Fake car rental sites scamming travelers; how to avoid them

Scammers are taking advantage of the rental car shortage to rip you off. The Better Business Bureau warns it's a scam that's costing travelers hundreds of dollars and leaving them in the lurch.


Here's how it works: You go online looking at legitimate travel websites, or searching for rental car companies, and sponsored links will pop up. They look like real car rental company sites that you may have rented from before. But watch out!

A Houston woman wrote to the Better Business Bureau, saying her sister "thought she was placing a reservation with Budget Car Rental to go back home to Atlanta…he directed her to go and get a Green Dot Gold Visa Prepaid card and load $275 on it."

She says they did, but a car never arrived.

"The scammers have bought sponsored links. So someone trying to get a rental car, they click one of those links and it takes you to a site that’s not affiliated with an official rental car business," explained Leah Napoliello with the Better Business Bureau.

"They give me a reservation to an actual rental counter. There's no car for me, they have no idea who I am. Meanwhile the scammers walk away with the money from that gift card," adds Chris Brown with Auto Rental News.

The Auto Rental News website shows a picture of what Brown says was a fake rental car site.  He says there are signs to watch out for.

"The grammar will be off. The English will be off. The booking process will be a little bit different. Oftentimes, you won't get a confirmation code right away," said Brown.

"They’re going to ask for things like gift cards. They’re going to ask you to send them $500 in prepaid gift cards. Or they’re going to ask you to pay it through an online app, like Cash app, Zelle or Venmo," said Seth Boffeli, Advisor with Fraud Prevention Programs for AARP.

The scammers are preying on your desperation as the rental car shortage is causing prices to skyrocket.

"It really can be devastating. People are on a budget. They’re trying to make things work," said Boffeli.

"It turns out there really is no rental car available. It was just a scam to get money out of you," said Napoliello.

Here are tips from the BBB to protect yourself:

  • Never pay with a gift card. Use a credit card so you can refute the charge.
  • Hover your mouse over the URL of a rental site to see if it's the real company.
  • Call the real rental companies directly to verify a deal.

If you're struggling to find a rental car, Brown says some destinations, such as Hawaii, are directing travelers to public or other forms of transportation.

"Micro-mobility. If you're going somewhere and you need to get across to a different part of Hawaii and it's less than 50 miles, you can use an electric scooter to do it. Certainly there's Uber and Lyft. There are other options out there. There are sites, peer-to-peer car rental sites such as Turo and Getaround," said Brown.

If you still really need your own rental car, he suggests searching out smaller, mom-and-pop, local car rental agencies in your destination.  You can click on their website or call them directly.  They may not be listed on major travel booking sites, such as Expedia or Priceline.  

He says travelers are also renting moving trucks from companies, like Uhaul and Penske.  It may not be glamorous, but it will get you where you're going and you won't have to worry that you've overpacked.