Like many people, I’ve used Airbnb. I’ve also attempted to run my own Airbnb in the past so I have seen both sides of the looking glass. It has always worked out for me however, this story makes me question things. Apparently, there are people showcasing super nice places as backups of places you expect to stay out and tricking people to think they are being moved to a nicer place when “a problem” comes up at the last second. The lesson learned is NEVER agree to the change or you may end up in a halfway house.
The complete story from Vice can be found HERE. It is worth the read … especially if you have or plan to use Airbnb. This story doesn’t turn me away from Airbnb however, it gives me the sense to question situations that don’t seem right. I’ve had to move an Airbnb person to another properly due to a leak/plumbing issue which is crazy that the article claims the scammers use the same line. Crazy. Here is the article.
I Accidentally Uncovered a Nationwide Scam on Airbnb
While searching for the person who grifted me in Chicago, I discovered just how easy it is for users of the short-term rental platform to get exploited.
The call came about 10 minutes before we were set to check into the Airbnb. I was sitting at a brewery just around the corner from the rental on North Wood Street in Chicago when the man on the other end of the line said that our planned visit wouldn’t be possible. A previous guest had flushed something down the toilet, which had left the unit flooded with water, he explained. Apologetic, he promised to let us stay in another property he managed until he could call a plumber.
I had flown with two friends to the city in hopes of a relaxing end-of-summer getaway. We had purchased tickets to attend the September music festival Riot Fest, where Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday were scheduled to perform. The trip had gotten off to a rough start even before the call. Around a month before, a first Airbnb host had already canceled, leaving us with little time to figure out alternative housing. While scrambling to find something else, I stumbled upon a local Airbnb rental listed by a couple, Becky and Andrew. Sure, the house looked a little basic in the photos online, but it was nice enough, especially considering the time crunch—light-filled, spacious, and close to the Blue Line.
Now, we were facing our second potential disaster in 30 days, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious of the man on the phone, who had called me from a number with a Los Angeles area code. Hoping to talk in person, I asked him if he was in the area. He said that he was at work and didn’t really have time to chat. Then he added that I needed to decide immediately if I was willing to change my reservation.
As if he could hear me calculating in my head how much of a hassle it would be to find a hotel instead, he then added something else to his pitch.
“It’s about three times bigger,” the man said. “That’s the good news.”
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.
From what I could see on my phone, the photos he sent looked fine enough, and finding myself again in a last-minute pinch, I reluctantly agreed. My one condition was that he put in writing what we’d agreed to verbally: that I’d move back into the original listing as soon as possible, or be refunded for half of my trip if the plumbing issue couldn’t be resolved. He agreed, and I accepted a change to my reservation through Airbnb’s messaging app.
We popped the new address into Uber and took off, but when the driver approached the drop-off location, we noticed something odd: That exact address didn’t exist. After walking up and down North Kenmore Avenue, we were able to find a guest house hidden in a back alley that had a keypad on its front door. Once inside, we discovered what looked more like a flophouse than someone’s home. While, at three levels, it was quite big, almost everything else seemed off. The pantry housed a single bottle of soy sauce. The couch looked nothing like the one in the photos. The bedrooms were filled with a large number of bizarrely arranged beds. The whole place felt grimy, and there was a hole punched in a wall. The only decor was a giant wooden cross and a few pieces of generic Chicago-themed artwork, and the dining room’s Overstock.com barstools looked as if they would turn into dust if you sat on them.
By then, it was already late in the afternoon. With the first day of my vacation basically gone, I decided to let the whole thing slide. But the next day, we got a text from the man, who said that the plumbing in the original rental hadn’t been fixed, but that new tenants were moving into our flophouse the next day. Not quite sure what to do, we booked a hotel and decided to deal with getting a refund later.
The last time I heard from Becky and Andrew, they sent me a strange message on Airbnb asking that I give them no less than a five-star review—since Airbnb had “changed its algorithm”—and that I communicate all concerns privately.
“I respectfully request that you let me know about any challenges you faced with my property directly on this message thread rather than write a 4-star review [sic],” they wrote.
When I asked about the status of my refund, they ghosted, which led me to contact Airbnb. Though I had been moved to a flophouse and then told to leave early, Airbnb only refunded me $399 of my $1,221.20, and only did so after I badgered a number of case managers over the course of several days. The $399 didn’t even include the service fees Airbnb charged me for the pleasure of being thrown out on the street. But my power was nothing compared to that of a company valued this year at $35 billion, and I figured it was probably the best I could do.
I was thankful I’d gotten the last-minute agreement in writing, but I also started to wonder what had actually happened in Chicago. Unable to shake the sense that this was more than a run-of-the-mill bad host, I started to look for red flags I must have missed. It didn’t take long to find a few. For one, the phone number that the Airbnb host had called me with was a Google number that couldn’t be traced. Through a reverse image search, I also realized that the profile picture Becky and Andrew had used on Airbnb was a stock photo from a website that hosts surfing-themed desktop wallpapers. And when I started going through other people’s reviews of Becky and Andrew’s properties, I noticed some other renters had reported experiences that strangely mirrored my own. A woman said she was forced to switch up her itinerary three minutes before check-in due to alleged plumbing issues. A man said that he was promised a refund because his rental was “falling apart,” though it never materialized.
