At the end of October, former VICE senior staff writer Allie Conti shared her story of a disastrous vacation to Chicago, where she tumbled into a nationwide scam run by a prolific grifter (or grifters), which exploited Airbnb’s loosely written rules and even looser enforcement.
Conti’s investigation revealed a platform with serious problems policing itself, and sought to uncover the people who’d figured out ways to profit from that disarray. She ultimately traced the nexus of her own scam experience back to a company that used fake profiles and reviews to conceal a variety of wrongs—from last-minute property switches, to units with sawdust on the floor and holes in the wall.
Hoping to get a better sense of the issue, we asked readers to tell us about their own experiences using Airbnb. In response, we got nearly 1,000 emails, many of them outlining similar tales of deception.
The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)
In the aggregate, these emails paint a portrait of a platform whose creators are fundamentally unable to track what goes on within it, and point to easily exploitable loopholes that scammers have steamed their way through by the truckload. After Conti’s story, Airbnb promised to “verify” all 7 million listings on the site by December 2020. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder, said at the DealBook conference that the verification process is part of a dawning realization that, as he put it, “we have to take more responsibility for stuff on our platform.”
“I think many of us in this industry … are going from a hands-off model, where the Internet’s an immune system, to realizing that’s not really enough, that we have to take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform,” he said. “And I think this has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.” In part, Chesky suggested Airbnb would start asking more specific questions of guests upon checkout—relying on users, in other words, to help police what happens on the platform.
On Twitter, Chesky added, “Trust on the Internet begins with verifying the accuracy of the information on Internet platforms — this is an important step for our industry.” He also said the company would begin offering what he called the Airbnb Guest Guarantee: “[I]f a guest checks into a listing and it doesn’t meet our accuracy standards, we will rebook them into a listing that is just as nice — and if we can’t, they will get 100% of their money back.”
An Airbnb spokesperson provided VICE with some additional details about how the verification process will work. “We will review listings for accuracy and quality and to confirm the identity of hosts,” the spokesperson said. They added:
We are working on the details, and intend to use a combination of community, agent and technological techniques, including: Agent reviews and algorithmic screening of the listing contents, pictures, etc, guest verifications of specific features of a listing, in-person inspections, and virtual walk-throughs. Hosts that pass our review will be identified clearly on the platform, but not all will pass initially. We will update our community in the coming months as we build out the specifics of our Verification Program.
If the emails we received are any metric to judge by, the process is long overdue. People said they’d found themselves defrauded, stranded on the street in an unfamiliar city, booked into staying in a shed with no running water (a real email we received), or locked in a bizarre, lengthy argument over alleged damages to an area rug. Here are the most common Airbnb scams worldwide, broken down by category.
As a note: We haven’t picked out emails to share that are the most inflammatory or most colorful. These are, in every case, representative of a far greater number of stories we did not include. These emails have been edited for clarity and readability, but their meaning has not been changed.
The Bait and Switch
One exceedingly common theme across hundreds of emails was the bait and switch: Airbnb users were promised one apartment and arrived to find something very different. Sometimes, the problem was deceptive photos that bore no resemblance to the place they arrived to find. Other times, they were persuaded by the host to switch apartments or houses entirely, only to find that the new location was filthy, unfurnished, or in a totally different part of town. (In a surprising number of stories, the new house was often full of a weird number of beds, laid out in bizarre configurations.)
The Apparent Plumbing Scam
One particular bait and switch seems popular: the plumbing scam. Dozens of people told us that they’d booked an apartment or a house, in cities both in the U.S. and abroad. Days or hours before the reservation was set to start, the host would abruptly tell them that the unit had developed a sudden and fatal plumbing issue.
I rented a place near Glass Beach and a few weeks prior to my trip when I reached out to confirm the booking, the lister told me she had a "septic problem" in the unit and she could see if she could put me up in a larger place nearby. That never materialized but she refused to cancel my booking, saying the first time that her computer wasn't working and the next time, weeks later, that her father had just passed away. I had to complain to Airbnb that she refused to cancel the booking so they canceled it but I was unable to write a negative review. - California
The plumbing scam seems to rest on the idea that if the Airbnb is uninhabitable, hosts can’t be penalized for cancelling reservations. That’s explicitly mentioned in Airbnb’s rules for hosts: cancellation fees will be applied except in the case of an emergency or “unavoidable circumstance,” like the death of a host or immediate family member, government obligations like jury duty, or “unforeseen property damage, maintenance, and amenity issues.” Those damage or maintenance issues must be ones that would make it “unsafe” to host or disrupt basic amenities like running water.
