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Zelle Scams, Vacation Rental Scams, and New Ways Scammers Target Your Money

Zelle scams are a new way scammers use to get paid for old scams.

Scammers are always on the lookout for new ways to part you with your money. Sometimes they can get extremely creative, and sometimes they use new tools to run the same old grifts. Zelle scams, for instance, are just a new way to get paid for old scams. But if you know how they work and can spot the warning signs, you can protect yourself.


See Payment App Scams with Michelle Couch-Friedman for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Michelle Couch-Friedman is an experienced consumer reporter, advocate, and mediator, a licensed psychotherapist, and the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue, an organization dedicated to helping customers avoid and navigate problems with companies they patronize. Consumers can submit requests to the Consumer Rescue helpline and Michelle and her advocacy team will review it.

Their goal is consumer empowerment, so they give recommendations and guidance to help consumers solve the problem themselves. But if the issue requires more intervention, they will escalate to the company and take on the role of advocates and mediators. They focus heavily on travel-related issues, but also take on cases involving services and merchandise. Their service is free of charge to any troubled consumer.

Basically if you’re a consumer and you’ve paid a company for something and you didn’t get what you bargained for, we can help.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

The Horrible Experience that Led Michelle to Consumer Advocacy

Seven years ago, Michelle planned a trip to Greece. She booked a two-bedroom room in a Marriott Hotel through Expedia. With her kids and her husband, they needed two bedrooms, and this hotel looked great. A few months later, she had made all her plans around this hotel. Then she got an update: The room she booked actually had only one bedroom, and she would not be getting a discount or refund.

Michelle had the reservation confirmation and the receipts. She contacted Marriott, and they said it was Expedia’s mistake. She contacted Expedia, and they said it was Marriott’s mistake. Neither company would help her. Meanwhile, the trip was approaching, and she still didn’t have a hotel for her family.

While browsing the internet, she found Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit dedicated to consumer advocacy. She made a post on the forum asking for advice. The advocates gave great advice, and she ended up asking for help from the advocacy team. She didn’t end up getting that two-bedroom room, but she did get a refund, an additional $200, and help finding a vacation rental.

Michelle became a staff member at Elliott Advocacy, and eventually the Executive Director. After six years there, she left the nonprofit and started Consumer Rescue.

Zelle Scams on the Rise

Michelle receives many complaints from people who were scammed out of thousands of dollars. Zelle scams are on the forefront, as Zelle and other payment apps are scammers’ preferred payment method worldwide. The problem is that many people don’t understand the terms and conditions. They don’t know what the app is meant for, so they use it in ways it isn’t meant for and get caught by Zelle scams.

The problem is that many consumers are not using the app in the way it was meant. You can use Zelle safely and not become a victim of a scam if you understand what it is meant for.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Zelle is meant for sending money to people you know personally. It’s not meant to pay strangers. But scammers know most people won’t read the terms and conditions. A common Zelle scam that Michelle sees is through Facebook marketplace. A scammer will advertise something for sale and want you to pay with Zelle. You send them $3,000 for a Gucci bag, and receive a box of rocks. Zelle won’t help you get your money back, and neither will Facebook.

If you fall for a Zelle scam and send a scammer money, you won't get it back.

When someone you don’t know asks you to pay with Zelle, that’s a scam. It’s against the terms and conditions of the Zelle app. It’s like handing cash to a stranger on the street who’s wearing a mask. If they run away, you’re not getting the money back.

Zelle Scams and Pet Scams

Michelle often sees Zelle scams used for pet scams, as well. People think they are purchasing a puppy. They’ve paid several thousand dollars via Zelle for the puppy and various fees and now they are just waiting for it to arrive. As the clock ticks on, it eventually becomes clear that there is no puppy coming and they’ve just lost several thousand dollars.

With pet scams, the most frequent payment method is with Zelle. People set up genuine-looking websites selling pets. The victim gets emotionally attached to the pet and overlooks the red flags. The losses are incremental because scammers know you won’t drop $10,000 immediately. You’ll pay for the animal, and then the transport, then a special kennel, then vet fees since the pet got sick on the way. Sometimes it’s ridiculous things like a special blanket only sold by this one company. Once hooked, the scammer will keep tormenting the victim until their bank account is empty.