Even some of the positive reviews of Becky and Andrew’s Chicago rentals seemed odd, especially those left by other pairs of hosts. Kelsey and Jean, for example, said Becky and Andrew were “awesome and communicative guests.” But they themselves were based in Chicago, where it seemed they had at least two properties of their own. Why would they need to rent from someone else there? Even stranger, Kelsey and Jean’s photo also had been cribbed from a travel site, and the language they used to describe their home (“Westloop 6 Bed Getaway – Walk the City”) seemed similar to that of Becky and Andrew’s (“6 Bed Downtown / Wicker Park / Walk the City”). It wasn’t long before I found what looked an awful lot like the apartment I’d originally booked with Becky and Andrew—the one on North Wood Street—listed by Kelsey and Jean as well. There was no mistaking it: The couch, coffee table, dining room set, and wall art were all the same.
I started to wonder whether “Becky and Andrew” and “Kelsey and Jean” existed at all.
I also wanted to figure out if Becky and Andrew and Kelsey and Jean had the same unit as three other couples, or if they just had the same detailing around the windows and a bunch of the same furniture pieces in different arrangements. Kris and Becky’s unit looked identical, save for a coffee table that was rectangular instead of round. Alex and Brittany had an additional armchair in their living room. Rachel and Pete’s place showed the most variation, but was still eerily similar to the rest of the bunch. When I finally plugged the original address of the place that I’d booked from Becky and Andrew into Google Street View, I felt like I was losing my mind. Becky and Andrew’s photos had no floor-to-ceiling windows, but the building on Street View at the same address clearly did.
It seemed as if one person or group might have created numerous phony accounts to run a much larger Airbnb operation. If that proved true, it meant whoever ran the five accounts I’d located was controlling at least 94 properties in eight different cities. How many other people who had been scammed out of money like me? Feeling as if I was entering a Pynchonian nightmare, I sent a message to Airbnb alerting them to what increasingly seemed like an elaborate scam.
But Airbnb, which plans to go public next year, seemed to have little interest in rooting out the rot from within its own platform. When I didn’t hear back from the company after a few days, and saw that the suspicious accounts were still active, I took it upon myself to figure out who exactly had ruined my vacation.
I wanted to know who owned the building we ended up staying in, but I couldn’t find much on the county property assessor’s website except that the LLC that owned the house had an association with lawyers in Chicago and New York. Figuring that I needed to find the addresses of some of the other properties in order to discern who owned them, I decided to track down other people who had left negative reviews of Becky and Andrew.
The first person I reached out to was Jane Patterson, of Holland, Michigan. She called me back almost immediately, saying that she had gotten scammed by Becky and Andrew earlier this year and had been unable to stop thinking about it since.
She hadn’t had much Airbnb experience when she and her daughter decided to book a place in Marina del Rey, California, this past spring, she said. But as a criminal defense attorney, she figured she had a pretty good barometer for bullshit.
Just before check-in, Patterson had gotten a call that was almost exactly the same as the one I had received. The man on the other end of the line said that the property’s bathroom wasn’t working, but that he was able to put them up in a much bigger place until a plumber could fix the problem. It was inconvenient, but also an invitation to stay at what sounded like a mansion in one of the most exclusive areas of the country.
“We were like, ‘Shit, it’s in Malibu, what the heck?’” Patterson recalled. “We looked at the pictures and thought it was a great deal for us.”
When they arrived, they realized it wasn’t. The front door had been left unlocked, which Patterson described as “creepy,” and it was dirty and filled with furniture that looked like it had been picked up off the street. The couches were tattered, the armchairs were burned by cigarettes, and the tables were banged-up—details I confirmed through photos she’d taken at the time.
Patterson said she left a message at the contact number she’d been given for Becky and Andrew to say that she wouldn’t stay in such a place. Though the person who answered the phone said they’d get back to her about the issues she described, they never did. After retreating to the house of a friend who happened to live nearby, she began the process of requesting a refund for the trip “pretty much right away”—one she believed her profession undoubtedly gave her a huge leg up on obtaining.
Airbnb’s refund policy is based on a complicated rubric that doesn’t say guests need written evidence in order to obtain a full refund but does note the company has “final say in all disputes.” It’s easy enough to see how a scammer might exploit the policies as laid out. If a guest stays even one night in a rental, for example, it is difficult to obtain a full refund, according to Airbnb’s rules. If a host asks a guest to stay at a property that’s different from the one they rented, Airbnb advises the guest to request a cancellation if they’re “not okay with the switch.” In both cases, the rules favor a would-be scammer and place the onus on guests who have just parachuted into an unfamiliar locale with their luggage and have nowhere else to stay that night.
After Airbnb looked over Patterson’s pictures, a company representative told her that Becky and Andrew had a right to respond to the complaint, she told me. A few days later, Airbnb offered her a partial refund. Many people might have reluctantly walked away with whatever money they got back to avoid a prolonged battle. After all, Airbnb uses a rating system in which both the host and tenant can publicly provide feedback to one another, which both parties then use to prove their credibility in the future. Because of that, there is a built-in incentive to avoid confrontation, which helps explain why Airbnb hosts consistently receive higher ratings than hotels reviewed on TripAdvisor, according to research out of Boston University and the University of Southern California. If a customer has a negative experience on Airbnb, they might be better off just moving on instead of leaving a negative review. Choose the latter option, and you could come across as too demanding to other prospective hosts, or, in extreme cases, even receive a retaliatory review.
But Patterson didn’t care about that. She knew she had been scammed and wasn’t going to stand down until she received every penny back.
READ THE REST OF THE STORY AT https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/43k7z3/nationwide-fake-host-scam-on-airbnb or click HERE. …. its worth the read