Money

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.

by Allie Conti
Oct 31 2019, 1:19pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

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.

Have you ever worked at Airbnb? Have you ever been scammed by someone exploiting a short-term rental platform? We'd love to hear from you. Send Allie Conti an email or DM her on Twitter.

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This is how Becky and Andrew advertised the Airbnb I ended up staying in for two nights.

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 bedroom was 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.

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The photo for Becky and Andrew's account popped up elsewhere on the internet after a reverse image search.

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 were 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.

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The listings from these different accounts are all similar but shot at different angles.

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 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 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.

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Jane Patterson refused to stay in Becky and Andrew's supposed upgrade after determining it was run down and dirty.

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 cancelation 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 by 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.

“I’m an attorney, so I love to argue,” she said. “I just didn’t stop calling.”

She eventually got her full refund, but it indeed came with a harsh review from Becky and Andrew for doing so. “We would NOT host or recommend her to the airbnb community!!” they wrote. Patterson couldn’t help but wonder how people with fewer resources and no place to crash would have fared in the same situation.

“You think about these people who maybe saved up for six months to go to Marina del Rey for five days and have nowhere to stay,” Patterson said. “I can see how they can get some people who are trapped into staying in a shitty place.”

That’s what happened to Juan David Garrido, a college student from St. Paul, Minnesota, who rented a place from Kris and Becky in Milwaukee this past Fourth of July weekend.

Garrido had traveled to the city to attend a musical festival with friends, only to have the hosts cancel on him at the last minute. But Kris seemed eager to help him out, saying he had a place that was still available for rent and could easily fit seven guests. Finding himself in a pinch, Garrido remembered feeling immensely grateful and quickly booking the new spot⁠—so quickly, in fact, that he didn’t quite absorb the cost. Because of Garrido’s large party, Kris and Becky had charged him almost $1,800 for three nights—roughly half of what he made in a full semester’s work study.

Garrido cancelled the reservation, but didn’t read the fine print before doing so, triggering a $950 cancellation fee. He called up Kris and said that he’d stay there after all if he’d waive the fee. Kris verbally agreed, he told me.

It wasn’t long after Garrido arrived that he realized he was probably never going to get his cancelation fee refunded and that Kris wasn’t as helpful as he’d first seemed. “No one lived there,” he told me over the phone. “It was just beds.”

Garrido tried to get his money back through Airbnb customer support for more than a week (he let me review the chain of correspondence). Because of his poor experience, an Airbnb customer representative refunded Garrido approximately $700 of the $1800 he spent on Kris and Becky’s listing, but explained the couple had the right to keep the cancellation fee since Garrido had not received the agreement to waive the fee in writing.

Maria LaSota, 29, wasn’t even that lucky.

During a trip to Milwaukee from Chicago to celebrate her mom’s 60th birthday last July, she also rented a unit from Kris and Becky. She recounted over the phone how a man claiming to be Kris called her up just before check-in and said that he had accidentally double-booked. He needed to move her party to a bigger unit he managed on the same street. LaSota didn’t really feel she had much of a choice. It was a busy weekend in the city, what with the Chicago Cubs playing the Milwaukee Brewers and annual Summerfest musical festival taking place.

Like the other properties, LaSota’s rental was a mess—covered in sawdust and without the amenities needed to even open and drink a bottle of wine they’d brought to celebrate the occasion. “You could tell the apartment was just staged for pictures,” she said. The king-sized bed only came with throw pillows and a fitted sheet. The gas stove wasn’t hooked up. There was no air-conditioning, and they couldn’t open the windows because there were no screens. There were also no curtains, which meant anyone who walked past could see straight inside. But they didn’t have anywhere else to go, so they stayed anyway.

While there, she met a few men at the bar down the street from the rental who mentioned that they were also staying at an Airbnb in the same building. “It turned out the same thing had happened to them,” LaSota said. “They were originally supposed to have the unit we were staying in, and there was still a construction crew there, so they were moved to a place upstairs that was smaller and didn’t fit all the guys.”

“They got the call 10 minutes before they arrived,” she added.

The following week, LaSota received a call thanking her for being such a good guest. The man on the other end of the line said his name was Kris, but it was clearly not the same person she’d spoken to previously, LaSota said. After LaSota started mentioning the problems with the unit, the man said he was confused and needed to call his wife.

“I said, ‘Your wife or the other guy’s wife?’” LaSota said. “‘The guy who called me last week told me his name was Kris, too, and your tone of voice and accent are completely different.’”

The man hung up on her, and she never heard from him again. Soon after, however, “Kris and Becky” left a review complaining that she’d left beer bottles all over the house and even harassed people. (“They tried to say I threw a wild party,” LaSota said. “I was with four 60-year-old women.”) Distressed, she tried to report the couple to Airbnb through its customer support system. The case manager told her over the phone on the first day in August that she would hear something from the company within eight weeks; she’s still heard nothing.

LaSota’s story tracked with what I’d seen online. When people had written bad reviews of “Becky and Andrew” in the past, the hosts would turn around and claim that the renters themselves were scammers or inexperienced travelers.

