Risks of Airbnb: How to Keep Yourself and Your Data Safe

risks of Airbnb for travelers

Airbnb has changed the way we travel.

Built with the principle of shared economy at heart, the rental platform has become the most popular alternative to traditional hotel stays. And there are good reasons for that: Airbnb is cost-effective, especially, if you plan longer stays. It is authentic—is there a better way to discover new cultures than living with locals? Nope. Finally, it is way more flexible—usually there are no strict check-in or check-out hours and the accommodations are much more like home.

Reasonable pricing, full-immersion experiences, and flexibility, the idea of staying at rentals feels good. It’s true that for the most part, renting through Airbnb can be a safe and rewarding experience. Nonetheless, there are certain risks attached.

Is Airbnb Safe for Guests?

If you try googling “Airbnb safety,” “Airbnb pitfalls,” or “risks of Airbnb for guests,” you’ll end up seeing numerous horror stories that occured because of dangerous loopholes in the Airbnb platform.

The severity of “Airbnb nightmares” varies from extremely unsafe living conditions or poor customer service to cases of scams, sexual assault, and theft.

According to research by a former Airbnb user, Asher Fergusson, in 2016 alone nearly 80 million Airbnb stays turned into a problem for travelers. In most cases, people fell victim to scams, unsafe conditions, fake listings or reviews, and discrimination. The most extreme cases made the news. Others resulted in long-form reviews on third-party platforms, while some of them might have never have been shared with the world.

Risks of Airbnb Explained

Although it’s true that most people have good experiences staying at Airbnb, it won’t hurt to know the platform has a number of loopholes that can potentially endanger guests.  

To start with, anyone can become a host on Airbnb with just a phone number and email. Because there is no obligatory ID verification and background check, this “anyone” could be a thief, a scammer, or a convicted felon.

Next to that, Airbnb does not verify addresses. Nor does it make random checks to ensure that properties listed on the platform are real, legal, safe, and match the description.

Another point of concern is that even those hosts who’ve been accused of inappropriate behavior or wrongdoing and are “forever banned” on Airbnb can easily register with a new, modified name on the same day. No ID verification is required, remember?

And one more thing—there are dozens of fake and duplicate listings on the platform. This means a place you think you’ve booked may not even exist. Alternatively, it may have already been booked by someone else through a duplicate listing.

The final concern is Airbnb’s level of customer service. As hundreds of complaints and reviews on the internet confirm, Airbnb can hardly be the role model for customer-oriented business. There are stories of guests who did not get a refund simply because they failed to contact support within 24 hours of arrival or those who were not taken seriously in emergency situations.

As you see, there’s a room for improvement. A lot of room, I’d say.

The Biggest Risks of Airbnb for Guests

Airbnb looks and feels trustworthy.

First off, the platform has been around for quite long time. This year, Airbnb celebrates its 10-year birthday. This endears people to trust Airbnb more than some recently launched startups.

Furthermore, the platform allows for both guests and hosts to leave reviews. For most people, positive comments, high ratings, and “superhost” status are enough to believe the deal is safe.

Combined with quality photos and a nicely-written property description, Airbnb listings reinforce an illusion of safety though the platform’s system of trust leaves much to be desired.

If you wonder what might go wrong, you’ll be surprised how many possible risks and dangers you’re exposed to each time you look for accommodation on Airbnb.

The living conditions might be unsafe or completely unacceptable.

In most cases, the pictures and property descriptions you see on Airbnb look attractive. However, there is no guarantee the place will look exactly as pictured. In fact, it might look completely different.

According to Asher Fergusson’s investigation, the most common problems Airbnb guests experience include being located in an unsafe neighborhoods, broken amenities, dangerous bug infestations, undisclosed roomates, intimidating hosts, and even hidden cameras in the bedroom or bathroom.

There’s a story of an Airbnb guest who paid $9,000 for dirty, unsafe, federally-subsidized housing described as a “Comfortable Spacial Island Retreat.” Obviously, the price of the rental is not the only criteria you should rely on.

I had a bait-and-switch experience in Brooklyn on Airbnb back in December 2016—I had booked a place that looked great, but it turned out that the host was a realtor and had staged the whole apartment. It was a mess, missing half the furniture from the photos when we arrived, and it was filthy. Cockroaches, dirty dishes, trash, you name it! Oh, and she had left her air conditioning unit in the window of the guest room, but it was December so cold air was just flooding into the room right next to the bed.

While I didn’t feel unsafe per se, I didn’t feel like I had gotten the stay I paid for, and I didn’t feel as though I could stay without risking my health (I did end up getting a very bad cold the following weekend actually, probably due to sleeping in a frigid room). I reached out to Airbnb, and while they were responsive, I ended up having to really negotiate with them to get Airbnb credit back because they wouldn’t give me a refund. In the end, they did give me a reasonable amount of credit (which I went on to use), but had to leave the Airbnb to stay with a friend on the couch for the final night of my trip.

Valerie Stimac, Travel Writer at Valisemag

You might fall victim to an Airbnb scam.