Airbnb says it currently requires proof of all those circumstances to allow the cancellation without charging the host penalty fees. A spokesperson told us, “We hold hosts accountable for honoring their reservations, and we strongly support guests with rebookings or reimbursements when things don’t go according to plan. For a host to avoid cancellation penalties, we require the submission of supporting documentation. For instance, a host citing a plumbing issue would need to submit to Airbnb an invoice or receipt of services from a legitimate business.” He added that, in general, “If we see a host engaging in problematic behavior, including frequent last-minute cancellations, that host would be subject to suspension or removal from the platform.” (This might, of course, be cold comfort in the immediate present for someone who finds themselves stranded on the street without a place to stay.)
There are other versions of this scam; another common scenario is claiming that a party trashed the house and it’s now temporarily uninhabitable. In all cases, the aim seems to be either getting to rebook the Airbnb at a higher price to someone else, to get the guest to cancel without the host incurring penalties, or getting people to agree to move to a different, less-desirable Airbnb.
We had rented an apartment and got a notice a week before we were to go to Barcelona that the apartment was unavailable due to a family emergency. It turns out that the owner rents in advance at a low rate, then if they can get double the rate they dump the first person and rent to the next. - Barcelona
I saw the same property listing that was just cancelled on us, but with larger scale photos, additional buildings, and now it was listed for $999/night, and it was available for “our dates”!!! I was really unhappy and I wrote the host asking what it meant. 1) she was double listing the same property 2) she provided a non-equivalent property as a sub for her last-minute cancellation 3) she gave a very generic excuse about "maintenance work." I demanded explanation and proof that the place was having work done, but in response the host reported me to Airbnb as a harasser. - Joshua Tree
Getting the guest to agree to move houses
The plumbing scam sometimes segues into this one, though it’s often unclear if hosts aim to get guests to switch houses because the original listing doesn’t exist or because they’ve found new renters who will pay more. In either case, we received multiple emails from people who said they’d been asked at the last minute to move to a new house or apartment, often promised that the new listing was bigger and better in every way than the one they’d originally booked. Spoiler: that was never the case.
The property was supposed to be a quaint and quiet property in downtown. Upon arrival, we were delayed by the “homeowner” stating that we would need to change properties at the last minute. Since it was only a quick two night visit, we weren’t opposed. The “new larger location” was a scummy little apartment complex on the west side of town, not the best part I might add. One bedroom was really nice (probably the photo room) and the other was bare basic with zero artwork. The rest of the apartment was exactly as you described in your article, almost as if it were a cheap hotel room. I didn’t think about it anymore until it was time for check out. We were charged DOUBLE per night plus two cleaning fees, with the mystery man in California stating that we didn’t clarify that it was two adults. What did it matter? We used ONE ROOM. How did he know it was two adults? Cameras? - Austin, TX
The single large apartment with many rooms had its address changed at the last minute, and we arrived to two random apartments with a few cots against the walls. One of the rooms smelled like vomit but wasn't airing out so it was difficult to even walk inside. We booked hotels instead. I took many photos of the place, to illustrate how it had no relationship to the apartment we'd intended on booking, but [Airbnb] still refused any claim we made and backed the person who'd been scamming us. - New Orleans
Booking the Airbnb to multiple people at the same time
Perhaps the most socially awkward bait and switch is this one: renting an Airbnb where you believe you have booked the whole residence, only to arrive and find a whole bunch of strangers. Multiple people told us they arrived to find other Airbnb guests at the house, or, in some cases, people who seemed to live there.
This is not, however, something Airbnb can easily police, if at all, because the issue doesn’t lie within their app. It’s not possible to double-book a property on Airbnb; once it’s booked through the app, it’s off the market. It is possible, however, to double-book a listing if the property is also listed on VRBO or another platform. And it’s not always malicious: In some cases, a host could’ve simply gotten their wires crossed and forgotten the residence was already booked.