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When people complain about Becky and Andrew's properties, the hosts insult them.

But there was another thing about LaSota’s story that caught my attention. The fact that the Airbnb host was able to shuffle both LaSota’s family and the men at the bar around the same building made me wonder whether the hosts owned the property in its entirety, which would increase the likelihood of the schemer’s name appearing in the public record. When I looked up the address on the property appraiser’s website, I got the name of yet another LLC, which I plugged into the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions’ website. Such sites are where you find the name of the registered agent, or the person who handles legal documents for the company. Usually, you’ll get the name of a lawyer who’s under no obligation to reveal information about their clients to a reporter over the phone.

But in this case, the profile I was looking at didn’t belong to a lawyer. It belonged to someone named Shray Goel.

When I looked up Goel on LinkedIn, I found that he was based in Los Angeles, and described himself as the director of an “upscale corporate rental company” named Abbot Pacific LLC. Another man named Shaun Raheja ran the business alongside him, according to Raheja’s own LinkedIn page. Goel’s YouTube page features videos of him touring run-down properties, including one at the same address Garrido and LaSota told me that they stayed at in Milwaukee. On his Instagram page, he listed himself as a “long distance real estate investor” who works in “LA, Chicago, Nashville, Austin, Dallas, Milwaukee, Indiana, and Orlando.” Those eight cities overlap with properties tied to “Becky and Andrew” and the other accounts. For his part, Raheja’s public Instagram features pictures of the properties advertised by Kelsey and Jean on Airbnb. (Raheja didn’t respond to calls, emails, or direct messages over Twitter seeking comment.)

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A YouTube user named Shray Goel has uploaded a video tour of the property two of Kris and Becky's customers stayed at.

When I looked back through old reviews of the couples, I noticed something else that I hadn’t before. Back in 2012, a man had left a review on Kelsey and Jean’s page that had referred to them not as “Kelsey and Jean,” but as a single person: “Shray."

“Shray is a delight to host,” the man wrote in the 2012 review. “And I would welcome him.back [sic] anytime! He is neat and tidy and very independent.”

This was it. I was convinced I had found the scammer.

I desperately wanted to know Goel’s side of the story, and repeatedly tried to reach him on his cell phone, to no avail. So I decided to call Abbot Pacific, the company he ran, according to LinkedIn. The company’s website only listed a Google number, which I called repeatedly on a Wednesday in October before leaving a voicemail explaining that I needed to speak with Goel. The next day, I emailed Goel on his personal Gmail. Less than two hours later, someone finally got back to me, but the man on the other end of the line said he wasn’t who I was looking for. He claimed his name was “Patrick.”

“I just handle incoming phone calls” for Abbot Pacific, the man said.

Patrick told me that Goel had been bought out of the company nine months ago. Then the man started to pepper me with questions about this piece. “I Googled you very briefly, and it seems like you write generally negative things, so I’m just trying to figure out how I can help,” he said. The man asked me about my motivations, and for the names of the people I’d spoken to. I told him that I’d rather talk to Goel, and he said that he would work on getting me in touch with him, which he never did.

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Abbot Pacific's website was taken offline moments after I spoke with a man who said he answered phones for the company.

Approximately 30 minutes after the call, I tried to go back on Abbot Pacific’s website. But I couldn’t. It had disappeared, replaced only five words in all caps: “THIS WEBSITE IS CURRENTLY UNAVAILABLE.” I called “Patrick” back to ask what happened. “I think it went down yesterday,” he said. “We’re adding some new stuff to it. New properties and stuff like that.”

When I told him that I had just been on the site moments before our initial conversation and found it strange that the website went down right after, he agreed that it was “weird.”

I asked Patrick what he used to do before becoming a secretary for Abbot Pacific, and he said that he was in property management. I asked if he had a LinkedIn, and he said that he did, though he declined to tell me his last name. (I could not find a “Patrick” who works at Abbot Pacific on LinkedIn.) I also offered to email him links to the Airbnb accounts I was referring to, but he never gave me an email address, saying that he had a pad and pen to take them down, which would presumably be a first in human history. I described the interviews I’d done so far.

Then I added something else.

“Oh, and I should say that this also happened to me,” I said.

Several seconds of silence passed before Patrick responded.

“This makes a lot more sense now,” he said.

Patrick said that Abbot Pacific did have properties on the street that Garrido and LaSota stayed on, though he noted that he wasn’t much involved with the Airbnb side of the business and that it was “ramping down.”

“Let me make a few calls and figure out where this disconnect happened,” he said.

After hanging up, I messaged Kris and Becky’s account and asked for Goel to call me because I was writing an article. It was around 3 p.m. in New York.

“Hi Allie—Think you might be mistaken,” they wrote back four hours later. “Are you looking to book the home?”

Six hours after that, the prices for several of Kris and Becky’s properties rose to $10,000 a night—far too high to be seen by anyone searching for a short-term rental on a reasonable budget.

