In an ideal world, going on vacation would be as seamless as scoring a cheap flight, arriving with no delays, and checking into a hotel or vacation rental with Instagram-worthy views and an unlumpy mattress. But as frequent travelers know, that’s not always the reality. Sometimes weather or political unrest disrupts travel plans. Other times, you can fall victim to an elaborate scam. There are innocuous ones like fake TripAdvisor reviews convincing you to eat at a subpar restaurant, and others are as nefarious as hacking into your frequent flyer account and stealing your miles. One of the worst, though, is showing up to check into a vacation rental only to realize that it doesn’t actually exist, leaving you with no place to stay and potentially out hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars.
Recently, Allie Conti, a former staff writer at Vice, detailed her experience on Vice.com about how she stumbled into an Airbnb scam that left her able to recoup just $399 of the $1,221.20 she spent on a listing that she didn’t even end up seeing in person. Minutes before she was set to check into an apartment in Chicago, her host called and told her there were plumbing issues at the original listing but that he could move her into another property that he managed. After agreeing to the switch, she realized the new place was more of a “flophouse than someone’s home” and left to check into a hotel. In October, CNN reported that a British couple spent nearly $12,000 for a two-week vacation in Ibiza at an Airbnb that didn’t exist—someone had merely cobbled together images from a condo complex’s website and uploaded the listing to the site.
On Wednesday, November 6, Airbnb cofounder, CEO, and head of community, Brian Chesky, unveiled a brand-new guest guarantee system and the rollout of a new verification system for hosts and homes. Chesky called it “the most significant steps in designing trust on our platform since our original design in 2008” in an all-staff email released to the press and on Twitter.
While Airbnb doesn’t publicly share the exact percentage of fraudulent listings on its site, it says that fraudulent issues “are incredibly rare” among the 2 million people who check into an Airbnb every night. Vrbo, which is part of the Expedia Group that also owns HomeAway, says that it is able to keep fraud on its site “closer to zero than 1 percent of all bookings” by using both technology and human review systems to detect fraudulent listings on its site.
The vetting and verification process for most rental homes online is fairly minimal, putting the burden on travelers to report fraudulent listings to the companies. But in light of recent issues, Airbnb announced that it will begin the process of verifying all 7 million listings on its platform. By December 15, 2020, each home and host will be verified by Airbnb for “accuracy of the listing (including accuracy of photos, addresses, and listing details) and quality standards (including cleanliness, safety, and basic home amenities),” according to a statement released to the press. Those that meet Airbnb’s standards will be clearly labeled as such moving forward. It is unclear if this will include on-site inspections.
Previously, only premium services like Airbnb Plus, Airbnb Luxe, and Onefinestay, the collection of high-end rental homes operated by Accor Hotels, included a separate vetting and verification process. Before homes can be marked as an Airbnb Plus or Luxe, or listed in Onefinestay’s exclusive City Collection or Villa Collection, the properties are vetted in person by representatives from each company for factors including quality and comfort. In fact, only 1 in 10 homes makes the cut, Onefinestay told AFAR. While you won’t necessarily find many affordable deals in these collections, you can book with confidence, knowing that the listing is not only legitimate but also guaranteed for cleanliness.
It’s best to pick a listing with multiple positive reviews. If a property has no reviews or several damning ones, it’s best to stay away. Airbnb recommends looking through the feedback from past guests to see if a listing is accurately portrayed online.
If you’re still not sure, do a reverse Google image search to make sure that the listing’s photos don’t show up on a stock image site—a surefire sign that the property isn’t real. To do that, go to images.google.com and click the camera icon to the right of the search field to upload the photo in question (you can also drag images directly from your desktop into the search bar). If it matches any other images on the internet, it’ll show you the site from which the photo was probably stolen.
Airbnb verifies users (both hosts and guests) through several factors, including government IDs, email addresses, and phone numbers. Always check the host’s profile to make sure they’ve uploaded these things—you can find it on the left side of their profile page. Airbnb admits on its website that “completing this process isn’t an endorsement of any host or guest, a guarantee of someone’s identity, or an assurance that interacting with them will be safe.” However, it’s likely scammers won’t leave a trail behind them with their real names and IDs on Airbnb, so it’s a positive if they’ve completed this process.
Another good sign is if someone has a Superhost badge on Airbnb—that means that they’ve maintained consistently high ratings (4.8+ out of 5) from their guests, completed at least 10 stays in the past year, have a cancellation rate of less than 1 percent, and have a 90 percent response rate to new messages within 24 hours. Vrbo and HomeAway have a similar system for reliable hosts called “Premium Partner.”
Never share your email address or phone number with them before your booking is accepted. If the listing mentions emailing or calling the host directly to book, this is a red flag. One scam involves fraudulent hosts sending over links to other “listings” they manage on sites that look like Airbnb but aren’t (more on that below). If you keep your communications within Airbnb’s site or app, Airbnb blocks all outside links to prevent this from happening.
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