Maari Casey recently began planning her sixth trip to St. John. Like may people, she viewed numerous properties online in an effort to find the best deal. Maari sent out a few inquiries through different booking websites and soon received a response from a business she couldn’t recall contacting – Smart Rentals Online.
The email stated that Smart Rentals Online received Maari’s request and offered her a significantly discounted rate. They also said they would waive all taxes if she booked within 10 days. (Red flag: No one can agree to waive taxes.) The email left Maari uneasy, so she reached out to travelers on the Virgin Islands On Line forum and asked their opinion. She also contacted us, and we immediately started to do a little digging.
The consensus: If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
So how exactly did Smart Rentals Online get Maari’s information? Well it seems that they were able to intercept an email she sent through a rental booking site. A few examples of rental booking sites include HomeAway.com, VRBO.com and FlipKey.com. It is important to note that this scam did not originate from an on-island villa management company.
Once Smart Rentals Online intercepted that email, they had all of her contact information including her desired villa and travel dates. They took that information and offered her a deal.
The thing about these sites is that they look somewhat legitimate at first glance. They usually lift the pictures and information from the villa’s real listing and place it on their websites. Fortunately Maari was adept at spotting the signs of a scam; however not all travelers have been that lucky.
We reached out to all of the villas and villa management companies who advertise on our site to make them aware of this scam. The stories we heard from some were pretty troubling.
One villa management company told us a story of a family who came to the island to celebrate a holiday only to find out that they didn’t have a place to stay when they arrived. They too were the victims of an online scam. Fortunately the villa management company was able to find them a place to stay during one of the island’s busiest weeks of the year, but the family ended up paying double for their accommodations.
Another villa owner told us how her villa was listed on one of these types of scammer sites in March of last year. She learned of this after being contacted by a potential guest who had spoken with the scam company over the telephone.
“This man almost did it until he noticed on my site that the villa wasn’t available during his dates. The company that contacted him said it was,” said the villa owner who asked to remain anonymous. “The big key is the wire transfer. They always ask for a wire transfer.”
“Never wire transfer,” she continued. “And try to pay attention when you’re sending out emails and pay attention to where the responses are coming from. And look out for things that look fishy like when the availability is wide open.”
A few big things jumped out to us when we dug a little deeper into Smart Rentals Online’s website. First, the company said it launched in 1982, however their website was created last month. (A quick way to check out who owns a website and when it was created is to visit www.whois.com and enter the site’s domain name.) Another thing we noticed was that the villas were listed in the wrong neighborhoods. A popular Chocolate Hole villa, for example, was listed as being in Hawksnest Bay, yet the map indicated it was located in St. Thomas.
So what else should potential renters look out for? Here are additional tips from provided to us from a few on-island villa management companies:
- Always look to make sure the booking company has an on-island presence.
- Beware of a company that asks for full payment up front.
- Beware of companies that originate in the United Kingdom and offer to book St. John properties. Several scam companies have originated there in the past few years.
- Google and/or search for reviews about the villa booking company and/or the actual owner of the company.
- Be aware of potentially bogus reviews and see how recent the reviews are.
- Call the booking company and speak to a real person. (Disclaimer: Smart Rentals Online has live people who answer the phones and sound very knowledgeable, so this may not always raise a red flag.)
- Request the business license of the company and check it for legitimacy.
- Call the Chamber of Commerce to verify the legitimacy of the company.
And a tip from us: Do what Maari did and ask other travelers for their opinions. You can do so over on our Facebook page or on the forum at Virgin Island On Line. If you find that you’ve encountered a fraudulent rental site, you can report it online. (We intended to provide you a link but since the government is still shutdown, we were unable to confirm the correct link. We’ll add it as soon as we can confirm it.)
Lastly, you can check out our list of reputable villas and villa management companies by clicking here. (Please note: There are many other reputable villa management companies and rental villas on island. Our list consists of businesses/villas that we have personally done business with.)