We rented a whole house in Pioneertown CA for a weekend. When we arrived, the house was already full of people, yet the owner refused to reimburse us. The owner scams the clients by simultaneously renting the same property on Booking.com and AirBnB. She actually has multiple posting for the same property on each website. - California
Airbnb says that while double bookings are “usually the result of honest mistakes and not nefarious activity, it certainly leads to a terrible guest experience and so we do everything we can to support our guest so they can enjoy their vacation.” They add:
If a guest shows up at a listing to find that it’s been double-booked, they should contact our Customer Support line immediately so that we can support with a rebooking to a listing that is similar or better. If the price of the new listing is higher, Airbnb would take care of the additional cost. If we can’t find a listing on our platform, we’ll attempt to book in an alternate accommodation such as a hotel. We have a new “Urgent Support Line” available on the Airbnb app for this type of scenario for travelers on an active trip.
We would also withhold payment to a host under such a scenario. Additionally, if we find this happening more than once with a particular host, we would take action including suspension or removal from the platform.
In general, referring to bait-and-switches of all kinds, Airbnb told VICE:
Bait and switch schemes, such as those described where guests are offered worse accommodations, are unacceptable and antithetical to Airbnb’s values and the community standards. If a guest is ever asked to do something like this, they should contact us either by phone or through our app so that we can support them. Our Guest Guarantee policy entitles guests to a full refund or rebooking into a new listing of equal or better value. We would then address the issues with the host, which could include suspension or removal from our platform. If such a scheme were to rise to the level of criminal fraud, we would also seek to work with law enforcement to hold that person accountable.
Paying outside the app
A relatively straightforward scam is hosts who ask Airbnb users to pay them in some other way: by check, Bitcoin, or another third-party payment app. (Often, Airbnb hosts would ask for a security deposit to be paid that way, rather than the entire fee.)
There’s no reason to do this. It’s virtually always a prelude to something even sketchier, per the emails we received. Just don’t. Airbnb even tells users in their safety tips to beware of paying outside the app, one of the only scams they specifically acknowledge and warn against.
The booking looked cute, nice and light and airy. The guy seemed really nice. But I was confused as he sent me a separate email, outside of airbnb for a lease agreement and I wasn't comfortable going outside airbnb—but I went with it.
When I showed up, the place was filthy, dirty water in the sink, dust, there was one towel and one roll of toilet paper provided for a six month stay. The worst part was that silverfish was everywhere in the kitchen/bathroom. Silverfish, for me, are as bad a bed bugs, they are difficult to remove and eat your clothing. I raised my concerns, then, not hearing back for many hours, decided I was not comfortable in the unit and cancelled my stay.
I decided to cancel through Airbnb and tell them about what had happened. He went off at me, berated me for not handing it privately, told me I was acting in my own self interest and basically belittled me. I ended up having to pay the full first month even though I stayed a night… His listing is still up and a review posted after my stay also mentions the silverfish. - Montreal
Airbnb tells VICE, “We are an end-to-end platform, and the golden rule is to always book on the platform, pay on the platform, and communicate on the platform. Airbnb Marketplace listing pages include warnings to guests to never transact or even communicate off of our platform. We also have a help center page that addresses this specific concern.” It also says hosts who try to lure guests off-platform will be subject to suspension or removal.
One of the truly difficult things for Airbnb to police—and for guests to guard themselves against—are claims of fake damages, because it’s absolutely true that at times, Airbnb guests do damage the places they stay: clogging plumbing, digging a hole in the yard to build a fire (another real email we received) or damaging carpets or furniture.
In some cases, though, a host will charge what seem like exorbitant expenses for cleaning fees:
On the day I was checking out, I spilled a tiny amount of coffee (and I get most of it up with a towel)...as a nice person (and never again), I mention that I did this, so the host can use Resolve or whatever to get it up (the carpet was not super nice anyway).
The host (who I am convinced never looked at the stain), tried to charge me $2000 for carpet cleaning, and eventually I was able to get this reduced to $375 (which is still ridiculous. I was happy to get this—but it required a lot of tenacity on my part). - Mountain View, CA
In other cases, however, the demands for damage fees seem, well, pretty scammy:
Owner of the unit called me and accused me of losing the key to the flat. I told him I left it just where he told me to leave it, and that it should be there. He became belligerent and started yelling at me in French, which I did not understand. I repeatedly told him that I did not understand him.
