Travelers are cautioned to take precautions to avoid illegal vacation rentals and/or internet-based scams aimed at those desiring to book vacation home rentals.
Online rental scams and illegal rentals are a worldwide problem, according to authorities. In a typical scam, a deposit or full payment is taken via a mailed check, wire money transfer or PayPal. Individuals essentially are charged to stay in a rental property that does not actually exist.
Fraudulent online listings often to appear to be legitimate, but are not. Some scammers will reproduce actual real estate listings with photos and property descriptions. Be extremely wary of representatives who ask you to sign a rental contract for longer than you are actually renting, or ask you to pose as their friend or relative. These are common deceitful tactics of illegal rentals.
Illegal vacation rentals are often existing properties, but are not legally licensed to operate as such. In circumventing the legal vacation rental permit process, these property owners may also be circumventing safety requirements like fire safety and building codes for public lodging establishments.
The property may also be evading taxes or carrying the proper insurances. Licensed vacation rentals in the Keys are required to be inspected, meet municipal code, follow all fire and other safety regulations and adhere to regular cleaning and trash removal guidelines.
Further, short term rentals -- less than 28 days -- are required to have a licensed, locally-based manager to assist renters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Local law enforcement and tourism officials suggest consumers consider the following guidelines when booking vacation rentals.
• All bona fide vacation rentals in the Florida Keys are licensed. Ask the agent for a copy of the transient licenses before paying. Owners of any transient rental of six months or less must have a paid Monroe County Business Tax Receipt. This can be verified online. The agent or property owner must also collect a 12.5% lodging and sales tax from renters. In most cases, the property must also have a Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation public accommodations license. Any rental of 28 days or less generally also requires a vacation rental permit or license from the municipality it is located in, or be within a gated community staffed with an onsite property manager.
• In Marathon, Islamorada and Key West, all bona fide short-term vacation rentals (less than 28 days) are required to have a sign or medallion posted on the property signifying it is a vacation rental. Marathon and Islamorada also require any bona fide short-term vacation rental post their vacation rental license number on any advertisement for the property, including Internet-based ads.
• Use a major credit card for lodging transactions, as is customary around the world. Most, if not all, bona fide rental firms accept credit cards. Major credit card companies normally protect the consumer in the event of fraud.
• Never electronically transfer money to someone you have not met in person.
• Be extremely wary of property owners who say they are out of the country and ask you to send a check to another person or another town. This is almost always a clear indicator of a scam. Always try to verify the identity of the person you are dealing with, especially if that person's name does not match up with the property record. You can verify a property owner's name online. Use a reverse directory to look up a phone number you've been given. Search the person's name or the property address in a browser; be sure to use "quotes" around their name or address and you can add the words "fraud" or "scam" at the end of your search term.
• If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Sometimes a deep discount is a red flag that something is not right or illegitimate with the listing.
• Most real estate firms or bona fide rental agents are members of a local chamber of commerce or lodging association. Those groups may be able to help verify the rental owner or agent.
If you believe you have been scammed and want to report it, you can contact the Chamber of Commerce located closest to your rental. Most have a complaint form you can complete that is forwarded to the appropriate agencies.
Florida Keys chambers of commerce phone numbers are:
Key Largo: 1-800-822-1088/305-451-4747
Lower Keys: 1-800-872-3722/305-872-2411
Key West: 1-800-LAST-KEY/305-294-2587
The Florida Keys also has online chat links direct with visitor information professionals situated at the chambers who can be accessed weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET through a link at the top of the home page at www.fla-keys.com. The Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West can be contacted at 305-296-4959.
• How Do I Verify a Vacation Rental is Legitimate? For rentals of 28 days and less, you can contact the municipality in which it is located:
Unincorporated Monroe County - Key Largo and the Islands of the Lower Keys; including Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf, Summerland, Stock Island, Little Torch Key, Geiger Key, Cudjoe Key, Saddlebunch Keys and Ramrod Key: Call Monroe County Code Compliance at 305.289.2810 or click here
Marathon: Call the Marathon Code Compliance office at 305-289-4108
Key Colony Beach: Contact the City of Key Colony Beach at 305-289-1212
Layton: Contact the City of Layton Code Enforcement at 305-664-4667
Islamorada: Call the Islamorada Code Compliance office at 305-664-6435
For monthly rentals, you can verify the property's Monroe County Business Tax license for transient rental online, or call the Monroe County Tax Collector's Office 855-422-4540.
• If you are scammed, report it to local law enforcement, the Monroe County Tax Collector and the U.S Federal Trade Commission (FTC), whose investigators frequently collaborate with local law enforcement officials.The phone number to report a crime to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office is 305-289-2351. The non-emergency phone number at the City of Key West Police Department is 305-809-1111. To report a scam to the Monroe County Tax Collectors office call 1-855-422-4540 or send an email. To file a complaint with the FTC, visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).
• A new toll-free phone number and email address have been launched to report illegal and non-compliant vacation rentals, as well as vacation rental scams in the Florida Keys.The phone number for reporting such occurrences to the Monroe County Tax Collector's Office is 1-855-422-4540, or the tax office can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Callers can choose to identify themselves or remain anonymous.
• To report suspected illegal or non-compliant vacation rentals in the Lower Keys or Key Largo, renters can file a complaint with Monroe County online.