Tips for finding your dream rental without getting burned.

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Spring is when we start thinking about summer getaways.

For many, that means a vacation rental — and these days, with the proliferation of online information and rental websites, finding that perfect spot is easier than ever.

(According to a TripAdvisor 2015 survey, 87 percent of people queried said they were more likely to book a vacation rental due to the increased availability of online information, such as traveler reviews and photos.)

Flip through listings, make your pick and send off a deposit. Nothing left to do but pack your bags, then settle in and enjoy your home away from home, right?

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Not quite because there still is a chance that the picture-perfect vacation house you saw and booked may not actually exist.

Yes, renters beware: Along with descriptions of shoreline cottages and seaside mansions, the Internet is also filled with stories of vacationers who showed up to find that the dream vacation they’d booked online was nothing more than a virtual nightmare.

Either the property didn’t exist or the owners knew nothing about the arrangement.

Phony online rental ads are a common scam, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Perpetrators lift ads, complete with photos, from other sites and repost them with fictitious contact information. The fraudulent listings often feature extremely low rates.

San Francisco, New York and other vacation destinations, such as Cape Cod, are popular targets.

“Vacation rental scams are a huge issue,” says Elizabeth Weedon of WeNeedAVacation.com, a vacation rental agency specializing in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket properties. “People need to be very careful who they rent from. They need to research the property before they sign a rental agreement and hand over money. If something seems too good to be true, well, it probably isn’t.”

Potential scam victims usually are asked to send money via Western Union. Experts say the words “wire money” should trigger an immediate red flag.

Check Western Union.com, and you’ll see the following: “DO NOT send money to an individual for a rental property.”

CraigsList.org is just as direct.

“Never wire funds, (e.g. Western Union). Anyone who asks you to is a scammer,” the website site states.

The safest way to pay is by credit card (many offer their own protection against fraudulent charges). If you’re dealing with an individual owner and have researched his or her name and property to be sure it’s legit, a check is probably safe. Most rental sites update consumer alerts and offer extensive information on the best way to pay and how to protect yourself against online cons. Look for the “security center” section on the website and follow the directions.

READ THE CONTRACT

Once you’ve found a rental and confirmed that it’s legit, you’re all set, right? Well, maybe.

What if the refrigerator breaks in your rental and you just bought hundreds of dollars of food? The septic system backs up and green goo starts spewing out of the washing machine?

A recent survey done by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, which offers vacation rental property management services to homeowners, showed that 62 percent of all vacationers worry about not being able to get problems solved quickly and nearly half are not confident that they’ll get what they anticipate when renting directly from an owner.

Wyndham says potential renters should book accommodations with reputable companies, ask in advance about on-site customer service and confirm that there’s a local team on hand to take care of any issues that may arise.

“The survey underscores that travelers want to know their vacation is in the hands of someone they can trust,” says Gail Mandel, CEO, Wyndham Vacation Rentals.

Wyndham also recommends checking online maps to make sure the property address is legitimate and use the satellite view to see if the property matches the listing description, seek vacation rental sites with real-time availability calendars to avoid the possibility of double-bookings and rent from reputable sources such as well-known hospitality companies or rental management companies.

And, most important, read the contract carefully before signing.

Even in the best situations, things can go wrong. If you’re disappointed with your rental, you might be tempted to post a negative review online. Go through your contract carefully before you do.

Some include a “non-disparagement clause.” Post a less-than-glowing review on social media after your stay and you could be forced to remove the review — or charged a penalty.

The good news after all this is that there are plenty of properties available for summer 2016. Weedon says new listings continue to come in and while rental prices have increased about 2½ percent from 2015, summer rentals are still a good vacation deal.

On average, the price per square foot for a U.S. hotel room can be more than twice the price per square foot of a vacation rental.

“Split the cost of a rental with friends or family, cook some meals at home and you’re going to have a very cost effective vacation,” says Weedon.

If you’re looking for a summer rental, check TripAdvisor.com, VRBO.com, WeNeedAVacation.com, AirBnb.com and HomeAway.com. Tripping.com aggregates listings from HomeAway, Wimdu, VRBO, FlipKey, Booking.com and other sites. Most sites vet listings and offer some protection against scammers.

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