The guide to safe renting for holiday accommodation        

I've made an effort to write this guide in a balanced way but I need to make it clear from the start that this is written by a holiday home owner.
We sometimes get enquiries from guests who are not entirely comfortable about paying a complete stranger in advance for accommodation. And, yes, we're not surprised! After all, the amount of money is usually quite substantial and you need to be sure everything is as it should be.
When you arrange to rent holiday accommodation there are steps you can take to make it safe. First, though, you need to understand the dangers, pitfalls and, yes, scams. But as you read this, try not to let it put you off renting privately. Renting privately usually gives you access to a much loved cottage / house / apartment where you can come and go as you please and enjoy a much higher standard of furnishing and equipment than the equivalent hotel offering.

So just remember while you read this that, by being aware, you are most unlikely to fall victim.

SCAM Number 1: The hijacked email account

For the last few years, this has been the most serious problem affecting holiday rentals. Here's how it works: The scammer makes an enquiry as a potential renter via one of the usual sites such as holidaylettings.co.uk or ownersdirect.co.uk and the owner responds by email. A while later, the scammer sends an email to the owner containing an innocent-sounding question (e.g. "My wife was wondering if this Streetview picture shows the street where the property is?") with a link that looks like an innocent link (e.g. to Google Maps) but is in fact a disguised link to a fake Google Login page. The owner then, being tired, distracted or otherwise confused thinks that he has been logged out of Google and tries to log back in... but you already know what has happened: He has just given his email address and password to a scammer. Now the clever bit: Our scammer logs into the owner's email account and sets up a Filter and Divert, such that all emails containing the property name (or other tell-tale key words) are redirected to the scammer and are never seen by the owner. Now, when the next few holidaymakers try to make an enquiry for that property, the enquiry goes to the scammer and he extracts a payment from the victim who loses the money and sometimes even arrives at the holiday destination only to discover that he has no accommodation.
To defend against this:

SCAM Number 2: The cloned property

This one pre-dates the internet but, these days, it always relies on a web page or an entry on one of the listing sites (like OwnersDirect, WhichCottage, HolidayLettings etc). The scammer just makes a slightly altered copy of the web page or advert and you see it, you like it, you make your booking and... you arrive finding that the accommodation belongs to somebody you've never heard of, and nobody has heard of the guy you paid the money to. It's very simple but that's no consolation when you're on a far-away doorstep with all your luggage and out-of-pocket and nowhere to go.
To avoid this:

SCAM Number 3: The local agent posing as owner

Local agents can be great, but there are cowboys too. Let's imagine a guy called Ron who does a bit of this-and-that including brokering holiday lets in Torrevieja (OK, no need to imagine because Ron does exist and this is a true story and he can try to sue me if he likes). Ron advertises a gorgeous holiday flat in a superb position right in front of the beach. I like the look of it, so I book it and pay. Nearer the time, I ask Ron about how I get the key and he says: 'Oh, I've managed to get you an "upgrade". The flat you booked has had some water damage and we've had to get builders in. I've got you into a brand new apartment. You'll love it.' It turns out that the brand new apartment is a mile from the beach in a concrete jungle. But I only find out on arrival, too late to do much about it. What actually happened is that Ron advertises just one of the many places that he deals with. The most attractive one. But when you book that apartment, he doesn't reserve it for you. He waits until a few days before you arrive then phones around the owners that he deals with to get a last-minute rate, and he pockets the difference. Nice one, Ron!
To avoid this:

Paying unneccessary commission

Many of the holiday property advertising websites offer free advertising in return for commission on every booking. Some of the sites (like airbnb) are commission-only. The operators of these sites would advise you that it is safest to book through their site, making payment to them. They even offer a money-back guarantee as the owner doesn't receive the money until after you have checked in. You might believe that making payment to a big-name site is safer but I strongly suggest that you examine the reputations of these companies on sites like trustpilot.co.uk or consumeraffairs.com before giving them your credit card details. By allowing these companies to manage the booking process, you cannot escape from the commission: You pay a hefty commission (often around 10-15%) and the owner is charged a commission too (usually 3 to 10%). It is increasingly common for the total commission to hit 30%! So, you might be able to rent the same property from the same owner for considerably less. With a commission booking, the cancellation terms vary hugely according to which site you make the booking on. Look at these very carefully because, if you do need to cancel, you can be sure they will point out the small print of their cancellation terms rather than take a human approach to it. On commission bookings you often pay the full amount at the time of booking (as opposed to a just few weeks ahead if dealing direct with the owner). Clearly, there's a balance to be struck: perceived safety against cost. Given that you can take precautions to ensure your safety when dealing direct with an owner, I know which I would choose.
To avoid commission:

Whether you make your booking direct with the owner or indirect through an agent, do make the most of the owner's knowledge of the property and the area. Don't be afraid of asking all sorts of questions both before you book and after you've booked. If you've got any requests or special needs, do let the owners know in plenty of time.