I’ve used Airbnb for many years. In Grenada, I stayed with a lovely family, their house sat on a tall cliff, overlooking the water. We made fish stew together, as we shared our stories and laughed and their 3 legged dogs slept at my feet. In Hirosaki, Japan, I stayed with another family whose boisterous children helped themselves into my room to try to teach me Japanese. The father of the household was kind enough to drive me to the local onsen and act as my unpaid but very patient translator. At the height of the pandemic, my children and I took refuge in the guest house of a kind New Hampshire couple, where we stayed safe and out of harm’s way. And most recently, in Connecticut when I stayed with a husband and wife, former hippies who shared with me their tales of wandering the world with an NGO and doing much, much good. Their pristine home on a lake felt like a paradise and a much-needed escape. This is why my heart breaks when I write the following words: My most recent experience with Airbnb can only be described as a scam. And when I turned to Airbnb for help they acted as though I made it up, and did not even give me the benefit of the doubt. While I’m out of a few hundred dollars, I’m out of much more than that. In this article, I will share with you exactly what happened and give you tips and red flags to look for, so that you too can avoid getting scammed on Airbnb.
After I posted about my experience in a travel group, I was inundated with stories of other travelers who had similar experiences. To help them be heard, I’m including them here. Please scroll down to read other people’s Airbnb nightmares. If you’d like to submit your own, just leave me a comment, and will get you published.
I booked this Airbnb the way I had booked many others, only a few days in advance. After carefully reading reviews I noted all the positives about the place. The listing included many pictures, including that of a clean and well-maintained backyard, the room, and things to do nearby in Stamford, CT. Many reviewers noted the kindness and welcoming attitude of the host. In hindsight the first red flag came shortly after booking when a second person (not the person on the listing) got in touch with me with a multitude of fees that I would be charged should I damage something on the property (from a dirty towel to a kitchen utensil, everything had a price if I was to damage it). I had never seen a list like this in all of my years of Airbnb travel.
Rental Property Scam, Red Flag 1:
Make sure the person listed as your host is the person who actually has the conversation with you. If they are sending you a very long list of prices for any items damaged, expect to be staying in a business rather than a home.
I also checked out her profile, both she and the original host had listed many many rental properties. Airbnb bills themselves as a place for people to share their home. Based on my experiences, I do not believe any of these people (there were two others on the chat as well although they stayed silent) were hosts in the sense that Airbnb portrays them, they were instead business people running unlicensed hotels. Update: I just realized that 3 of the people on the chat were actually one person, using 3 different personas. The names: Andrew, Andrew and Drew all used different profile pictures, with one using Airbnb’s official logo as their profile. As of this writing, it is unclear if using multiple personas on the app is a violation of their rules, but I have a feeling I know what the answer will be.
Airbnb Scams Listing Red Flag 2:
Check how many homes your “host” has listed. If it’s more than 1 or 2 – RUN! A person who shares their home via Airbnb will only have so many they can share. If they have 50, they are probably an unlicensed hotel operator. My host had 11 and the second person who communicated with me had close to 20. Obviously, if you are renting an entire property, your calculus may be different. However, in one of the groups I posted, I spoke to another traveler who had booked an entire home only to find out it was shared (he was also unable to secure a refund from Airbnb).
When I got to the place I realized the surroundings were not as they were described in the reviews. Although many reviews said the neighborhood was convenient and quiet, the area felt shady, and the kind of area I wouldn’t want to walk around alone at night. I grew up in Brooklyn before it was cool if that tells you anything and I’m pretty street smart. This area didn’t feel the way it felt in the reviews. Much later I found out that Airbnb sometimes takes down unfavorable reviews.
Airbnb Travel Tips Red Flag 3:
Check Google street view of the area before you book. The area should feel the way it sounds in the reviews.
I tried to breathe evenly as I parked the car (I honestly did not feel super safe parking there) but I was committed and tried to look at this as just one more adventure. As I walked towards the back of the house, I walked over an unkempt driveway where multiple older cars were parked. I am not 100% sure but I think at least one was a junk car (not operational). Never a great sign. At the front, a guy was digging through the garbage. I walked past him, determined to finally get to this place. As I walked into the backyard, which in pictures looked perfect and inviting I noticed lots of old furniture piled up all over the place. Some of it was turned upside down. I was very uncomfortable at this point.
The next thing I saw made me take a step back. Although the house looked like a normal family home from the front, in the back, I could see no less than 6 (maybe 8) doors, all leading to the same dwelling. Each door had a separate lock, indicating that this was a space intended to be rented out by one more guest.
Behind me, in a second small building next to the garage, I noticed one more door with a lock, the exit partially blocked by old furniture.
At this point, every alarm bell in my head went off at once. Rather than staying with a family, as I had done so many times before, I realized I had made my way into an illegal hotel.
An illegal hotel is a dwelling that is often converted from a normal one-family home into a multi-family dwelling that is rented by the hour, the day, the week, or even the month. As someone from Brooklyn, I’m no stranger to these dwellings – and to the dangers, they pose. Unlicensed, uninspected, and unregulated bad things can happen at illegal hotels. Even a small fire can turn into a disaster, you may be sharing a bathroom and other facilities with strangers, and no one is supervised because usually, the host does not live there. This particular host had 11 properties listed, so it is a safe bet he doesn’t sleep on-premise of this one.
