Can you find a deal on Craigslist vacation rentals? Maybe.

Valerie Kumra was sitting at her house in Dillon Beach, a small waterfront community off Bodega Bay, one afternoon when she heard a knock on the door. This was in the fall of 2020, and COVID-19 cases were climbing again, so any unexpected visitors were especially unusual. Kumra answered the door and a young couple stood in front of her, looking excited.

Kumra stared back blankly, unsure of what to do.

The couple had “rented” Kumra’s home after seeing an ad on Craigslist, she learned, and they’d driven there from Sacramento. The creepiest part, Kumra said, was that the couple told her they had texted the alleged owners just 10 minutes before arriving to tell them they were almost there and they had responded that they would be there to greet them.

It all unraveled from there. The couple showed Kumra that they had paid the scammer via bank transfer, they had signed a contract that included Kumra and her husband’s name and the listing even included extensive photos and a description of the home. 

After attempting to help the weary travelers at least find somewhere to stay for the evening, the couple left, dejected and likely embarrassed, Kumra said. 

Kumra immediately got to work. She headed to the Craigslist vacation rentals section and it didn’t take her long to find the listing for her home. She recognized the photos and description from Zillow, which had recent information since they had just bought the home in 2017. She thought the renters should have been tipped off by the fact that the rental description had included the school district — something no short term renter would likely care about — but figured they had likely been excited by what seemed like a good deal (though not a suspiciously cheap one, she said). 

She knew all that information needed to come down as soon as possible and she got in touch with Zillow. She searched Craigslist in hopes she could call to get the false listing taken down immediately, but was unable to find a phone number anywhere. She had to settle for the website’s reporting feature for fraudulent listings and asked neighbors and friends to also flag the post as fraudulent. (Craigslist did not return SFGATE’s request for comment for this story.)

She called the sheriff’s office, but there wasn’t much they could do to help. Today’s technology makes it difficult to catch a scammer, they told her, especially when anyone can change their IP address. 

She got back on Craigslist and quickly recognized other homes nearby also listed for rent, even though she knew none of them were. Some of them were vacation rentals pre-pandemic, but most had property managers and exclusively worked through platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo. She alerted everyone she could, and one by one, listings came down, though hers stayed up a total of 47 days before it was removed the first time, she said. “There are 400 houses here at Dillon and I know almost all of them,” she said. “… I know the owners, I know what’s a vacation rental and what’s not. I would know them from the view from their deck. It’s easy for me to spot them.”

She found she couldn’t stop checking Craigslist. She started flagging listings that were clearly fake for the neighboring town of Bodega Bay. “Then it became exhausting,” she said. “But after the face-to-face reaction with a couple that had been scammed and seeing their disappointment … it’s a horrible feeling when you know someone has conned you. I didn’t want to just do it for my house, I wanted to do it for all people.”

A thankless job … that actually gets a few thanks

One year later, she’s still keeping up the crusade, at least for Dillon Beach. She checks Craigslist once a week for new listings to flag and renews her own ads warning anyone searching the area that any ad they see for a Dillon Beach rental is a scam. She does this in addition to her full-time job — she runs a nonprofit group and also does writing and animation work — but she says she has no plans to stop. “I will never stop. It’s a justice issue. It’s been effective,” she said. “If we don’t do this head on, then we’re just chasing them. I honestly think I’ve mostly run them out of town.”

Kumra thinks the scammers have moved on to other locations and her ads have worked, but because Craigslist isn’t looking out for these listings and the scammers can always use different descriptions or photos, her work will never really be finished. 

Peter Cornish also regularly posts ads on Craigslist warning of scams. In 2017, people who had “rented” his home on Craigslist showed up at his house when he’d already rented it out. “Someone had taken pictures off our legitimate listing — probably Vrbo — and used them to create a fake rental offering on Craigslist and managed to get this family to pay them,” he said. “We felt so bad for these people.”

Now, he posts warning ads on the Reno and San Francisco Craigslist versions every week hoping that any potential renter sees the post before they get scammed. 

Both Kumra and Cornish said they get emails from people thanking them for what they’re doing all the time. And Kumra wanted to make it clear she has no problem with Craigslist in general as a service. She thinks it can be a real force for good — she said her son met his roommates on the website years ago and they’re now such close friends they’re basically family. 

Plus, with all those listings under the vacation rental category, she said she knows not all are fake.

It’s not just about the money

Mike Weber is picky about who rents his RV. He’s owned the Winnebago Via 25R for three years and when he’s not renting it out, he likes to take it on trips himself, noting he’s been to Joshua Tree, Seattle, Nevada and the Oregon coast all this year. 

