When reporter Allie Conti got a call from her Airbnb host 10 minutes before she was supposed to check in to her rental in Chicago, “Andrew” claimed the toilet had backed up, making the unit unavailable. The good news, he said was that he had a larger place he managed nearby. Little did Allie know that she stumbled on an Airbnb scam involving nearly 100 property listings in eight cities run by fraudsters manipulating Airbnb’s weak policy standards and enforcement. What’s worse? Airbnb’s pathetic non-response deserves a zero-star review. Read her story at Vice.
The bad news, which went unstated, was that I had unknowingly stumbled into a nationwide web of deception that appeared to span eight cities and nearly 100 property listings—an undetected scam created by some person or organization that had figured out just how easy it is to exploit Airbnb’s poorly written rules in order to collect thousands of dollars through phony listings, fake reviews, and, when necessary, intimidation. Considering Airbnb’s lax enforcement of its own policies, who could blame the scammers for taking advantage of the new world of short-term rental platforms? They had every reason to believe they could do so with impunity.
That was it. No one at the company ever agreed to speak on the record about the specifics of what I uncovered. Nor would anyone answer any of my questions about Airbnb’s verification process. As far as what obligation it has to people who have fallen victim to a scam on Airbnb’s platform, the company only said in an email that it is “here 24/7 to support with rebooking assistance, full refunds and reimbursements” in cases of fraud or misrepresentation by hosts. Maybe Airbnb couldn’t get more detailed about its verification process because it doesn’t have much of one at all. I had asked the company about three accounts—Annie and Chase, Becky and Andrew, and Kris and Becky. Annie and Chase’s account has been deleted, and the two others no longer have any listings posted, which, due to Airbnb’s messaging constraints, means I could not message them for comment. Of the six other accounts I’d connected to the scheme, five are still active weeks later. Only Kelsey and Jean’s has disappeared from the site.
Even if my scammers had been slightly foiled, there was no guarantee that they couldn’t just start fresh with new profiles. The system was still in place. Airbnb has created a web of more than 7 million listings built largely on trust, easily exploitable by those willing to do so. Maybe it’s not so surprising that the company would rather play a half-assed game of whack-a-mole than answer basic questions about their verification process. For every person who doesn’t receive a complete refund, Airbnb makes money.