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Getaway with your money: Ways to avoid the most common and costly travel-related scams

Kathie Grealish owns a rental home at the beach with a beautiful view of the water. She was shocked when she recently got a call from a woman who thought she had a signed contract to rent the place.

“She said, ‘our family is coming and we're looking into renting bicycles.’ I said, I don't, this name does not sound familiar,” Grealish remembers.

Kathie lists her home on a popular vacation rental site. A scam artist hacked into her email, and posing as her, sent a forged contract. It listed a foreign bank and told the renter to send more than a thousand dollars.

That’s just one of many ploys con artists use to get away with your money, according to Tobie Stanger of Consumer Reports.

“They lure you with properties that are in foreclosure or don't even exist,” Stanger adds.

You can take action to protect yourself. And it's simple. Consumer Reports recommends before you send any money, pick up the phone and call the property owner. Actually talk to them.

“How you pay is also important. Never use payments like wire transfers, cashier's checks, money orders. They don't provide protection in the event of fraud,” Consumer Reports suggests.

The safest ways to pay are by credit card and PayPal. They both offer protection in the event someone takes advantage of you.

The Better Business Bureau recommends the following precautions for travelers:

  • Research the owner of any vacation rental by searching for their name or address online, especially if you can find online reviews or evidence of complaints. Check for a BBB Business Review.
  • Ask for a copy of the rental contract and read it before you pay a deposit. Be aware of cancellation and refund policies. Are there security deposits or cleaning fees?
  • Some hotels and resorts charge extra fees for services like fitness centers or Internet access. Ask whether these are included in the rental rate or if they will be added when you check out.
  • Check that the property address really exists. If the rental is in a resort, call the office and confirm the location of the property and other details.
  • Use a credit card to pay for a deposit or reservation in case you need to challenge the charge later. Ask whether you will be charged for the entire amount up front or for the first night only.

Sometimes, the problem is just getting there.

Who wouldn't like to get a letter in the mail saying you've won two free airline tickets?  All you have to do is attend a seminar. A classic bait and switch, according to US Postal Inspector Pamela Durkee.

“Here comes the high pressure sales pitch and the presentation that you're going to miss an opportunity if you don't sign up for this travel club. There's a lot of pressure to sign up and it's well over $10,000,” she adds.

Con artists, the Postal Service says, will use the name of legitimate, credible companies and then use a variation of the name. In one case, it's US “Airlines” versus US “Airways.”

“An unsuspecting consumer will get this solicitation for free travel tickets, two airline tickets, it might not register that US Airlines is not a carrier,” Durkee notes.

In this case, hundreds of victims complained to inspectors about this letter. The people behind it were arrested and charged with fraud. But the victims will probably never get their money back.

“In this day and age and in our economy, you don't get too much for free,” Durkee warns.

An expensive lesson learned a little too late.