He’d rented it out on platforms like Outdoorsy and, but he said typically, not only would the RV come back in bad shape, he also had to do quite a lot of training to make sure people knew how to operate the vehicle properly. So, a few years ago he decided to put it on Craigslist under vacation rentals and see if he could rent it that way. 

Now he almost exclusively rents the RV through the site — using his own rental agreement — and he said it’s been a big success. The contract he has renters sign says that the renter is responsible for everything once they leave his property, including insurance, and for the most part, he said he’s had no big issues. Plus, he avoids losing money from fees to use the third party websites, Weber said. 

The people that come through Craigslist are usually local, he said, instead of people coming in from other countries or states. “I had it on and but you lose a lot of control there and you can’t as well screen the people,” Weber said. “… They also can come in with great expectations and they don’t know how it works and they think it’s just a condo on wheels. So my preference is to rent it to more local folks.”

The best part, he says, is that he’s built up a roster of repeat customers — for example, a man who regularly takes it to Pismo Beach and another that has taken it to Yosemite more than once. 

His one rule? No Burning Man customers. “I automatically say no, I don’t want it getting dirty and baking in the sun,” Weber said. 

Mark Buscheck, a part-time San Francisco and part-time Hawaii resident who rents a four-bedroom vacation home in Kona on Hawaii island, also sees the value in being able to screen his potential guests himself. “I’ve resisted the temptation to go on Airbnb or Vrbo because they have always shielded the owner from the applicants. Because of that you don’t get to talk to them or get a feel for who is renting your home. For me this is important. … There is more to this house than an investment property.”

When a renter inquires about his property, he’ll typically arrange a phone call to learn a bit more about them and what is bringing them to Hawaii. He’s been renting the home on Craigslist since 2005, and he said he’s only had one set of problematic renters and even that wasn’t that bad — a group of people just overstayed their welcome a few hours and had to be told to leave. 

What he finds most surprising is how many people don’t do the extra research to make sure he’s not scamming them. “A woman just last night sent me money without even talking to me. That just shocks me these days,” he said. “There are some people that are super suspicious and there are some people that send me thousands of dollars without asking me any questions.”

More than 5 million people have lost money in a rental scam, according to a 2019 study from the Better Business Bureau, while 43% of those looking for rental properties and vacation rentals saw a fake listing. They show up most frequently on third party websites like Craigslist, where the booking isn’t protected and vetted by a large company and no monetary transactions happen on the site itself.

He thinks doing the upfront legwork of researching who will be staying in his home — he said he even Googles their names sometimes — has helped him to have a great experience over the years. The property has a website with additional information about the home and he’s happy to answer any questions prospective renters may have. In Hawaii, all vacation rentals must be registered, so he provides upfront the short-term vacation rental registration and certificate numbers, which makes it easier for prospective guests to make sure his property is legit. 

Plus, he’s saved a lot of money by doing everything himself. Airbnb typically takes a 3% service fee off every booking subtotal, while Vrbo takes 5% plus a credit card processing fee. He said he’s insured and he has guests sign a five-page rental agreement and he takes a refundable security deposit. He said he’s never once had to keep that deposit. 

Buscheck said he thinks Craigslist gets a bad reputation from all the horror stories you see online, but if the parties on both ends do their research, it can be a great website for vacation rentals. 

When Sara Soka wanted to help her partner get rid of his timeshare property in Tahoe this year, the company that manages the timeshare suggested she post it on Craigslist. “You’re basically doing a classified ad,” she said.

The official transfer would happen through the company, and Soka and her partner wouldn’t be receiving any money directly from anyone they found through Craigslist. She said it seemed worth a try and hopefully people didn’t think it was a scam. When you search “timeshare” on Craigslist, there are plenty of options to choose from. 

When we spoke, she hadn’t had any interest yet, but the property had only been posted for one week. She’s hoping to have it transferred by December.

If a listing seems too good to be true, it probably is, whether that be the price or the availability of the property. Kumra, whose home was falsely advertised, suggests always checking that the map matches the location of the listing — scammers are lazy and don’t always take this extra step. Bad spelling and grammar can also be a red flag, as can payment via Paypal or wire transfer. Craigslist has tips for avoiding scams, which includes never wiring funds. 

Even Kumra said while there are surely some good offers to be had she wouldn’t use it, since it would just take too much research to make sure any one listing is not a scam. But for people like Buscheck who have the time to take extra precautions, it’s worth the savings of not listing with a vacation rental company. “Do your homework. Ask a lot of questions,” Buscheck said. “You can use Craigslist as long as you’re smart about it.”