Airbnb, short for AirBed & Breakfast, a platform valued at US$113 billion in 2021, revolutionized the hospitality and real estate industries. It offers an online marketplace, allowing property owners or “hosts” to provide short and long-term renting without jumping through the usual hoops, including marketing, booking, guest vetting, and payment processing. Unfortunately, the convenience of booking accommodations based on pictures, videos, and some text, combined with people’s innate trust in welcoming, honest hosts, can be isecure. We listed the most frequently-run scams on Airbnb.

Scamming on Airbnb seemingly ramped up recently

Airbnb has tried its best to eradicate malicious people, and avoid bad press and lawsuits for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, it’s still rife with scams, usually preying on those afraid or unable to speak up because they are in a tough spot while Airbnb investigates.

The problem has worsened in the last few years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation. Airbnb had a drop in revenue to US$3.38 billion in 2020, but bounced back to $5.99 billion in 2021, and $8.4 billion the following year. The platform’s success and popularity, paired with a demand for housing and a terrifying outbreak, gave scammers a significant advantage. They could explain the inability to meet in person, and even seem trustworthy and responsible for handling everything remotely. People also overlooked flaws out of desperation, then failed to inform others or complain to Airbnb. After all, these scams usually stranded them in a different city or country, forcing them to book another listing or pay a hotel at short notice if they didn’t accept the deceitful option.

1. Deceptive information

Like dating profiles, property information can range from being touched up to look more attractive, to straight-up falsified and even illegal, particularly when renting rooms, basements, attics, or cellar spaces. Hosts can get off on technicalities or lead guests to assume it’s there, then use it to their defense. Some examples are the absence of fans, heaters, or ACs. They may also fail to mention that the property is on a busy road without double-glassed windows, lacks dedicated parking space, or is connected to the neighbor’s house.

Another popular trend among property owners is “house hacking,” i.e., splitting a home into a duplex. While it makes sense financially, they may not explain this, leading to discomfort with unusual (or lack of) room separations, or missing dedicated entrances.

Other examples include missing or vague amenities, such as Internet or cable TV, or what “a fully stocked kitchen” or “a bedroom with a view” means. Scamming can also cross the legal line if the space is lawfully and realistically unlivable, such as bedrooms, kitchens, or bathrooms that lack the necessary items. They may avoid mentioning that the leased room is a basement or attic without windows, quickly transformed to resemble a living area.

There’s also an issue with destinations or countries limiting short-term rentals to protect the local economy, and prevent the gentrification process. If enforced, the building security or law enforcement may bar access to a paying guest.

2. Fake listings

Romance scams are a rising problem, costing US citizens US$1.3 billion in 2022, according to the 2022 Internet Crime Report by IC3. Investment scams have reached US$3,3 billion, according to the same report. A perpetrator must undergo a strict authentication process on social media or dating profiles, but Airbnb makes things straightforward with an email, password, and basic information.

With a profile in place, creating a fake Airbnb listing is much easier and faster than a phony persona; the culprits can copy images and descriptions from a legitimate listing. Once they succeed, they can overbook the property; victims likely won’t know they’ve been tricked until the move-in day arrives. Moreover, it may take some days for Airbnb to react, sometimes only when users discover the legitimate listing and show proof.

The host may also use fake images with the correct property description, which is harder to pull off since people with an eye for details may spot inconsistencies. However, that allows them to quickly switch images when needed, giving them credibility when Airbnb inquires, while gaslighting the guests. Reverse image searches via TinEye or Google before booking is the best defense, since those algorithms would find duplicate photos if they exist.

However, some scammers are wise; they may alter the lighting or contrast, or photoshop a different background, such as a scenic view or amenities, for example, a lamp, to make the photos more alluring and simultaneously unique.

3. Double listing

With how easy duplicating information on Airbnb is, and how little the platform does to verify whether two properties are identical, it’s no wonder that hosts can list their property two or more times. They can make it less noticeable by obscuring information, keeping things vague, or taking pictures from different angles for each listing.

That lets them test the waters, seeing how much people are willing to pay. They can then accept the highest bidder’s offer, or even cancel all others at the last minute if they want to extract the maximum. Airbnb tries hard to prevent this by letting hosts cancel three times a year without specifying a reason, but experienced scammers will surely find a justification for cancelations beyond those, such as ‘that the place is currently uninhabitable.’ That makes them look noble in front of Airbnb, and Customer Support can let them off the hook for reimbursing the guest.

4. Unreasonable or fabricated charges

Common sense dictates that guests should take pictures of the state of the property the moment they arrive. With that evidence, they should notify the host of any damages they notice, giving them credibility with Airbnb support in case of a dispute. Moreover, besides evading responsibility for the mess the previous guests made, the host, who perhaps never noticed the damage, could reward them somehow. However, move-in days are usually stressful, and people don’t expect to get scammed. Plus, many guests are unaware that they must report any damage or decide to cancel the stay within 24 hours. Otherwise, they are on the hook for paying, and at the host’s mercy for a potential partial refund; Airbnb’s policy lets them avoid responsibility.