About 2 hours after check out, he sent to me a text telling me I owed him $2,000.00 US dollars to re-key the door. Airbnb then messaged me to tell me that they were going to collect on that $2,000.00 and that I should make arrangements to pay same through my account. I told Airbnb and this flat owner that I thought this was extortion and I would pay ZERO. I lodged a formal complaint with Airbnb, accused the guy of trying to accuse me of something I did not do, and extort a very substantial sum of money to boot!! Within 15 minutes of my formal complaint, Airbnb did message me and told me the matter was resolved and that I did not have to pay any money to this guy. With that, they did resolve the issue for sure and quite rapidly. - Paris
Airbnb tells VICE that the “Resolution Center” used to solve issues like damage claims has “significant checks and balances,” adding that if a guest believes a host is abusing the process, “they should flag it to our claims specialists through the app.” Their full statement on fake damages allegations reads:
Our Resolution Center is critical to our mission to make things right for both hosts and guests when things go wrong for whatever reason. Often, the issues are relatively small, and the host and guest are able to work it out amongst themselves without Airbnb having to get involved. When there is an ongoing dispute, Airbnb will then intervene and mediate.
There are significant checks and balances in this work. We require clear documentation for damages, including receipts and billing statements from reputable companies, and once we receive sufficient information we’ll review all documentation and evaluate the payment request. We have a team of Claims specialists who oversee this work, and they will also research fair market values to double check that those numbers are consistent with the claimed values and documentation.
If a guest feels that a host is abusing the Resolution Center process, they should flag it to our Claims specialists through the app or through the Help Center on our website so that we can take action. We also keep tabs on if hosts are consistently flagged for this type of behavior, in which case we would take action up to and including suspension and removal.
Review scams and threats
The ultimate goal for Airbnb hosts is to keep their five-star ratings, and, if possible, attain Superhost status, which, among other things, requires them to maintain at least a 4.8 overall rating. Anything less can impact the number of bookings they get, and there’s more than one guide on keeping ratings high the honest way.
Somewhat frequently, hosts—even really, really bad ones—will seemingly ask up-front for a five-star review no matter what the stay was really like. Conti, for instance, got an odd request for a five-star review at the end of her disastrous stay in Chicago:
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.
Someone else who said they stayed at a “Becky and Andrew” property in Milwaukee said she received the same request from them: “After we checked out we also got a request to give a five star review, and handle disputes privately.”
That is one particularly ham-handed way to do things. But the people who wrote to us also experienced some of the other ways hosts attempt to keep reviews spotless. Some hosts demanded that guests who had bad experiences not review them, or else prevented them from doing so until the time window in which they could leave a review expired.
Getting a bad review hidden or pulled down entirely
Airbnb will hide or pull down reviews in certain situations—and, again, there are several guides available online for how hosts can get reviews pulled down, sometimes for good reason (if the guest never actually stayed there, for instance, or is clearly lying). But several people told us they felt that system had been weaponized against them, used to keep their accurate complaints hidden.
I recently left a fair, yet three star review on a host’s page, and then Airbnb took my review down saying it was "against their policy." Apparently, the host had completely fabricated a fake text conversation claiming I “extorted then for a refund in exchange for the promise of a good review” and sent a screenshot to Airbnb of the supposed text “thread.” After contacting their support to explain my situation, Airbnb claimed that they had done their due diligence of investigating and told me not to contact them anymore, case closed. - Location unspecified
Running out the clock
Several guests told us that as they tussled back and forth with hosts and Airbnb for a refund, the two weeks they had to review their stay expired, and they were unable to leave one. Guests are also unable to leave reviews if their stay was cancelled—even if it was cancelled because they arrived there, noted the house was actually, for instance, a trap house (another real email we received) and left immediately.
