Our Sunday Long Read this week comes from Vice's Allie Conti, who followed up on getting ripped off by an Airbnb rental and ended up uncovering a massive, systemic bait-and-switch fraud scam that the company almost actually encourages because it gets paid either way.
The call came about 10 minutes before we were set to check into the Airbnb. I was sitting at a brewery just around the corner from the rental on North Wood Street in Chicago when the man on the other end of the line said that our planned visit wouldn’t be possible. A previous guest had flushed something down the toilet, which had left the unit flooded with water, he explained. Apologetic, he promised to let us stay in another property he managed until he could call a plumber.
I had flown with two friends to the city in hopes of a relaxing end-of-summer getaway. We had purchased tickets to attend the September music festival Riot Fest, where Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday were scheduled to perform. The trip had gotten off to a rough start even before the call. Around a month before, a first Airbnb host had already canceled, leaving us with little time to figure out alternative housing. While scrambling to find something else, I stumbled upon a local Airbnb rental listed by a couple, Becky and Andrew. Sure, the house looked a little basic in the photos online, but it was nice enough, especially considering the time crunch—light-filled, spacious, and close to the Blue Line.
Now, we were facing our second potential disaster in 30 days, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious of the man on the phone, who had called me from a number with a Los Angeles area code. Hoping to talk in person, I asked him if he was in the area. He said that he was at work and didn’t really have time to chat. Then he added that I needed to decide immediately if I was willing to change my reservation.
As if he could hear me calculating in my head how much of a hassle it would be to find a hotel instead, he then added something else to his pitch.
“It’s about three times bigger,” the man said. “That’s the good news.”
The bad news, which went unstated, was that I had unknowingly stumbled into a nationwide web of deception that appeared to span eight cities and nearly 100 property listings—an undetected scam created by some person or organization that had figured out just how easy it is to exploit Airbnb’s poorly written rules in order to collect thousands of dollars through phony listings, fake reviews, and, when necessary, intimidation. Considering Airbnb’s lax enforcement of its own policies, who could blame the scammers for taking advantage of the new world of short-term rental platforms? They had every reason to believe they could do so with impunity.
I've sworn off Airbnb because of their systemic racism problems built into a platform that really has no way of enforcing state anti-discrimination and innkeeper laws, especially when it's people renting out their own homes, but of course bait-and-switch scams are pretty bad for everyone, except for the fact that Airbnb isn't really doing anything about scammers either because they get paid for cancellations too.
So yeah, there's that inherent gig economy libertarian tech bullshit again, it's cheaper because it gets around the increased overhead of all that 'being legal and non-discriminatory" and offers itself as an alternative, and it works great as long as you're a white guy in a system that doesn't penalize you for not being a white guy.
I know picking on it is low-hanging, practically gravid fruit, but that's the whole point.