A British couple traveling with their two dogs recently found out the hard way that sometimes an Airbnb listing isn’t all it was promised to be.
In the case of vacationers Ian and Denise Feltham, the Ibiza penthouse they rented for more than 9,600 pounds — the equivalent of nearly $12,000 — wasn’t even real, according to media reports. They told CNN they grew concerned about their reservation before they even showed up but that no one at Airbnb took action.
“Our handling of this issue fell below our usual high standards and we have reached out to the guest to apologize and refund them in full,” the company said in a statement. “We have suspended the listing while we investigate, and are continuing to work with the guest to make things right.”
The home-sharing giant has refunded the couple’s money and offered to reimburse them for additional expenses.
Although Airbnb does not say publicly how many reports of fraud it investigates, the company’s statement did say that “issues like this are incredibly rare,” with 2 million people checking into one of its properties every night.
Still, ever since vacation rental sites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and Vrbo came into existence, the potential for scams has been real. And despite efforts to police the sites, guests — and hosts — still face fraudulent behavior.
“It is strangely becoming my beat unintentionally, I think, because I use it so often and I’ve dealt with so many different situations,” says Josh Ocampo, a staff writer for the website Lifehacker, which offers practical life advice. He has reported frequently on Airbnb issues — scams, legal uncertainty, terrible properties — and how travelers can address them.
To avoid getting scammed, he recommends consumers be wary of listings that have scant reviews, short descriptions or limited photos. If there are multiple cancellation alerts on a property, that is also a likely warning sign. And, he said, sometimes an unbelievable deal should just not be believed.
“If a price is too good to be true for the city, for the time you booked, you should take that as a bit of a red flag,” Ocampo says. “Especially if you’re booking last-minute.”
Airbnb says legitimate hosts should never ask customers to take their business off the official site. That means all communication, booking and payment should take place through the platform. If someone asks for a money order or wire transfer or any payment off-site, the company says, report it and cut off communication. Airbnb also warns about inadvertently paying through sites that appear to be legitimate but are actually scams. Travelers should make sure any links take them to the site itself rather than some similar-looking Web address, such as “airbnb-bookings.com,” created to fool them.
The company says consumers should also watch for emails that have “a false sense of urgency” and use dire language to get them to click on a link.
“Fraudulent emails and websites often have an urgent tone and threaten account suspension, loss of a reservation or booking, or a delayed payout if you don’t click a link or provide certain information immediately,” Airbnb warns.
In addition to keeping an eye out for red flags, travelers can also do some detective work themselves, Ocampo says. If a listing is new, the potential guest should check for reviews on any other properties the host is connected to. If a listing seems suspicious, look to see if a host has a presence on social media to try to verify that they are a real person.
Once someone has the address of their listing, they should Google it to see if the information checks out, the Better Business Bureau says. Examining images on Google Street View can help confirm what’s being advertised is real.
Ocampo says to always do a reverse-image search of the photos included in a listing. Also prudent: making sure a rental isn’t a rule-breaker.
“If you’re visiting a city that has strict laws on Airbnbs, I don’t think it hurts to ask for documentation to prove the legality of that property,” Ocampo says.
To prove (or defend against) allegations of damage, he says, travelers should take photos and video of a property when they arrive and when they leave. If they need to complain about any issues upon arrival, the photos will show the existing conditions. And if a host claims that a visitor trashed a place, pictures at departure time act as a good defense.
“It’s super easy and it protects you from a scam,” he says.
The Better Business Bureau says that if travelers are not booking a rental through a service that verifies its properties and owners, they should make an effort to talk to the person rather than rely on just email. Consumers should also ask for referrals from past tenants and even the cleaning crew or any other party who would be able to provide information about the property.
“Many scammers don’t live locally, so get the owner on the phone and ask detailed questions about the property and local attractions,” the organization says on its website. “An owner with vague answers to your questions is a clear red flag.”