Writer Discovers Expansive Airbnb Scam

When fake people and misleading listings converge

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One writer's bad AirBnB experience unearthed an unethical use of the system.
Grid Engine/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / November 1, 2019 11:28 am

When writer Allie Conti went to Chicago to attend this year’s Riot Fest, they received discomfiting news: the Airbnb where she and her friends had booked a stay was no longer available due to what the owner described as a plumbing problem. The building’s owner offered them an alternative; when they arrived there, they found a space that “looked more like a flophouse than someone’s home,” as Conti wrote in an article for Vice.

That was just the beginning of one person’s odyssey into the decidedly bleak world of Airbnb scams. Conti’s tale of unexpected cancellations, misleading property descriptions and troubling dealings with customer service makes for an unsettling read for anyone who’s used Airbnb. 

In exploring just what had happened to her, Conti delved further into the listings from the couple who had rented the spot. She discovered a number of troubling things: stock photos used in the listings, reviews suggesting she wasn’t the only person who’d had an abruptly canceled stay and glowing reviews from a couple who were themselves Airbnb hosts — and had spaces listed that looked uncannily like those owned by four other couples. 

“It seemed as if one person or group might have created numerous phony accounts to run a much larger Airbnb operation,” Conti writes. “If that proved true, it meant whoever ran the five accounts I’d located was controlling at least 94 properties in eight different cities.”

Conti raised her concerns with Airbnb, who didn’t respond. And so she decided to do some investigating of her own. (Pro tip: if you’re going to scam someone, a journalist who specializes in writing about scams — as Conti is — is probably not someone you want to aggravate.) What she discovered was a complex web of fraud designed to take advantage of Airbnb users by putting them in a difficult position — one in which getting a full refund from the company might be almost impossible.

Conti’s experience is a fascinating and unnerving one, and a meticulous deconstruction of how a system can be gamed by the unethical.

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