Got summer travel plans? Crooks do too. And their plans involve you. Whether it's stealing your credit cards, hijacking your identity or wooing you into a fake rental, summer is high season for vacation scams. Here are a few you should look out for this year.
If you're looking for a vacation house to rent, beware the bargains posted on the Web. You may think you're getting a great price because you're dealing directly with the owner and avoiding paying commissions to a middleman. But too often, the rental doesn't exist or is significantly less than advertised. In some cases, the scammer is just trying to get your deposit and flee.
How can you be sure you're not passing up a true bargain? Start by searching for rentals only on legitimate websites that provide protections to renters. Although Craig's List can have some bargains, it's also ideal for scammers because your payments go directly to the seller, not to an escrow account or middleman, who holds your payment until you know you got what was advertised. If the seller is on Craig's List, ask where else the home is listed and whether you can see online ratings for the rental.
Also ask the seller to use Skype or FaceTime to show you a video of the property's interior. Obviously, pay particular attention to whether the video images correspond to the photos you see on the Web. And check on Google Earth to make sure the property that's advertised is the one that you're seeing at that address.
If the supposed owner can't lead you to other listings, has different contact information from other listings of this property or can't send updated photos or videos of the interior, consider it a red flag.
Requests for cashier's checks, money orders or prepaid debit cards for your deposit also are warning signs. Anyone who's regularly renting a property should have a way to assure buyers that their deposit is safe and won't be tapped before they know the rental is legitimate.
Credit card heists
Two new scams aim at catching travelers off-guard enough to provide credit card information over the phone, says Rip Mason, CEO of LegalShield, which provides legal services and identity theft protection. One has someone purportedly calling from the hotel's front desk to say they failed to get an impression of your credit card. They're apologetic and don't want to trouble you, so they're fine with you providing it over the phone. Good line, right?
If the front desk is calling, they'll be delighted when you offer to take the three-minute walk downstairs and provide your credit card information in person. If they say, "Don't trouble yourself," chances are good you've got a crook on the line.
The other sneaky credit card gotcha involves restaurants offering to deliver. Someone pushes a flier under your door that promises delivery food. But if you give them your credit card number, there's a good chance you'll never get the order.
Crooks can use Wite-Out and color copiers to even change the phone number on a real restaurant's flier. If you're tempted to order in, ask the concierge about the local delivery joints. Not only should your hotel be familiar with the places with good food, the concierge should be able to provide the relevant phone numbers.
If the delivery joint on your ad isn't familiar to the hotel staff -- or, worse, if the name is familiar but the phone number doesn't match up -- you're at risk.
Watch the Wi-Fi
Don't do your banking or log into personal accounts from unsecure Wi-Fi connections -- particularly when you have common passwords for your accounts. Wi-Fi connections in public places are notoriously vulnerable to attack. Criminals park themselves in them during vacation season to pull in private data from careless travelers. If you need to work on something that requires a password, find a secure connection in a private spot to do it.
Password-protect your phone
Speaking of passwords ... as consumers increasingly connect their phones to payment cards, banking relationships and social media, your phone can be a ticket to robbing you blind. And yet phones are left on trains, stolen in bars and are otherwise highly vulnerable to light-fingered theft. You can at least make the crook's job tougher by password-protecting your phone and putting a tracking application on the device.