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After I messaged Kris and Becky asking if they could put me in touch with Shray Goel, some of their properties shot up to $10,000 a night.

Weeks later, Abbot Pacific’s website remains down. The man who called himself Patrick never called me back with more information about the “disconnect,” or put me in touch with Goel, as he said he would. I again emailed and called Goel myself. I texted him as well as messaged him on Facebook, and on the real estate investment forum BiggerPockets, but never got a response. It nevertheless appears he knew I wanted to talk to him. The day after I spoke with Patrick, Goel’s LinkedIn page had been completely scrubbed of any mention of Abbot Pacific.

As it turned out, I had accidentally stumbled upon a larger, more metastasized version of what researchers at a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization uncovered themselves while researching Airbnb in the middle of the decade. In 2015, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy released a report that said large rental companies in Los Angeles had started to profit off Airbnb by creating pseudonyms that helped them appear to be normal homeowners. The most prolific host that LAANE identified in LA was “ghc,” or Globe Homes and Condos, a now-defunct company that at one time ran an Airbnb profile using the pseudonyms “Danielle and Lexi.”

Airbnb’s Community Standards state that no host should “provide inaccurate information,” but Airbnb does not rigorously police the request, according to the report. “In spite of the fact that Danielle and Lexi received a verified ID, badge on their profile page, we have no way of knowing if they had any role in the properties other than having their photo taken,” the report stated. “This case also undermines one of the cornerstones of AirBnB’s business model, namely that the company’s ratings and identity verification system are a viable means by which travelers can vet their prospective hosts.”

James Elmendorf, a senior policy analyst at LAANE, told me that Airbnb’s weak verification process created the opportunity for those who were willing to exploit the platform through the creation of “faux, just-like-you personas.”

“Airbnb does no checking up on this whatsoever,” said Elmendorf. “They’re one of the most sophisticated companies in the world, and you’re telling me they can’t come up with a system that prevents this? Airbnb is doing that hand-wavy thing that tech companies do where they say, ‘We can’t solve this.' If they wanted to solve it, they would figure it out.”

The problem extends beyond my own scammer and beyond Los Angeles. The Better Business Bureau has received around 200 complaints about Airbnb through its “Scam Tracker” in the past three years, and about half of those were regarding fake profiles, spokesperson Katherine Hutt told me. The use of fake profiles does not necessarily translate into a bad customer experience. Many people don’t care whose home they’re staying in—they just want something cheaper than a hotel. But by allowing hosts to easily operate under fake identities, Airbnb has set up a system that allows scammers like mine to thrive.

Feeling I had all the evidence I needed to prove my point to Airbnb, I emailed the company’s press team a long note, asking them, among other things, how they make sure that people are accurately representing themselves on their profiles and how case managers are directed to deal with allegations of fraud.

A little more than 24 hours later, a company flak responded in an emailed statement.

“Engaging in deceptive behavior such as substituting one listing for another is a violation of our Community Standards,” the flak wrote. “We are suspending the listings while we investigate further.”

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Shray Goel removed Abbot Pacific from his LinkedIn page after I spoke with "Patrick" on the phone.

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.

Kellen Zale, a professor at the University of Houston who studies property law and short-term rentals, told me there’s no politician at the state or federal level who’s made all that much noise about Airbnb. Instead, the onus falls on local governments—some of which are too cash-strapped to put up much of a fight.

In 2015, Airbnb spent at least $8 million on lobbying efforts to fight back an ordinance in San Francisco that required all Airbnb hosts to register their units with the city in a lengthy process. The ordinance passed anyway, severely reducing the number of properties available. But not all cities have San Francisco’s budgetary resources. When New Orleans overhauled their short-term rental laws in August, for example, the budget-strapped city mostly left oversight of the new rules in the hands of Airbnb.

For now, the rest of us are left to deal with the fallout. Zale herself had a less-than-stellar experience with Airbnb a few years back. Her host gave her the wrong code to unlock the door to a property she’d rented in Texas, and she had to book an expensive hotel at the last minute. She said that despite being angry that Airbnb didn’t refund the cost of the hotel, she has stuck with the platform. She likes the “appeal of living in a neighborhood for a couple of nights,” she said.

The other people I spoke to are dealing with the same cognitive dissonance. They know that they’re rolling the dice with short-term rental startups, but feel they have no other choice. For her part, Patterson said she might switch to Vrbo, but LaSota is still trying to get a retaliatory review she received taken down ahead of an Italian vacation. Garrido said he anticipates a lifetime of fealty to Airbnb, too.

“If I had another choice, I would not use Airbnb again,” he told me. “I was very put off by getting scammed. But at this point, I feel like if I want to travel, there’s not really much else I can do.”

Even after a month of digging through public records, scouring the internet for clues, repeatedly calling Airbnb and confronting the man who called himself Patrick, I can’t say I’ll be leaving the platform, either. Dealing with Airbnb’s easily exploitable and occasionally crazy-making system is still just a bit cheaper than renting a hotel.

In fact, after all that, I never even left Becky and Andrew a review.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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