5 summer scams to avoid

Watch out for offers that are too good to be true

Summer may be the time to take it easy, but don't let your guard down against con artists with offers that are too good to be true.

There are plenty of warm-weather scams to be aware of, whether you're planning a summer vacation or working on home repairs, says Emma Fletcher, director of scams and fraud initiatives for the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust.

According to Consumer Reports, here are five summer scams to watch for and advice on how to avoid them.

The 'great' vacation rental

You see an ad on the web for an attractive vacation rental at an even more attractive price. To book it, the ad says you need to wire an advance payment, and it provides wiring instructions. After you do that, one of two things typically happens. Either the contract for the rental never arrives or you get it, sign it, and head to the house only to find that it doesn't exist or that it is locked up and there is no one to let you in.

In the worst case, you've lost the advance you paid and you have no accommodations. According to the Better Business Bureau Institute for Marketplace Trust, the median loss on such a vacation rental scam is $875.

Don't fall for it. One great way to stay safe is to avoid vacation rentals posted on free online classified ad sites, Fletcher says. Instead, she recommends using a dedicated third-party rental site that provides protection. Airbnb and HomeAway would be two such rental providers.

The Better Business Bureau also recommends visiting the house or apartment before paying for it. If you can't do that, ask someone you trust to check out the property.

A home improvement 'special'

A contractor shows up at your door saying he just happens to be repaving a driveway nearby and has leftover material. He offers to repave your driveway inexpensively.

Alternatively, a contractor may look at your chimney or roof and tell you that it needs to be fixed, even if it doesn't. In such cases, he either takes your money without completing the work or he does a shoddy job.

Summer brings a spike in the number of unscrupulous contractors going door-to-door trying to sell such services, says the Minnesota attorney general.

"There can sometimes be an increase in such scams after a hurricane or flood," warns the Pennsylvania Insurance Department.

Home improvement scams reported to the Better Business Bureau last year were the most costly, leaving consumers with a median loss of $1,275, Fletcher says.

Don't fall for it. Beware of anyone who offers to do a repair unsolicited, Fletcher advises. When looking for a contractor, get referrals from family, friends, and others. And before agreeing to work with one, verify that the contractor complied with the licensing and registration required by your state.

A low-cost move

You search the web for a moving company that can transport your belongings without charging you hefty fees. You choose one, and after the move is underway, the mover does not deliver your items to your new home.

Instead, he holds it hostage until you pay more. Such scams are not unusual. There are many unlicensed, rogue movers out to take advantage of the summer moving season, according to the American Moving & Storage Association.

Don't fall for it. If you're moving out of state, verify that the moving company has a valid Department of Transportation number and also a carrier number at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. For in-state moves, check your state's licensing requirements.

Also, before choosing a mover, ask people you know for a recommendation.

Hiring a local mover with a good reputation can help you avoid being scammed, says Scott Michael, the moving association's president and CEO.

Discounts on hotel stays

When searching on the web, you find what appears to be the website for the hotel in which you'd like to stay. It has a photo of the hotel and the rooms, the address, and the phone number, and it also lists the amenities and prices. The web address even includes the name of the hotel, which makes it look legitimate.

But the site is actually run by a third party that wants you to believe you're dealing directly with the hotel, says Maryam Cope, vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

After you input your credit card information, you may find that a reservation was never made and that the scammer now has your credit card details.

In other cases, the site will make a reservation for you but charge you more than the hotel actually charges. It may also charge extra fees to your credit card, Cope warns.

Don't fall for it. When searching for a hotel online, read the "about" page, which may give you an indication that the site is operated by a third party, Cope says. Also, look for other evidence that the site might be run by a different company, such as a third-party logo.

If you book through a third party, Cope recommends verifying your reservation directly with the hotel.

A free home alarm system

A salesperson shows up at your door warning about a recent rash of burglaries in your neighborhood. But it's your lucky day because you're eligible for a home security system, totally free.

The salesman, however, requires that you sign a multiyear contract for its services. The salesman may also falsely claim that you must act immediately to take advantage of a limited-time offer, the Federal Trade Commission says.

Don't fall for it. Never buy a security system from someone who shows up at your home or calls you with an offer that sounds too good to be true. Find out how to select a security alarm system by doing research on a site such as the one run by the Electronic Security Association, the FTC advises.

Scam-proof yourself

The best way to avoid scams like these is to make sure you check out the company or the individuals you plan to work with before agreeing to do business, Fletcher says. You can do this by searching on the web for the company and by including such words as "review," "complaints," and "scam."

It's also a good idea to look for a report on the Better Business Bureau's website for any company you are considering working with, she says. That could alert you to a company that may try to scam you.

Another suggestion: Whenever possible, pay with a credit card. That way, you can dispute any charges if you're scammed, she says.