I cancelled the booking within five minutes of arrival as not being what was on offer on their site. I got nothing in writing either. Airbnb refused to refund me pending an investigation and stalled and stalled. As a guest one only has 14 days to leave a review of a place. Between Airbnb and the host, they stalled until I was no longer able to leave a review. I also never got a refund. - Pretoria, South Africa
Airbnb says that in this specific instance, guests should leave a review while the dispute resolution is still happening:
“We encourage people to leave reviews, even if a dispute or mediation with a host is ongoing. Our double-blind review system ensures the review will not post or be visible to the host until the host also submits his or her review, or when the two-week window lapses. We send multiple email reminders during the two-week window to leave reviews, including right before the two weeks are up.”
This last one is less a “scam” and more just “flatly illegal.” A small number of people described getting threatening or abusive text messages after leaving a bad review:
I wrote a scathing review on the host's profile and the host replied with a ridiculous number of abusive Whatsapp voice messages, claiming to be Lithuanian mafia. - Lithuania
The integrity of our review system is paramount. We do not tolerate efforts to game the system, and hosts or guests attempting to do so are subject to consequences, including suspension or removal. If a guest is asked either to not leave a review, leave a false review, or feels that a host is engaging in extortion, they should flag immediately to our team so that we can take action. They can easily contact our Customer Support team about these issues through our app or the Help Center on our website.
We maintain a clear and strict review content policy, and the threshold to even consider removing a review is very high. Justifiable reasons for removal may include hate speech or extortion, for example. We want guests to see all reviews associated with listings -- both the good and the bad -- so that they can make informed booking decisions based on authentic experiences.
Hosts have bad and scammy experiences too
The problems with Airbnb don’t just impact guests, however. We also heard from a large number of hosts, who said that they too had difficulty getting a response from the company when they reported serious issues. A common problem, one host told us, is around getting Airbnb to cover simple damages and repairs, or being penalized for necessary cancellations:
1. Guest smokes, denies it, 2nd guest goes in complains about smoke—and gets a full refund from Airbnb, host complains about last guest to charge penalty—host is denied. So the host loses regardless, Airbnb and the previous guest comes out on top.
2. Guest loses key, denies it—Aairbnb does not cover you though they say they do.
3. Guest breaks something and if it's not fixed, Airbnb charges you for a rebooking for subsequent guest (shower rod the guest broke, the glass door for a bedroom).
4. If anything breaks in the condo—it is next to impossible to be compensated by Airbnb. They require a minimum of three contractors to go in, three quotes/invoices, and then give you an amortized amount if it goes through. Not realizing contractors charge money to come in, they've made it so that it’s never worth it to try to get damages handled by them, their insurance policy is an outright scam.
5. A guest stayed at our unit for an entire night, then said she didn't like the smell of the cleaner used on the floor (the morning after). Airbnb canceled the entire reservation—$900 worth, for a week—and gave her the one day free, basically taking away 25% of our monthly pay as it’s hard to get the suite rented so quickly!
Airbnb responded: "Our customer support team works hard to support hosts and mediate disputes, and our $1 Million Host Guarantee is mean to provide peace of mind that we've got their back when things don't go according to plan."
With every type of scam discussed above, people’s experiences reporting the situation to Airbnb varied widely. Some people reported getting all of their money back from the company, and some none at all.
Airbnb tries hard to convey that it is responsible for what happens on its platform, with guarantees that if either a host or a guest has a bad experience, they’ll do what they can to make it right. But they’ve also acknowledged in the past year that there are serious gaps in their system, and that listings on the platform have had their share of serious safety issues, as well as what the company often refers to as “inaccuracy” in listings on the platform.
In his November comments on Twitter, CEO Brian Chesky also pledged that the company would launch “a 24/7 neighbor hotline” staffed by real people, and “expanding manual screening of high-risk reservations flagged by our risk detection models first to North America and then globally next year.”
“I want to be clear — we are not infallible,” Chesky added. “We are a platform built on a foundation of trust. We need to continue innovating on trust to make it harder for the bad actors. The trust of our community is our top priority.”
The verification process sounds like it’s an honest, albeit somewhat belated, attempt to shore up a somewhat shaky platform and attempt to make it sturdier for guests and hosts alike. But the emails we received suggest that, in many cases, the damage is already done: the trips ruined, the money lost, the silverfish-eaten shirt already discarded. And memories, as too many postcard cliches would have it, last forever.