Apparently, there are websites pretending to be Airbnb, and there are scammers pretending to be Airbnb staff. There is even a story of an Airbnb user who lost $4,800 to scammers they had been led to think were Airbnb representatives. All victims claim that the emails they received and payment details they were provided with looked completely legitimate.

Spoofing is not the only Airbnb scam out there. There have been cases of listing price arbitrage, fake scam websites, offsite payment demands, hosts demanding extra cash, and so forth.

I was traveling to Denver, Colorado in September of 2016. We had booked our Airbnb, we were excited and ready to go. When we landed there, we went straight to the Airbnb to drop off all of our stuff before heading out to explore for the day. When we returned that afternoon, the landlord came right at us, telling us that “we didn’t live there,” that we “had no right to be there,” and that we needed to “gather our stuff and leave immediately because Airbnb was illegal” there. We argued and explained that we had paid for the stay there, and this was unfair to throw us all out on the street when it had been clearly advertised. The landlord told us that he did not care and wanted us out, so we got all of our stuff together and promptly left the complex. All Airbnb did was refund the money and an email with their apologies and a small credit for the future. It was an awful experience running around the city last minute trying to find a decently priced hotel to stay in.”

Michelle Lang, Owner of Before the Knot

There might be a huge expectation-reality gap.

Most Airbnb hosts know how to make their property look attractive in pictures. Shooting from the right angle to make the place look more spacious than it really is, showing only those parts of the apartment that look good, editing pictures to mask any imperfections, relying on home staging secrets to make the place look cozy even if it’s not—the list of tricks that hosts can use is long. In order to avoid disappointment upon arrival, it is crucial to remember that perfect-looking listings do not always equal perfect-looking properties.

“We had chosen that particular Airbnb as it had cooking facilities. And as we didn’t want to waste the day we just went straight out. In the evening we came back with food to cook, only to find the kitchen was a complete mess. There were dirty dishes in the sink, the fridge was completely full and even had moldy food in it! When we tried to use the hob, it wouldn’t work. So we tried to get in touch with the host’s mum. She took quite a while to respond and was no help. Eventually we found an old camping hob in one of the cupboards and managed to use this, but it didn’t heat up very well.

Not only this, but the shower only got luke warm (the listing said hot) and was only a dribble. Well, until we cleaned the shower head, then it go a little better. We also realized that there were three Airbnb rooms in this apartment, and we had no idea if anyone else was staying there—there was a bolt on the door, but we had no key for this, so assumed any other Airbnb guests wouldn’t either. We contacted the host’s mum again who did come back to us saying that there were no other guests so the door could be bolted. But by this time, even though it was cheap, we were not happy with the standard, especially as the place was just so dirty.

After my stay I contacted Airbnb about the stay, as I was worried about leaving a bad review. The customer service was brilliant. They asked for pictures to follow up with the host and encouraged me to leave an honest review, as honesty is what Airbnb is all about. I did this, but then a few weeks later, I received a message from the host’s mum. Once I translated it, I realized that it was quite a nasty message! So I contacted Airbnb again, sending a picture of the message. They told me to block the number and told me that they would deal with it. Since then I am unable to see the host on Airbnb—I am unsure whether he has been removed or has blocked me. But the apartment is still available, just under a different host. I also received a gift from Airbnb as an apology.”

Nat Took, travel blogger and Owner at Natpacker

Your hosts might turn out to be slippery characters.

Just like any service with a human-factor involved, Airbnb is not perfect. Hosts are just humans and not all of them are trustworthy, reliable, and honest. When booking through Airbnb, you should be ready for all things unexpected. For instance, your Airbnb host may cancel your booking 24 hours before your arrival, so you’ll have to search for a new accommodation in a hurry. Or even worse, your host may never show up to give you the key. There is a chance that your host has multiple listings of the same property and you’re not the only one who booked that place for the same dates. Can you believe there was a case of an Airbnb guest finding out the place he booked was used as a secret brothel while he was out for work? So yes, some Airbnb hosts are unsavory (to put it lightly).

“I once turned up at my Airbnb in Barcelona only to be greeted with four people sitting in a darkened room who had obviously not slept for 24 hours. What’s worse is that after trying to get some sense out of the only guy who was actually able to communicate in English, I found out my host hadn’t come home the night before and it was down to the four intoxicated people in front of me to check me in. Needless to say, I didn’t hang around for long and ended up sleeping on my friend’s sofa, who I had gone to Barcelona to visit, that night. Airbnb was pretty understanding and refunded me 100% of my booking fee, not sure what happened to the guys hosting account after that.”

Charlie Gardiner, Travel Writer & Photographer from World of Travel Photography 

Or worse—hosts might be sexual offenders, drug dealers, or thieves.

 

One of the most horrifying Airbnb stories that made news is about a 19-year-old student who was locked up and sexually assaulted by an Airbnb host in Madrid. Despite having good reviews on the platform, the host turned out to be transgender with a history of aggressive sexual behavior. It’s worth mentioning the role Airbnb customer support played in this story. As soon as the victim’s mother got an emergency message from his son, she asked Airbnb for help. The platform’s staff said they had no right to reveal the address of their client’s location and suggested she call the police.

