Airbnb Scams: How to Avoid Getting Catfished

The internet's latest hotbed for deceiving profiles isn't a dating site — it's the world's most popular short-term rental service

a messy bedroom that looks nothing like the photos that were posted on Airbnb
"Well that doesn't look like the photos."

Choosing the perfect Airbnb is a fickle business. There are always a handful of factors that take priority over others, your personal non-negotiables, like proximity to the closest airport, number of beds, access to wifi or accessibility in general. But then there are secondary variables to consider, like the occasion, overall cleanliness, heating and cooling, whether it’s a shared space, etc. Aesthetics play a significant role in my own Airbnb selection process.

Point being: we all have preferences. And because Airbnbs are subject to far less oversight than hotels, hosts can get away with misleading — if not outright deceiving — their guests to believe those preferences will be met. There’s a word for this kind of behavior in internet parlance: catfishing.

Particularly with the uptick in hosts commissioning professional photographers to shoot their rentals, a lot of Airbnb listings are a bit of a departure from the actual Airbnb itself. Someone with even a rudimentary mastery of Photoshop can, for example, create the illusion that a room has a lot of natural light, when in reality it’s about as luminous as a walk-in closet. It’s a topic that’s been broached more than a handful of times on r/airbnb — a Reddit forum for Airbnb hosts and guests — in recent months.

“I got catfished by a listing, all the blinds were closed in the pics (red flag, I know), and upon arrival I found that my view is literally just a wall. There is almost no natural light, and it is making me feel really depressed,” one Redditor posted a few months back.

“This evening I arrived and realized that the pictures displayed on Airbnb must have been taken at least 5-10 years ago,” another recounted in a post from July. “There are water stains around the window all the way down to the floor in 3 corners of the room, the imprint of a hot iron is left on the carpet in the middle of the room. In the bathroom there is mold forming in the entrance to the shower and the paint on the cupboards in the kitchen area is all scratched up.”

In other scenarios, ill-fated guests detail arriving to what appeared to be damage from a break-in, a faulty deadbolt and a cockroach infestation, and even having to cancel a reservation and file a report to Airbnb after having booked a totally fabricated listing.

Of course, while the latter falls on the more extreme — and illegal — end of the spectrum, there are many other, more idiosyncratic ways that users can be misled by a listing. I once booked a handful of Airbnbs on a cross-country road trip, one of which was allegedly a newly constructed tiny home in an “eco-resort” in Conway, Arkansas. Upon arrival, I discovered the tiny homes had not yet been built. We wound up sleeping in a loft in the main house accessible only by a fiberglass stepladder. There was a pipe built into the bed. Earlier this very week, InsideHook’s branded content team was left scrambling after an Airbnb they’d scouted for a video shoot turned out to be not quite as advertised, with one of my colleagues equating the bathroom to that of “a Jiffy Lube in Michigan.” All of this to say: Airbnb catfishing is a relatively common phenomenon, though — fortunately — an avoidable one, too.

Jonathan Khoo is a mid-40s programmer who has been working remotely since 2007 and often digitally nomadic since 2012. He’s visited more than 90 countries, and the overwhelming majority of his travels have involved Airbnb stays. By his estimate, he’s stayed somewhere in the ballpark of 120 Airbnbs since 2011. 

While Khoo has had good luck with Airbnb historically, he once rented an apartment off, the listing of which failed to mention it was located directly above a bar. According to Khoo, the secret to circumventing this scenario is unsurprisingly in the reviews.

“No reviews [or] hedged reviews, where someone sort of hints at something but doesn’t flat out say it, [are a red flag],” Khoo says. “Typically in many cities you have the option of so many listings it’s easy to just disregard anything with less than a 4.5-star rating. Unfortunately, there were no reviews yet in the listing because it was new, the price was right (I wonder why?) and it was in the right part of town. Definitely our fault for putting cost and convenience ahead of what we should have done.”

As far as listings go, remember that less is not more. In fact, in almost every instance, more is more. 

“Listings that only have a couple of pictures. I want to see everything. No picture of the bedroom? No thank you. No picture of the kitchen? Nope,” Khoo says.

“No reviews means no insight into actual experiences. If it’s a popular place with lots of reviews, I’ll usually just read the first couple pages, but I’ll always search for something like ‘wifi’ or ‘internet’ to see if there are any reviews that mention slow or intermittent internet,” he adds. “Stay at places with lots of good reviews, look for pictures to make sure it has everything you want. Even one or two negative reviews should disqualify the place from your consideration automatically, especially in cities where you have lots of choices. Even one small thing that doesn’t look right should immediately lower that particular listing in your choice rankings.”

It does bear mentioning that while being catfished or scammed are both lamentable — and condemned by Airbnb — they aren’t the same thing.

“Misclassified Listings are prohibited on Airbnb and our Guest Refund Policy covers a guest if the Listing’s description or depiction of the Accommodation is materially inaccurate,” a spokesperson for the platform told us. “If a guest ever shows up to an Airbnb reservation and the listing is not what they expected, we want to help. We recommend taking photos and contacting our team as soon as possible.”

That said, there are a handful of ways to avoid the latter, too. Chief among them, per a 2017 report from Insider, is to make sure you conduct all your communication and transactions directly on the real Airbnb site. Never wire money to a host, don’t email a host outside of the platform, read Airbnb’s refund policies and, again, do your due diligence. Vet hosts, read the reviews and don’t dismiss anything unsavory. You could wind up sleeping above a bar or breaking bread with cockroaches.


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