Once you’re emotionally attached, you don’t want it to be a scam.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Scammers know how to get you emotionally attached to the scam pet they are selling. In your mind, you develop a relationship with the puppy or kitten. You don’t want it to be a scam. And when you don’t want it to be a scam, you overlook all the red flags of a pet scam and a Zelle scam. But the longer you don’t admit it’s a scam, the more money the scammers will get from you.

Receiving Money From a Stranger

Surely if you receive money from someone, it can’t be a scam. After all, scammers want to get more money, not send money to people, right? Normally that’s true. But in the case of chargeback scams, they send money to get money.

This scam started as a Venmo scam, since Venmo can use a credit card as a payment method. Scammers sent money to strangers, then said they sent the money by mistake and asked for it back. Most people are kind enough to send it back. Then the scammer initiates a chargeback on their credit card, claiming the transaction was unauthorized. Their credit card gives them back the money they originally sent – and they still have the money the victim sent.

Two years ago, Michelle asked a Zelle executive if Zelle scams could be done this way. The executive said it wasn’t a problem, since Zelle transactions are bank-to-bank and can’t be reversed. Since then, Michelle has seen these Zelle scams happen repeatedly. Customer service bankers have a lot of flexibility and can actually do a reversal. It’s not a traditional chargeback scam, but it has the same results.

Protect Yourself from Zelle Scams

Zelle scams are incredibly common. They can be done by themselves or as a way to get paid for other scams. Either way, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself.

Don’t Return Money Right Away

If you receive money from a stranger, don’t try to send it back immediately. Talk to your bank, explain the situation, and tell them you think it could be a scam. Get whatever they tell you in writing. Their usual response is to tell you to send it back, but if it’s a scammer, that might not be safe.

Take Your Time

When sending money through Zelle, many people are impatient. There are no consumer protections for using Zelle, but there are some safeguards to make sure you’re sending the money to the right person. If you just hit “OK” without reading the warnings, you ignore all those chances to avoid disaster.

It’s an instant way to send money, but it’s also an instant way to have a disaster if you don’t follow the rules and don’t pay attention to the prompts on the screen.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Besides outright Zelle scams, most mistakes through Zelle are from consumers who ignore all the warnings and accidentally sends money to a stranger. Avoid this by taking your time. Slow down and read every warning the app gives you.

Try a Test Transaction

When sending money through Zelle, try a test transaction first. Send then $1 and make sure they got it before sending the rest. If they didn’t get it, you know you did something wrong somewhere. It doesn’t remove the possibility that you’ll ignore the warnings and send to the wrong person on the second try, but it helps reduce it.

Use it For Its Intended Use Only

Tons of Zelle mistakes are avoidable, and so are the headaches they cause. You can avoid them by using the app only for its intended purpose: Sending money to friends, family, and people you know in real life. It’s fun to sit at dinner and immediately pay your friend for your share. But Zelle was not meant for you to pay a stranger $3,000 for a purebred puppy. Zelle is not your bank or your credit card, and it doesn’t have any protections if you are scammed. Using Zelle to send money to strangers puts you at extreme risk for Zelle scams.

That app is not a bank. It doesn’t come with the same protections your bank account has.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

If you don’t understand how Zelle works, what it’s supposed to be for, and what rights you do have, remove it from your phone! There are plenty of ways to send people money that don’t carry as much risk. Don’t open yourself up to Zelle scams and losing money by using an app you don’t understand.

Vacation Rental Scams

Along with Zelle scams, another common type of scam that Michelle and the team at Consumer Rescue deals with is vacation rental scams. Websites like Vrbo and Airbnb are often used to facilitate these scams. And often, the scammers use Zelle scams to get paid.

With these scams, the scammers set up fake listings. When they catch someone interested in the fake listing, they send an email that looks like it’s coming from Vrbo or Airbnb. The email says Vrbo or Airbnb wants the deposit paid via Zelle. Or alternatively, the scammer tells the victim that they will give them a better deal if they pay through Zelle or another method instead of through Vrbo or Airbnb.

