In the past few months, Pat Chamberlain has had to tell dozens of would-be renters that the great price they just paid to rent a Newport Beach vacation cottage was part of an online scam.

Their first reaction is often tears.

"I just feel terrible, man," said Chamberlain, who owns Villa Rentals, a Newport-based company that specializes in vacation homes in the area.

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Recently, Chamberlain has received a flood of calls and emails from people who tried to rent properties he manages only to find they were already occupied.

He traces the problem to Craigslist postings that use addresses and pictures from his website to cheat families out of up-front rent.

"I have personally flagged at least 15 fraudulent postings in the last week," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain said this has been a steady problem since September at one of his Balboa Peninsula rentals, where at least 25 people have fallen or almost fallen for the ploy.

But in the past few weeks, while availability for rentals has been tight, the scam has heated up, Chamberlain explained.

"We've received maybe eight calls within the last week from people that either were smart enough to Google it or something didn't feel right and they called," he said.

Villa Rentals isn't alone in this problem.

"We do have a high-end oceanfront that they're advertising for $300 a night on Craigslist," said Jane Trahanovsky, who works at Newport-based Burr White Realty.

In reality, that home would cost about $13,500 a week, according to Trahanovsky.

"I've been here for 10 years, and it's the first time I've experienced this," she said about the illegal activities.

Newport Beach police said they don't currently have any open cases related to vacation rental scams, but spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella explained it's a common scheme.

She said renters should book through a reputable company and avoid paying by wire transfer or other untraceable means.

Chamberlain suggested a simple rule of thumb: If it's too good to be true, it probably is.

That includes the most egregious scam Trahanovsky described seeing on Craigslist — a Newport Beach yacht allegedly for rent. The on-board helicopter supposedly requires an extra fee.

"That one I doubt they're getting many takers on," she said.