Airbnb is now going to verify the listings on its platform, which is great news but a bit late considering the recent story about a major nationwide scam in which hosts pull the old bait-and-switch on travelers.
At The New York Times’ DealBook Conference, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said his company has plans to conduct a comprehensive review of each property listed on the platform so guests can have “peace of mind,” the newspaper reports.
Although he was light on details, Chesky said the company will check accuracy of photographs, addresses and other information on the listings to make sure the properties meet safety standards and the hosts really are who they say they are, according to the article.
That’s great news, especially after reading about how one reporter for Vice wrote about accidentally discovering a nationwide property listing scam on Airbnb. As the reporter describes it, while it certainly would take some serious personal organizational skills, it doesn’t sound like the platform makes it that difficult to set up fraudulent listings.
The scam as described in the story involves the “host” listing a property for rent, only to call guests last minute before their reservation to claim there’s a problem with the rental unit. As luck should have it, the host has another bigger and better property for guests to stay in while solving the problem at the original rental unit. However, the temporary unit is by no means better (they actually sound really horrible—a huge surprise), but most guests put up with it in hopes of getting into their original rental.
When that doesn’t happen, guests have a hard time getting a full refund through Airbnb because most guests ended up staying a night in the replacement property before they catch on to what’s happening. Of course, the “host” usually disappears and won’t return calls or emails.
When the reporter reached out to Airbnb for comment, the company declined to speak on the record other than providing this statement: “Engaging in deceptive behavior such as substituting one listing for another is a violation of our Community Standards. We are suspending the listings while we investigate further.”
As an interesting twist, the reporter updated the story to say the FBI reached out to Vice to learn more about the claims made in the story.
I reached out to Airbnb to see if the new verification initiative is in response to the claims made in the Vice story. I’ve not yet received a response.
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of what Airbnb offers. Given the company’s success, it’s obviously delivering something travelers want when staying in a new city for business or leisure. There are plenty of people in the hotel industry who don’t like Airbnb, whether that’s because they are taking another piece of the demand pie or because they aren’t operating on a level playing field. Many hoteliers have come to accept Airbnb as one more challenging relationship to manage, like how they have done with online travel agencies.
Now, someone could argue that hotel guests don’t necessarily know what room they are walking into. Technically, a reservation doesn’t necessarily mean you are getting the exact room you have booked, so sometimes guests might not end up with the room they wanted. Most of the time, however, if they get a different room, it’s not a completely different room type (unless it’s a surprise upgrade) and not one that makes them fear for their health and safety.
Airbnb is not a hotel company. It doesn’t own or operate any of the rental units listed on its platform. However, there is certainly an ethical argument to be made that the company should do more to make sure the listings on its website are real and safe for guests. That’s an absolute basic tenet of hospitality—and by that, I don’t mean simple but rather that it is part of the base on which the concept of hospitality is built.
It should not be surprising at all that people can scam others through a website that, up until this point, did not require much verification at all. That lack of oversight is a breeding ground for fraudulent behavior. I’m glad to hear that Airbnb is taking action now—and I hope it’s actual action that gets the company more involved—but it’s disappointing it’s taken so long.
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