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Some hosts also abuse the extra charges, asking for money for late check-in, amenities that should be standard or complimentary, getting a spare key, noise compensation, and so forth. Some guests were permitted to use the kitchen, but were surprised when the host demanded that they rent utensils, mugs, and plates in cash. Other hosts charge an ‘optional’ cleaning fee, knowing that no cleaning facilities are nearby.

Guests have also reported getting guest behavior books, following the instructions to a tee, and still being accused of doing things that supposedly cost the owner a lot. For example, the owner may allege that the guest lost the key and caused a profit loss, even though they left it as ordered. That lets the host charge them for hiring a locksmith, breaking in (and thus damaging the door), and re-keying the main entrance. Those events could be actual but cost them minutes, or are wholly fake, and in both cases, purportedly cost them days of canceled reservations that the guest should pay for.

Damage reimbursement has a legitimate use and is there to protect the hosts. Extra charges are also ok when they are truly optional. However, hosts may know that something is close to breaking, but they don’t want to pay for repairs or a replacement out of pocket, so the next guest is blamed.

5. Last-minute cancellation or bait and switch

Guests often disregard safety because Airbnb offers refunds for cancellations, but they may not know that only applies when a host cancels. If guests cancel, they may be liable for a cancellation fee, a significant percentage of the total reservation, or the entire security deposit. Therefore, hosts may intentionally overbook their property, contact guests with a severe problem, such as plumbing or chemical issue, and ask them to cancel. Those unaware of the conditions may give the host free money without stepping on the property. Those who don’t may still be tricked with a ‘bait and switch scam’ when the hosts offer them a stay in another property instead of canceling.

That makes them seem generous and accommodating when, in reality, they are getting more money for an inferior property they own, which may interest no one. Baiting and switching is also a common in-person tactic, especially for international travelers. After a traveler reaches the destination and sees that the property isn’t as described, or even bogus, the host will make the same offer, only this time, additional pressure exists to accept an unwanted alternative property. Otherwise, guests would have to pay a cancelation fee because a deceitful host wouldn’t cancel, yet still pay for a hotel or another Airbnb on short notice.

6. Contact outside the platform and phishing

Guests should keep their conversations with an Airbnb host on the platform and always pay via the platform to be protected by escrow and other security measures. If they ask for a bank or wire transfer or the use of payment-related mobile apps or cryptocurrency, it’s almost always a scam. If users comply, the host may take their money and run, charge them twice, or refuse to acknowledge that they booked a stay once they arrive. In all cases, Airbnb cannot intervene, because they don’t have those transactions on record.

Some hosts also use their listings to steal personal information through social engineering or phishing via phony Airbnb domains (such as email addresses), Airbnb clone websites, or mobile apps to which guests can log in. They can then hack user accounts, letting them leave positive reviews, book fake visits with the user’s money, empty their bank account, or charge their credit card. Identity theft is particularly damaging for long-term hosts, who can have their businesses shut down and accounts banned by Airbnb. In summary, a verified Airbnb employee may ask for an ID to be uploaded safely using the official website, and an encrypted page with defined information retention rules. However, guests should never send images to another guest or anyone off the platform pretending to be connected to Airbnb.

7. Fake reviews

Hosts are incentivized to have a near five-star rating and keep a continuous Superhost status with many requirements, including a 4.8-star overall rating. That may force them to trick guests or flat-out ask for a five-star rating from guests, even if it involves threats and dishonesty.

They may also use bots, hacked accounts, or mass-create accounts to praise their property, which is unethical and illegal. Although new properties are the exception, guests should always examine the authenticity of reviews. If possible, they should choose properties whose rating results from hundreds of reviews over the years.

Airbnb is responsible for most issues

Airbnb cannot eradicate scamming, but could discourage or prevent most scams if it invested money into technology, employees, and proper user and listing authentication. People trust the platform to protect their money and guarantee their safety; their refund policy is unstable, and security measures, such as escrow, could be better. People also complain that they are paying up to 20% more than the host is actually charging, forcing both sides to do their deals off the platform, but risking their accounts and safety.

Additionally, with the billions they are making, the company could invest in emergency interventions or property inspectors. They should stop sending standardized or formulaic responses, and create or license a technology that makes listing duplication impossible, and bans hosts or guests for good.

The company is addressing the scams

Airbnb was criticized for poor identity checks, a slow customer support system, low security, and unfair refunds, among other things. Luckily, the Airbnb CEO and co-founder, Brian Chesky, knows that. He vowed to improve the situation, claiming that Airbnb would verify all (at that time) seven million listings by December 2020. Simultaneously, he announced a scam prevention system, the Airbnb Guest Guarantee, which promises to refund 100% of the payment, or re-book guests to a similar or better property if they are unhappy with the accuracy of a verified listing with a vetted host.

So, you are now forewarned – don’t fall for scams, and if you do, ensure that Airbnb are informed as quickly as possible….and, KNOW YOUR RIGHTS1

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