Airbnb horror stories: The vacation rental site reveals the limits of trust online.

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Aug. 2 2011 5:03 PM

Renters From Hell

Airbnb and the limits of trust online.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.
How do you know who you're really renting to?

How much money would it take for you to let a complete stranger move into your home for a week while you were out of town? The correct answer to that question is: a million dollars, and probably not even then. Now imagine if I told you a bit more about your new houseguest. I'll give you his name, phone number, and Facebook profile. I'll show you how often he's stayed with other people, and I'll tell you what they thought of him. I'll also take down his credit card in case any trouble arises. Look, you're going to be gone for two weeks, and your house is sitting empty. This guy is offering you $100 a night. What could go wrong?

Most of the time, nothing. Airbnb, the 3-year-old site that lets you rent out an extra room or your entire home to travelers, says that people have booked more than 2 million nights using the service and that everything turns out OK nearly 100 percent of the time. That's nearly 100 percent of the time. A woman in San Francisco with the nickname "EJ" recently wrote a blog entry about Airbnb users ransacking her apartment, and how the site attempted to cover up the crime. Another guy told Techcrunch that he used Airbnb to rent out his Oakland, Calif., home to people who turned out to be thieves and meth addicts. Among other things, "They unscrewed everything in his refrigerator and mixed things together. They stole his clothes, or shredded them. He found a sweater in the freezer."

On Monday, Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky posted an apology for the way the company handled EJ's situation. He also announced that Airbnb is instituting a $50,000 guarantee that will cover loss or damages caused by guests. The site will also begin monitoring suspicious activity and offering a direct customer-support phone line, and they'll allow renters to ask for more information from potential guests. The most important question for Airbnb's future, now, is whether its security measures are enough to ensure the site is a safe harbor for vacation renters. I'm not sure they are. Indeed, Airbnb may well represent the limit of trust online.

In his blog post, Chesky wrote that "we weren't prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball." And that's the most damning thing about Airbnb's response: Why was the company surprised that something terrible might happen when people rented their homes to strangers? Shouldn't it have been preparing for this disaster since the day it launched? The answer, I think, lies in how the Web lulls us into thinking we can trust people. Since the mid-'90s, we've come to expect magical things from e-commerce. Buying stuff from strangers on the other side of the world once seemed dodgy, but it's now routine. Fifteen years ago you'd have scoffed at the notion that an online crowd could be corralled into doing anything useful together. Now we take it for granted that strangers can make great things online, including the world's best encyclopedia.

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Airbnb stands on the shoulders of the Web's best communities. To protect homeowners and guests, it uses innovations pioneered by eBay, Craigslist, and Wikipedia—user reviews, reputation scores, escrow accounts, flagging, social-network vetting, and now an insurance policy. But Airbnb says what truly keeps the site safe is human nature: People are "fundamentally good," it repeats again and again on the site.

Maybe so—but good enough to give them your keys? Despite the many measures they take to protect people, scams happen all the time on eBay and Craigslist. If you use these services often, something bad has likely happened to you. Once, I lost $200 when I purchased a bum computer monitor from a guy on eBay who looked legitimate; as soon as I got the monitor, he disappeared from the site, and my efforts to recoup my losses weren't fruitful. (eBay later unveiled a "Buyer Protection" plan and an improved resolution system that might have helped my situation.) On Craigslist, meanwhile, I've encountered more flakes than you'll find in a box of Kellogg's. I don't recall ever losing much money from arranging a trade on the site, but I have suffered endless annoyance and lost plenty of time.

Still, I keep using both sites because the rewards far outweigh the risks—I've gotten enough great deals on both sites to offset my frustrations and losses. The worst thing that could happen to you on eBay is that you'll pay $16,000 for a vintage Spiderman comic that never arrives. That's bad, but not nearly as bad as what can happen on Airbnb, especially if you're renting out your whole place while you're out of town. It would be easy for a determined thief to get around Airbnb's security measures. A bad guy, for instance, could use stolen credentials or credit cards to masquerade as a traveler with legitimate reviews on the site. And consider the risks involved. Homeowner's and renter's insurance policies typically don't cover the damages caused by a houseguest. Airbnb's $50,000 guarantee is nice, but it doesn't seem quite enough. Think about all the priceless things you've got at home—your photos, your sentimental knickknacks, your favorite clothes. Most importantly, there's your sense of security. Both of the recent Airbnb fraud victims reported feeling profoundly violated and vulnerable. "I can't stay here much longer," wrote EJ. Would you risk that for $50,000? I wouldn't.

You might say I'm being alarmist. Considering all the wonderful experiences people have had with Airbnb, the two horror stories we know about are clearly outliers. That's true, but I'd note that we actually don't know the rate of Airbnb fraud—considering that the company tried to keep EJ quiet, it's possible that there have been similar victims that we haven't heard about. It's still likely that the chance of something terrible happening is very small, especially if you thoroughly vet your guest using all the tools the site makes available. (Troy Dayton, the Oakland homeowner whose house was ransacked by methheads, says that he failed to do this.)

Still, even if you do everything by the book, it's best to remember that you're taking a risk. Airbnb may seem like a magical service, but it's just a way to facilitate real-world connections. Airbnb says people are fundamentally good, but out here in the real world, people do bad things to each other all the time. If I rented out my house using Airbnb, I doubt anyone would steal all of my stuff. But personally, I'd never take the risk.

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