Vrbo and Airbnb never want you to leave their platform. No reputable host will ask you to make payments somewhere else. It’s a violation of their contract. It’s hard to be scammed if you follow the terms and conditions, because there are protections built in. If you leave the platform, there’s no protection. If a scammer uses a Zelle scam to get paid, you won’t get that money back.

Signs a Listing May Be a Scam

There are often red flags that a listing is a fake. If you can spot them before you fall for a Zelle scam or vacation rental scam, you can avoid losing money. These are a few of the more common signs of fake vacation rental listings.

Suspicious Photos

A genuine host wants to present their property in the best light. If the photos are blurry or look like they were taken decades ago, that’s a red flag. Scammers often aren’t great photographers.

Sometimes, scammers use stock photos or stolen photos on their listings. You can use Google’s reverse image search to find out if the photos show up anywhere else.

Suspicious photos are one of the most obvious signs of a vacation rental scam.

Michelle used reverse image search to spot a vacation rental scam for a consumer. A customer booked a listing on Vrbo, but became suspicious. Reverse image search showed that the photos came from a listing from an Airbnb Super Host in a completely different city. It was obvious that the Vrbo listing was a scam. Since the customer had paid through Vrbo, Vrbo gave him his money back.

No Reviews

A listing with no reviews could be a warning sign. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the listing is a fake – every host has to start somewhere. Even though not all listings without reviews are scams, scam listings don’t have reviews. Vrbo and Airbnb require certification that you actually stayed at a place before letting you review it. Since you can’t stay in a fake listing, no one is able to review them. This red flag isn’t definitive, but use it in conjunction with other warning signs.

Recent Listing

Fake listings are put up and taken down quickly. Scammers can typically only get away with one scam before Vrbo or Airbnb figures out the listing is a scam. They put up a fake listing, catch one person, get their money through Zelle scams or another method, then takes the listing down. A few days later, they put up another one. Airbnb and Vrbo don’t make sure each new listing actually exists. They are just websites to connect potential hosts with potential guests. They often don’t notice a new scam listing until someone complains. Not every recent listing is a scam, but it’s definitely a reason to be suspicious.

Unresponsive Host

If you are considering booking a vacation rental listing, message the host and ask a question. Then pay attention to what you get in return. Do they answer quickly? A real host wants you as a guest and will try to respond as quickly as possible. Pay attention to grammar. Do they sound like a real person? If everything they send you sounds like it went through Google Translate, they may be a scammer sitting overseas just trying to get your money. Finally, are they actually helpful in their response? If they don’t provide a helpful answer, move on. There are thousands of properties out there. Even if they aren’t a scammer, if they’re not interested in helping you now, they definitely won’t be more interested if you have a problem with the property.

Cheap Pricing

If the pricing is unusually cheap for the property – like a Beverly Hills mansion for $200 per night – or significantly cheaper than every other property in the area, be suspicious. You may want to ask the host why. One scammer was renting out an apartment in London and listed it claiming that guests would have the whole place to themselves. After guests paid, he told them that they would actually be sharing the living space with him. Obviously, most of them didn’t want to do that, but when they tried to cancel, he kept their money. Read the listing and watch for warning signs. And if it still feels suspicious, there are plenty of genuine listings on Vrbo and Airbnb. Look for a different one.

Consumer Advocacy and Scammers

Consumer advocacy requires mediation and communication from both sides. With a company, there is someone Michelle can talk to on behalf of the consumer. But with scammers, that’s much harder. She can’t call a scammer and say, “You took $5,000 from this person and you need to give it back.” Scammers aren’t known to be reasonable, and Michelle has never met one who would give money back. She has contacted scammers, but with no success.

That’s why Michelle and the Consumer Rescue team do so much writing and promotion about scams. They want to help people avoid falling pray to Zelle scams, vacation rental scams, or any other type of scam or fraud. Since there’s little consumer advocacy can do to help once you’ve lost money to a scam, the best way to help is to teach people how to avoid scams in the first place.

Learn more about Consumer Rescue at consumerrescue.org. There, you can find articles about all kinds of travel fiascoes and fixes, as well with tips and guidance about where things went wrong and how you can avoid it. You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletter. If you need help, you can visit consumerrescue.org/gethelp 24 hours a day. The team loves to answer consumer questions and directly mediate your case. Everything on the website is free. You can also connect with Michelle on Facebook.

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