checked it out for yourself, and even settled in. Some allow you a day or two to pay, depending on the length of your stay. This isn't a scam (though you have to wonder how much of that income they are declaring on their taxes). Generally Italians are reluctant to pay the fees associated with credit cards and prefer to do business with cash. Other countries conduct business in much the same way.
"See if you can get someone on the phone." This becomes easier and easier, too. And it is a great way to check up on the legitimacy of a property.
If you are still nervous about renting an apartment yourself, but want to go that route, you can also consider using a booking service. Personally, for Italy I recommend Experience Italy. They handle all of my group travel, and they do an excellent job (and I am in no way compensated for recommending them). There are many other good services out there, too. Generally you can expect to pay the booking service directly, and they will make the payments to the apartment owners for you, providing you with a voucher to give them when you check in.
Having said that, know that there are dastardly booking services out there, too. Use the same screening tools that you would if you were renting the apartment yourself: talk to someone on the phone, get a recommendation from someone else, pay with a credit card. But remember, for every scam out there thousands of other honest, hard-working people are ready and willing to help make your travel experience a fantastic one.
Frugal Traveler: Burned! A London Vacation Rental Scam
By By SETH KUGEL | Published: January 25, 2011 | The Frugal Traveler found an apartment to rent in London -- great location, great price. All he had to do was wire payment up front. Guess what? No apartment. He's not alone in being scammed in vacation rentals. Advice on how not to join him.