There’s a risk of customer service issues.

 

The horrifying story of a sexual violence in Madrid is proof of Airbnb not providing reliable support in emergencies. Unfortunately, response to emergency calls is not the only problem Airbnb should fix. There’ve been cases of unfairly denied refunds, host-favoring policies, inaccurate or insufficient provision of answers, and promises that were never delivered.

Tips to Stay Safe Renting Through Airbnb

Despite particular risks and some horror stories with Airbnb, it’s only fair to note that the platform has numerous advantages. It is easy-to-use for everyone involved, and it is financially beneficial for both hosts and guests. Property owners can make money from spare space, while the travelers can save money on accommodation.

We don’t recommend avoiding Airbnb like the plague, but rather learning to mitigate the risks. The good news is we’ll help you.

Get to know your host first.

When staying in someone else’s home, you’d better learn what kind of person your prospective host is. You can do this by starting an email correspondence or checking your host’s social media profiles. This will help you get a feel for your host’s personality and see if there are any red flags screaming to run away and never look back.

Make sure that your friends or family know where you’re staying.

In case of emergency, your trusted person should have the host’s address easily accessible. As the negative experience of some Airbnb guests confirm, trying to get the address from the platform’s customer support takes time, which is not acceptable in the midst of a dangerous situation.

Put together an emergency numbers list.

The Airbnb experience can be quite unpredictable. You might end up on the street at midnight to fend for yourself. . . or you might be locked in an apartment by some mentally unstable host (both situations sound like worst-case scenarios but this is what has actually happened to Airbnb guests). If something like this happens to you, it won’t hurt to know how to call the local emergency and have international service enabled on your phone. Furthermore, keep your phone charged and ensure your phone and bank card balance are not running low.

Investigate the place upon arrival.

Your goal is to check the property for anything that can potentially threaten your safety or privacy. See if there are any hidden cameras (bear in mind that they can be masterly disguised as smoke detectors, light bulbs, alarm clocks, or even USB chargers). Make sure all the furniture and home appliances are safe-to-use. If there’s something wrong, talk to your host immediately, and don’t hesitate contacting Airbnb customer support if the host is unresponsive.

Make sure your prospective host is not highlighted on Airbnb Hell or general review platforms like SiteJabber or TripAdvisor.

As you might have guessed by now, official reviews on Airbnb do not tell the whole story. There might be many different reasons for that. One of them is that publishing negative reviews might result in guests having trouble being approved by other hosts in the future. It sounds strange, but there’s some logic behind this. After all, hosts might be afraid to accommodate travelers known for publishing dirty details about their stays. This is what makes some people publish extremely detailed (and just as negative) feedback on third-party platforms. Make sure your possible host isn’t discussed on these pages.

Request more pictures of the property.

The benefit of doing this is twofold. First off, you can make sure the property does exist. If it’s not a problem for your host to take some more pictures per your request, chances are high the property exists in real life and belongs to the person you’ve talked to. Secondly, it’s a good way to check if the property still looks the same. Airbnb is 10-years-old already; there are listings that’ve been there for years. Pictures you see might have been taken years ago by a professional real estate photographer. By asking to shoot more pictures of some rooms or objects specifically, you can check the degree of cleanliness and wear and tear.

Never agree to make payments outside the platform.

This is a shortcut to being scammed. The Airbnb system might not be perfectly protected from security breaches, but paying via the platform is still much safer that sending money directly to a total stranger. Your host might say it’s a way to avoid Airbnb’s commission, but you shouldn’t fall for it.  

Another thing you should watch out for is spoofing. This is what happens when you receive an email that looks exactly like the one sent from Airbnb when in fact it is not. Whenever in doubt (especially, if the letter asks you to share your credentials, provide personal information or make a payment), contact Airbnb to make sure the platform is the sender.

If possible, choose to stay in Airbnb apartments your friends of family have already stayed in.

If it’s not an option, do not hesitate contacting those who’ve been there before you and left reviews (especially, if those reviews were in some way negative). This is the least you can do to get a feeling of what kind of place you’re planning to stay.

Give preference to renting entire apartments and homes.

One of the things people love about Airbnb is that it has an offer for any budget. You can rent an entire home or save money sharing the place with a host or other travelers. While the second option is budget-friendly, there are privacy and security risks attached. For instance, even if the host is perfectly normal and warmly welcoming, you never know who the person renting the other room is. The fewer strangers there are sleeping under the same roof the safer you’ll be.

Pay attention to locks.

There are two things to be concerned about. First, you’d better make sure you can lock your door from the inside and rest assured that your personal belongings are safe. Second, you have to ensure the door to your room cannot be locked from the outside. Remember that case of an American student locked in a rented room in Madrid?

If you will only remember one piece of advice, may it be this: When using Airbnb, never forget you’re booking an accommodation with complete strangers and act accordingly.

Do you have any negative experience with Airbnb? What was it?

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