Scams: the Dark Side of Alternative Accommodations

Airbnb...more like "Scarebnb" from the stories coming out lately...false listings, shady renters and systemic abuses are just some of the risks of alternative accommodation.



We wrote recently about the evolution of alternative accommodation, based on a new report from JLL, which estimates the sector generating $60 billion annually. With that kind of money flowing maybe it shouldn't come as any big surprise that the scams are also increasing. A recent survey in the UK by Airbnb and cyber security experts Get Safe Online found nearly half (41%) of Brits have experienced fraud, or know someone who has, losing an average of £1,168 each.


Fake Listings


Just yesterday, The Independent ran "100 Tourists Descend on North London Home Amid Booking.com Travel Scam" about a woman, Gillian, whose address in London was posted on Booking.com along with photos of a home in Chelsea. Gillian explained how several sets of tourists came knocking on her door on July 4 to the BBC Radio 4 consumer affairs programme You and Yours.


Dumbfounded, Gillian searched for the listing with her address in north London on Booking.com, and according to The Independent, "despite reporting the scam the following day, a further 80 people who thought they had made reservations through Booking.com arrived before 29 July––including a family from Los Angeles who had paid £1,100 for their stay."


A spokesperson for Booking.com told The Independent: “We take safety and security very seriously, and every week, we facilitate millions of stays with the vast majority taking place with absolutely no problems. Scams are unfortunately a battle many industries are facing against unscrupulous fraudsters looking to take advantage and it is something we are tackling head on."


Ghost Hotels and Systemized Listings


In a lengthy article which appeared in Wired before the pandemic, the journalist James Temperton, accidentally uncovered web of listings where scammers have circumvented London's 90-day letting laws. Basically, they take over apartments or even entire buildings with legitimate long-term leases, then rent out the units for short stays at much higher nightly rates as "de facto hotels." He cites expert sources that specialise in urban planning saying, "that large-scale abuse of Airbnb’s policies – and local planning laws – is alarmingly common."


Temperton warns, "Airbnb empires are being rapidly scaled and monetised, with professional operators creating scores of fake accounts, fake listings and fake reviews to run rings around Airbnb, local law enforcement and the guests who place their trust in the platform. Reviews from guests paint a grim picture of people who have been tricked into staying in accommodation with blocked drains, broken fixtures and fittings, filthy floors, dirty bed linen – or, in some cases, accommodation that they simply did not book."


Other scams...


My friend Laura* visiting from LA just rented her house for the month of July. The "family" who inquired to rent the property didn't raise any red flags, they said they were planning to spend time in LA before taking their college age daughter up to Berkeley. All seemed fine until shortly after they arrived the internet went down and when Laura sent a technician to fix the wifi, he said they had removed all their routers and returned them to factory settings. A few days later calls and emails started coming in for credit card applications, using Laura's name and address. The renters tried to circumvent the mail as well. Laura has now had to place fraud alerts on everything, though the renters did finally leave.


Consolidation Should Help the Industry


According to Ophelia Makis, Senior Analyst Americas Hotels Research, JLL Hotels & Hospitality Group, who we interviewed recently, "The alternative accommodations sector, which was initially designed to appeal to younger leisure travelers on a budget, has considerably expanded its demand base due to the pandemic. Now, corporate travelers, bleisure, business groups, and affluent families on vacation make up a greater share of the sector’s consumer base."


JLL estimates there are 5 million active listings now and 4 million of those are individual owners, JLL's Makis noted, "there is a tremendous opportunity for combining properties to create more economy of scale." Let's hope institutional investment will help better regulate the industry from fraud.

If you're renting alternative accommodation, remember the old adage "if it's too good to be true, it probably is."

“Airbnb uses sophisticated defences to keep bad actors off the platform, but it’s still possible to be caught out by scammers,” says Amanda Cupples, General Manager for the UK and Northern Europe, Airbnb, which is why they have worked with Get Safe Online.


To avoid fraud, Airbnb and Get Safe Online offer these tips:

  • Check the site link: Use the Airbnb app or go directly to the website before you search or book a stay.

  • Beware fake emails, websites, texts, and social media posts: Never click on links that you’re not expecting. These types of communications, which may have an urgent tone, can take you to seemingly authentic but fake websites, designed to either capture your personal information or infect your device with malicious software.

  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is: If you find accommodation on a third party website like a social media platform – especially if the deal or offer seems too good to be true – it could be a scammer. They may encourage you to pay via a direct method like a bank transfer, or through a fake website designed to look like Airbnb, and you should end all communication if this happens. Airbnb doesn’t manage bookings or facilitate payments for accommodations not found on its platform.

  • Only communicate, book, and pay on the Airbnb platform: This will help ensure you’re protected by Airbnb’s secure processes, refund, and support policies as well as other safeguards. Airbnb stays should be booked and paid for on-platform only, and if anyone asks you to go off-platform, you should report it to Airbnb right away.

  • Don’t rush in, and take time to carefully review the details: Scammers may try to pressure you to book quickly. Before you book a place to stay on Airbnb, read the profiles of Hosts and listings thoroughly and check out the reviews and ratings left by other guests. You can also contact the Host to ask any questions before booking by using Airbnb’s secure messaging tool.

  • Protect your account: Use a password that is different to those used on other platforms and email accounts.

  • Don’t give a security pin to anyone: Only submit the security pin through the website or app. Airbnb employees will not ask for your security pin or password over the phone.

“We know all too well how easy it can be to fall for fraud, particularly as scams become more and more convincing. Holiday bookings are increasingly big business for scammers, and the stakes are high both financially and emotionally." adds Tony Neate, CEO, Get Safe Online.


* Name changed for privacy