While you can argue about the benefits of illegal hotels and if they serve a necessary function, this was not a place I was safe. Suddenly, aware of the fact that I was standing in someone’s backyard, surrounded by old furniture, with who knows how many people behind those doors and no hosts insight it occurred to me that I should probably listen to my instincts and just leave.
As I turned around I briefly thought about taking pictures. But I felt unsafe at that moment, and comforted by my long, problem-free history with Airbnb, I walked off without taking any pictures. When in the car, I locked my doors, unsure what to do next. I started the Airbnb app and dialed their safety protocol. An automated response came – if you are in trouble call 911. I was not in that much trouble. Almost right away a human answered and said someone would be getting in touch with you shortly. “I don’t feel safe here, I am leaving” I responded, and started the car. I drove all the way back to my house, a little worse for wear, a little upset, but confident in the ultimate goodness of Airbnb, and that they would make this right.
(narrator’s voice) Airbnb did not, in fact, make it right.
Nobody got back to me that day. At the end of the evening, safe in my own bed I requested a refund through the system. In the line for “reason”, I wrote: Do not wish to stay in an illegal hotel. Felt unsafe.
The next day, I still did not have a response from Airbnb. I finally reached out again, through the same system and requested help again.
In the meanwhile, I started looking through the Airbnb reviews carefully. The way Airbnb reviews work is that if you leave someone a review they can see it first – before they can leave you one. Unlike many other systems, your review is not kept private until the host leaves you one, which works to help minimize any negative reviews. People are afraid to say the truth about the place, because it may mean a negative review for them. Hey Airbnb, was this accidental or by design?
Another common Airbnb scam is a host getting fake, positive reviews in order to inflate their ratings. As I paid closer attention to the reviews in question, I noticed that many of the reviews had stayed at several properties hosted by the same host or the other woman on the chat. This seemed like a funny coincidence.
Red Flag 4:
Read the reviews carefully, check if the reviewers seem like real people, or if they are leaving reviews for multiple properties by the same host.
Anyway, eventually, I was able to talk with Airbnb who told me that without “documentation” that this is an illegal hotel, the only way for me to get a refund is if the host agreed to. (narrator’s voice) The host did not, in fact, agree to give me a refund. Shocking, I know.
The fact that I had said I was in danger, the fact that I ran out of there and contacted their support system the right way, did not seem relevant.
When they asked me why I did not have documentation, I informed them that I put my safety first, which they deemed an insufficient reason. To be perfectly honest, my heart was a little broken. Rather than trusting a traveler who has no reason to lie (why would I book a place, drive all the way there, and leave immediately, unless something was really wrong), they trusted a host, who has more reason to lie but also made them a lot more money. As far as Airbnb is concerned, they communicated to me that they will put the burden of proof is on the traveler, even if the traveler’s safety was in question.
In the end, it is due to this practice of questioning my word, despite my long history, despite that, a host could not possibly live in 11 properties, and despite the fact that I have no reason at all to lie, which is the reason why I’m unlikely to ever travel through Airbnb again.
Anyway, looks like I’ll be filing a chargeback. Interestingly, however, many travel groups claim that if you file a dispute with your credit card, Airbnb will remove you from the app and block you. So, to be continued?
Before and After: Spot the Differences, Was It A Scam?
While I did not take my own pictures, the owner of the unit helpfully shared a picture of his backyard with me in convo (while trying to convince me not to call the buildings department). Notice, this “after” is missing at least 1 pee-stained couch which he said he threw out after I left. Does this look the same to you?
Here is Airbnb’s response (word for word):
Hi, There is no hosting violation present in the picture you sent. We already double checked because we really want to grant your request. As much as I want to, we cannot use this as documentation for your claim. I hope you understand. I really apologize if I cannot grant your request for a refund. Only the host can refund you this reservation. How can I still help? Best,Airbnb Customer Support Rep, August 7, 2021
Safety and Privacy: Number One Priority?
After I made such a huge stink, the host reached out to me directly. Among other things, he said the following:
“I am so sorry you feel that way. Please feel welcome to ask the city to visit. It’s really too bad that we are ending up on what seems like such bad terms, I was really looking to pick your brain on SEO since we know so many of the same people. I’m Also pretty sad that you don’t like my choice in outdoor furniture. I’ll take that into serious consideration. I thought I had made for a nice conversation area with a fire pit.”Airbnb Host, August 7, 2021
I took the bolded part as a threat, but interestingly when I asked Airbnb if looking me up, finding out what I do for a living, etc and using it casually in convo like this violates any of their terms they responded with:
Hi, As per checking, this is out of our control. We have no way of knowing how your host checked your background or acquired your information. My suggestion is that you directly ask them how did they find out. I hope this helps. This is really all I can do for this reservation for now. How can I still help? Best,Airbnb Support, August 7, 2021
To me, this is pretty interesting because Airbnb essentially says that you have no expectation of privacy as an Airbnb guest, potential or past. If I checked into the hotel, the guy who takes my ID obviously knows who I am. But people in hotels are at work, this is not personal to them, they are also prescreened and hotels are licensed. They have rules to follow.
