Vacation Rental Scams Hit Ski Towns

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(Host) Southern Vermont ski areas and their host towns are having a banner season so far. The town of Wilmington, near Mount Snow, is no exception.

But, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports, for some visitors the fun has been spoiled by a rash of vacation rental scams.

(Keese) Phony ads on Craigslist, the online classified website, are common enough that the site itself warns buyers to take precautions.

Recently police in Wilmington issued a warning of their own.

(Szarejko) "A public service announcement in the paper just warning potential visitors about the potential scam."

(Keese) Wilmington Police Chief Joe Szarejko says this small mountain town has dealt with four or five bogus rentals, and some stunned vacationers.

All of the cases began with rental ads on Craigslist showing the same Vermont property.

Szarejko says people who answered the ads were instructed by e-mail to send a deposit using a reloadable, pre-paid debit card of the type sold by Visa, WalMart and Western Union.

Then comes the bad news.

(Szarejko) "People come up to go to the house that they’ve supposedly rented and there is no house there. So that’s when they realize that they’ve been scammed and that’s when they come to the police department."

(Keese) Szarejko says a detective is working on the cases. But he says the people responsible aren’t often caught.

Assistant Vermont Attorney General Sandi Evritt heads the state’s consumer protection unit. She says many of the scams originate in other countries. Money sent by wire or prepaid cash cards can be picked up anywhere.

(Evritt) "We can see that they’re picked up in Canada, in Nigeria or in the UK,  even though it might have been addressed to someone in Florida or Nevada or some place in the United States."

(Keese) Evritt says people picking up money in this country may also be victims of scams, such as work-at-home schemes.

(Evritt) "They believe they’ve been hired to do a job, that they’re picking up payments on debts and so forth that are legitimate, and they turn around, retain their fee and then wire-transfer the money out."

(Keese) Evritt see all kinds of scams on the Internet. But she has a big file on Craig’s list.

(Evritt) "Here’s somebody who sent $1,300 for an apartment that he found online and there was no such apartment. … Bought a wood chipper, bought a pet, cars. We have a wedding dress for sale. We have a person who hired a handyman on Craigslist for carpentry and paid him over $2,700."

(Keese) Evritt says rental home scammers often use photos from properties that really are listed for sale. But they add their own fraudulent information.

She advises online renters to consult the local town clerk to see if the person offering the deal really owns the property.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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