Airbnb is an online service that matches people that are looking for vacation rentals and short-term accommodations with those who have rooms to rent out. Airbnb was founded in August 2008 and had over 100,000 listings in 16,000 cities and 186 countries as of July 2011. Airbnb raised $112 million at a valuation that is greater than $1 billion earlier this month. All seemed well for the company until an unfortunate incident happened recently, which is giving them highly negative publicity.
Last month an Airbnb user by the name “EJ” wrote a long blog post about how an Airbnb spent a week carefully robbing and trashing her home. Below are some snippets from EJ’s blog post:
I would be remiss if I didn?t pause here to emphasize that the customer service team at airbnb.com has been wonderful, giving this crime their full attention. They have called often, expressing empathy, support, and genuine concern for my welfare. They have offered to help me recover emotionally and financially, and are working with SFPD to track down these criminals. I do believe the folks at airbnb.com when they tell me this has never happened before in their short history, that this is a one-off case. I do believe that maybe 97% of airbnb.com’s users are good and honest people. Unfortunately I got the other 3%. Someone was bound to eventually, I suppose, and there will be others.
The user by the name Dj Pattrson rifled through every document, every photo, every drawer, and every storage container.
They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother’s jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals… my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied – using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests? use. They rifled through all my drawers, wore my shoes and clothes, and left my clothing crumpled up in a pile of wet, mildewing towels on the closet floor. They found my coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond and used the discount, along with my Mastercard, to shop online. Despite the heat wave, they used my fireplace and multiple Duraflame logs to reduce mounds of stuff (my stuff??) to ash ? including, I believe, the missing set of guest sheets I left carefully folded for their comfort. Yet they were stupid and careless enough to leave the flue closed; dirty gray ash now covered every surface inside.
They did weird stuff too: moving things around in a spooky, psychotic kind of way – creepy little things that I am still discovering as I dig through the wreckage – like cutting the tags off my pillows, and hanging a painting of Paris on the wall that I had never hung before… probably while wearing my now-missing Ugg boots and Roots cap.
All the while, Dj Pattrson was sending me friendly emails, thanking me for being such a great host, for respecting his/her privacy?. telling me how much he/she was enjoying my beautiful apartment bathed in sunlight, how much he/she particularly loved the ?little loft area? upstairs? with an ?lol? closing one sentence, just for good measure. It makes me sick to my stomach to think now of these emails.
The kitchen was a disaster – the sink piled high with filthy dishes, pots and pans burnt out and ruined. Comet Cleanser was dumped everywhere; the kitchen counters, wood furniture, my gorgeous new bed frame, my desk, my printer? all were doused in powdered bleach. The death-like smell emanating from the bathroom was frightening (and still is) and the bathroom sink was caked with a crusty yellow substance. Various pairs of my gloves were strewn about ? leather, dishwashing and otherwise ? I imagine in a weak attempt to cover up fingerprints. Whoever these people were, they were living large and having one hell of a time for an entire week inside my home, unwatched, unchecked, free to do whatever destruction they wished. And damn, did they do a lot of it.
EJ had rented out her apartment several times while she traveled using Craigslist. She never had a problem when using Craigslist.
EJ had a good experience with Airbnb.com as a traveler, but not as a renter. She rented an Airbnb.com property in Sydney last month to sell her on the concept of the website. Soon she listed her own property after for a week of upcoming travel.
EJ went on to talk about Craigslist vs. Airbnb:
Yet now I ask myself this: for what, exactly, did I pay a service fee to airbnb.com? What did I get in exchange for my 20-something dollars? What was the advantage of using this service over Craigslist, which is free? Ironically airbnb.com?s site states ?the promise of our site is that it is entirely transparent? when in reality, it is not. And therein lies the fundamental, though not immediately apparent, difference: on Craigslist, I am warned loudly and repeatedly that use of the site is at my own risk. I am encouraged to take certain precautions, and I have the ability to do so by gaining quick access to the email addresses, phone numbers, and other identifying information of the person(s) I am communicating with, all of which can be researched and at least somewhat verified by means of basic internet searches. Alternatively, airbnb.com tightly controls the communication between host and traveler, disallowing the exchange of personal contact information until the point in which a reservation is already confirmed and paid for. By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that airbnb.com has already done the research for me, and has eliminated the investigative work that Craigslist requires. In effect, the friendly, community-based site with its Golden Rules creates a reasonable expectation that some basic screening of its users has occurred, and speaks little to the risks involved, primarily within the very small print of the lengthy Terms of Service. Thus by the time this reservation was confirmed and I was given Dj?s email address and phone number, I was on a plane heading East, and he/she was armed with my welcoming instructions on where to pick up the keys to my apartment.
EJ then went on to write about how she can no longer stay in her apartment:
I can’t stay here much longer. The feeling of having been violated is overwhelming. The apartment?s energy – once light and airy – now feels thick and disquieting. I’ve had the place scrubbed and sterilized, every inch of it. I’ve burned candles and white sage, repotted my (near death – they didn’t water it) houseplant, and bought myself some bright flowers. I’ve tried, but I can’t settle back in. I can’t use a water glass without thinking it was used by them. I can’t put on a pair of underwear without picturing their filthy hands rifling around in my dresser drawers. I can?t ever be comfortable here again.
Despite this very fresh trauma, I can still recognize airbnb.com to be a brilliant concept that fills a much-needed hole in the traveler market, and based on their amazingly kind, caring response and support throughout the past few days, they have proven to me that they are an honest company with pure, good intentions. But 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.
I certainly cannot and do not blame the agency for what has occurred. If anything, I blame myself. In retrospect, and as I read through my initial email exchanges with Dj, I recognize now that something was ?off? in his manner of communication, that I trusted too easily, and probably did not do my due diligence to properly protect myself and my home. And so I am frustrated with myself, and dealing with feelings of guilt and self-doubt, wondering how I could have let my guard down. But if we are going to go down that path, if we are going to turn the blame on me, then a woman who gets raped may as well blame herself for wearing a short skirt and heels. Victims don?t ask to be victims, and pointing fingers back at them is less than helpful. I am struggling now to not do this to myself.
As a result of this incident, Airbnb is doubling the size of their customer support staff and creating a Trust & Safety department. The company also created a Host Education Center where hosts can find safety tips. Now video chat and VoIP is being encouraged between the traveler and renter. And insurance is being offered to hosts.