That’s not all. Leibsly took a picture of a notice, printed on Find a Flat letterhead, that was tacked to the side of the refrigerator in the London apartment. “Please remember our special rewards and incentives,” it said. “Earn 20 pounds cash back for writing a positive review of our flat on the website, 40 pounds for two reviews on two websites.”
Although Find a Flat wouldn’t answer my questions, it referred me to Chris Emmins, the co-founder of KwikChex.com, a U.K.-based site that publishes and promotes verified guest reviews. Emmins says that his company is investigating Leibsly’s claims and trying to mediate the dispute.
“At the heart of it is the online comments, including his blog,” he told me. “In the various and multiple postings made, he has complained about aspects such as no air conditioning and that the washer-dryer did not dry. Our initial investigations seem to imply that such facilities were not advertised, so this is obviously a concern at the outset.”
The investigation isn’t complete. Emmins is also trying to verify the identities of the five-star reviewers to determine whether they were paid for their positive reviews. He says that KwikChex.com disapproves of the practice of paying guests for ratings. Emmins showed me preliminary results of his inquest, which cast doubts on some aspects of Leibsly’s story and appear to validate others, but he would not allow me to include them in this article.
“Believe me,” he said. “We will not have our own integrity compromised.”
HomeAway takes a similar position on paid ratings, although it doesn’t formally ban them from its site. “We do not approve of owners offering compensation for reviews,” Shepherd said. “And we don’t have any evidence that this is happening frequently.”
User-generated ratings, he noted, “are supposed to be independent, and [Leibsly’s] seems to be strongly so.”
In hindsight, a closer look at the rental listing throws up a couple of bright red flags. There were only a few reviews, and all except for Leibsly’s now-deleted rating rave about the flat. What’s more, 548 pounds for three nights in what Leibsly believed was a “luxury” apartment during high season in one of the world’s hottest destinations seems almost too good to be true.
A further flag: the rental contract, which required a prospective tenant either to wire money or use PayPal and which included a non-disparagement clause.
When I mentioned these warning signs to Leibsly, he acknowledged that he should have paid closer attention to the listing when he was selecting the apartment. But he says that the listing also misrepresented the property.
More troubling is the fact that Leibsly’s experience lifts the veil on the lightly regulated, standards-free rental industry and suggests that a property’s reputation may be bought and sold almost as frequently as it’s earned.
And that’s a problem for anyone considering a home rental for their next vacation.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at .