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Posted at 09:21 AM ET, 07/28/2011

Airbnb responds to user horror story


Travelers looking for a cheap place to stay — or homeowners looking to make a quick buck — should remember the risks of online rentals. (Thomas Samson - AFP/Getty Images)
Reality has hit users at the hot startup Airbnb, the online service that lets connects travelers to set up short-term rentals while they’re away.

A month-old horror story about the experiences of San Francisco host “EJ” has circulated around the Web, detailing how thieves posing as genuine renters ransacked and trashed her apartment. EJ said that she exchanged e-mails with the fake renter, “DJ Pattrson” throughout the week where the thief appears to have been destroying her life.

“With heart pounding and stomach churning, I slowly swung the door open as both a pungent odor and the full realization of what had occurred washed over me: this wasn’t just a random break-in. My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed by a ‘traveler’ I connected with via the online rental agency, airbnb.com,” EJ wrote on her blog. The thieves took money, jewelry and personal information in addition to trashing the apartment.

EJ recognized the risks of renting her home to strangers — and says she doesn’t blame Airbnb — but her worries were eased by the great reviews and sense of security the service offers.

For its part, Airbnb has said that it is “shocked” and “devastated” and is working with law enforcement, who now have a suspect in custody.

Over at TechCrunch, company CEO Brian Chesky said that the company has been in close contact with the host since learning about the incident on June 22. EJ wrote in her post that the company has offered to help her recover, “emotionally and financially.”

That said, EJ wrote that “I do think theirs was a concept that was executed much too quickly, and that some basic screening and security measures must be instituted as soon as possible, that some basic efforts be made to help prevent this from happening to another unsuspecting host.”

And she raises the point that even on Craigslist — often seen as the sketchiest site for setting up these kinds of rentals — users can do a little up-front research about the strangers they’re allowing into their homes using search and other tools.

In response to this incident, which the company says is the only one of its kind, Airbnb is developing a dedicated “Trust & Safety” department, doubling its customer service department and offering insurance options to its hosts.

The incident is a black eye for the company, which has a billion-dollar valuation and recently closed a $100 million round of funding, The Washington Post’s Dominic Basulto reported. And the site does have a Safety FAQ that reiterates many of the basic online safety tactics, including locking away personal belongings, and using the site to check out users’ profiles. The site also has a way to flag suspicious conversations so that users can report possible scammers.

Most users, including The Post’s Nancy Trejos and Andrea Sachs, have had positive experiences with rental sites such as Airbnb, even with full knowledge of the risks that these sites pose.

Have you used Airbnb or a similar rental site? If not, would you?

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By  |  09:21 AM ET, 07/28/2011

Tags:  Security, Digital Culture

 
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