Mia in Arizona’s Story:
I planned a trip to Santa Monica to visit family and a weekend getaway in early July for me and 2 teens (my daughter and her friend) before their senior year in high school. The pandemic has obviously put a damper on everything, but especially for teens. We’re all vaccinated., had plenty of masks on hand, and were ready. I booked the Airbnb with plenty of notice and even messaged the host ahead of time asking if there was enough room for the 3 of us (since it was only a 1 bedroom). He confirmed and we booked.
We drove to Santa Monica and as we arrived at the location, I instantly knew we would not be able to stay at the location. I thought I had done my due diligence, asked the right questions, and confirmed our game plan. I. Was.
Not only did it take me a significant amount of time to find the place (which should have been my first warning), once we arrived, we could not locate parking. I tried to call the host number – no answer. They only responded via text.
The adjacent building had boarded up & burnt-out apartments, the alley was filled with trash and I felt very unsafe. I took pictures, immediately opened the AirBnB app, called the “safety” line, and expressed my concerns to the agent (after about 30 minutes on hold).
Keep in mind, we had just been driving for 8 hours and were now panicked about not having someplace to stay. My 2 teens were on their phones calling hotels while I texted the host that we would not be checking in and attempted to talk with the Airbnb representative. It was not a pleasant conversation. He was very argumentative, unempathetic, and just kept quoting policies that AirBnB does not guarantee the safety of the neighborhood, only the safety of the unit itself.
I tried to communicate how illogical that was, but he was more interested in arguing than helping. I advised that I would have to call back once we felt safe with a place to stay for the weekend and when I was in a calmer state.
We found a hotel (that cost twice as much as budgeted), got checked in and settled and I immediately called American Express. The customer service representative was beyond patient, extremely helpful, and assisted in disputing the charges. I decided that was enough for the moment and we enjoyed our trip.
Once home, not only did I want to resolve the issue with Airbnb, but I was also trying to be respectful to the host who owned the unit. I did not want to provide a negative review. We never set foot in the unit since it felt too unsafe to even get out of the car. I simply wanted a refund.
Once home, I attempted to follow up with AirBnB via their app multiple times (no one ever proactively called me as they said would happen) and requested a supervisor more than once. I advised them that I would much prefer to work it out with them than to dispute the charges, but their policies seem to overrule logic.
I persisted in my attempts to reach a human and finally spoke to a nice gal. Unfortunately, she was just a cog in the wheel and had zero authority to help. Airbnb eventually offered me a less-than-full-refund that I politely declined. I tried to explain that I never set foot in the unit, felt unsafe, had pictures to prove it, followed their safety procedures, and had to pay twice as much for a hotel. They didn’t care. Paying on my AmEx was my saving grace. I am still thankful for that representative.
Airbnb has lost a long-time user. I truly would rather support local owners and the community. I thought Airbnb provided the guarantees and assurances to feel comfortable renting from strangers. I no longer feel that way.
My words of wisdom from my experience:
- Ask ridiculously detailed questions about more than just the unit itself – consider parking, neighborhood, surrounding community and silly things (that aren’t so silly) like whether the host uses scent-free cleaning products if you’re prone to allergies. Seriously, be detailed.
- Be wary of pictures of the interior only. Ask for pictures of the exterior of the unit AND neighborhood. I was drawn into the pictures of the unit itself but had there been pictures of the exterior and the surrounding buildings, we could have saved a lot of heartache and stress.
- Book in advance, get the address and then do your research of the neighborhood while still in the cancellation period. I thought I had done this thoroughly. I was wrong.
- Use a credit card with amazing customer service. The dispute was my saving grace.
- Have a backup plan. Find the nearest hotels ahead of time, just in case. Make sure they’re within your budget and make sure they have availability. We were very lucky. We got one of the last rooms. It was not within budget but by that point, it didn’t matter.
- Don’t use AirBnB.
Kelly from Georgia’s Experience
We had an Airbnb experience back in June at a property in NC. Property listed access to the creek. Twice we had homeless people in the backyard taking baths in the creek, naked…. Police called. Unsafe situation.
I very carefully left a review, followed by a call to Airbnb to confirm it was within the guidelines. They removed the review.
And they have no customer service, and outside the call center that offers zero help. I just don’t like knowing they are removing reviews. You really don’t know what you are renting.
Update on Traveltipster’s Story
After I posted an Airbnb post on Instagram and shared my experiences, and after I posted this blog, they agreed to review my case once again. In the end, Airbnb issued me a coupon for the amount I paid for future use. While I appreciate the coupon, this doesn’t really resolve the issue. What happens to people without powerful travel blogs? Why is a billion-dollar company enabling the operations of an illegal and unlicensed hotel? In the end because of the way the review system on Airbnb if I leave a negative review, I will get one too. So, this article will have to be my way to warn others.
Would you like to share your Airbnb or VRBO nightmare? Please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to include you.