Home renters are no strangers to scams. Vice reported last week how hosts can assume fake identities and scam consumers on Airbnb with a network of fake profiles. The FBI is looking into the article’s claims.
Though some protection will come from the vacation rental platforms themselves, including fraud and risk detection, there are basic steps you can take to make sure you don’t buy into what a scammer might be selling.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. “If you notice a huge percentage of reviews being positive, that is a picture perfect description that is not real,” Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, an artificial intelligence platform that looks to help people weed out fake reviews and counterfeit products, told USA TODAY.
And positive reviews are aplenty: “Unfortunately for a lot of these platforms, because of the personal nature of the interaction, the reviews themselves tend to be skewed very positively,” Chris K. Anderson, a service operations management professor at Cornell University, told USA TODAY. Airbnb users have the option to post public and private reviews.
Click on some of the reviewers’ profiles to ensure that they look like real people – and that the listing has plenty of reviewers in the first place.
Pay attention to photo hiccups. “If photos are low quality, it’s a red flag as it might mean they were taken from another site,” Bryan Fedner, co-founder of vacation rental company StayMarquis, told USA TODAY.
Artist-rendered photos and generic-looking apartments could be warning signs, according to Yanni Poulakos, a travel expert for corporate travel management site Lola.com.
If a listing mentions three baths, and there are pictures of only one, renters should proceed with caution, Anderson said.
Last-minute changes from your host. “If a host contacts you with a last-minute swap, water leak, big problem forcing a change of unit, contact the company you have booked through and go through them directly,” Scott Dobos, director of rental operations at Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty, told USA TODAY.
Poulakos said scammers are known for the bait-and-switch.
“They continue to get away with it because folks are desperate, especially last-minute,” Poulakos said. “If it’s late and you’re alone, never hesitate to escalate this as an emergency. You’ll also have a right to review the host, and you should immediately.”
Communication, communication, communication. It’s tempting to treat platforms such as Airbnb like you’re booking a hotel, but Anderson almost always discourages that. “I would encourage you to have a dialogue with the host,” he said, so you can ask questions and talk about your party via on-platform messaging.
If you’re unable to reach your host or get a funny feeling about the place, it’s best not to book. If you’ve already done so, contact the platform and seek a cancellation.
What are Airbnb and Vrbo doing to protect users?
Though there are plenty of vacation rental platforms, Vrbo and Airbnb are two of the most-high profile.
Travelers who use Vrbo are guaranteed payment protection against fraud, phishing and misrepresentation of the property, among other factors. The company recommends travelers pay directly through the website and communicate with the property manager or owner up front if they have questions.
Airbnb cautions users during large events, such as college basketball tournaments, to be wary of deals too good to be true and encourages people to read up on ratings and reviews.
“With regards to engaging in deceptive behaviors such as substituting one listing for another or leaving fraudulent reviews, those are clear violations of our community standards, and we take those reports very seriously, and we ask consumers to let us know right away if they believe something like that has occurred,” Ben Breit, a spokesperson for Airbnb, told USA TODAY.
Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sent an email to employees last week detailing steps the company is taking in the wake of a shooting at an Airbnb rental in Orinda, California (and after the Vice article).
The platform will begin assessing all 7 million listings on Airbnb with the goal that each home and host will be verified by the vacation rental company by Dec. 15, 2020, Chesky wrote in the email, in addition to other security efforts. After five people were killed and several wounded in the shooting, the home-sharing service’s CEO vowed to crack down on “party houses” – though social media users were skeptical, and the definition of “party houses” remains uncertain.
What to do if you suspect a scam
If you think you found a scam or become the victim of one, reach out to the platforms directly.
Airbnb recommends people communicate directly through its website or app. The company is available 24/7 to assist with rebooking help, refunds and reimbursements.
Vrbo also offers rebooking, and the company’s website points to travel insurance options from its partners. You can also mark a reservation as spam.
Contributing: Grace Hauck
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