Vacation rentals have gained in popularity thanks to novel platforms making it easier and cheaper for homeowners to rent out their apartment online, either whilst they are travelling or as a long-term option. The emergence of the “sharing economy”, led by Airbnb in the field of vacation rentals, has changed many homeowners and travellers’ lifestyles, allowing the former to better monetise their assets and the latter to find affordable accommodation and to, potentially, make new friends whilst travelling.
Whilst Airbnb and the like have made it, generally, safer for both hosts and travellers, thanks to peer reviews, an internal messaging system not allowing users to transact outside the platform, and secure payment at the time of booking – risks remain. As one of the leaders in the field, Airbnb is also the most likely target of hackers and fraudsters in the industry, who will create fake listings and profiles as well as attempt to obtain user information.
Vacation rental scams have become more sophisticated
An old property scam in the field of vacation rentals would be to simply list a property online, and ask the travellers interested in booking to pre-pay for their stay by wiring the funds to a bank account. The travellers would then never hear again from their hosts, or turn up at their holiday home, just to find out that they have been conned.
Fortunately, nowadays, the risk of this happening has been significantly diminished by peer reviews and payment via the vacation rental platform. However, property scams have also become more sophisticated.
Are you sure you are transacting with Airbnb?
First, rogue hosts can still lure travellers with fake listings which look too good to be true. They will be cheaper than average and the host will create a sense of urgency by inviting the traveller to book outside the platform (which will save them booking fees) and by saying, for instance, that the special deal is only available for a limited period of time.
A way more sophisticated property scam in the vacation rental industry is to create fake profiles, either with a few fake reviews (after getting some bogus bookings) or to scrape and duplicate a genuine listing. In the latter case, a traveller interested in a property will be contacted by what is seemingly an email from Airbnb, but in reality comes from a fake address. The traveller will be invited to process the booking via a fake Airbnb website, and to either send a payment or leave their credit card details with the fraudsters.
Are you sure your guest won’t sublet your home?
Needless to say, there are not only rogue hosts, but also rogue guests on vacation rental platforms such as Airbnb. Again, the bad guests can be penalised with poor host reviews, diminishing their chances to be accepted again by future hosts. Fraudsters are, however, often ready to pay a fee to obtain user information, such as emails, phone numbers or the exact address of a listing. They will therefore book an Airbnb apartment when it is available for the shortest period of time and during low season, make sure the terms allow a cancellation without incurring extra costs, cancel it shortly after booking and hence only lose the booking fee. This is their cost of acquiring new leads, so to say.
Other fraudsters will rent an apartment via the platform and initially come across as good guests. Once at the apartment, they will list it on other long-term rental websites, act as if they were the landlord or the agent, create a (fake) listing, and lure tenants to pay an upfront fee for it. They may even show the tenants the apartment, giving them the impression that the listing is genuine. The real apartment owner and holiday rental host will then soon find the new “tenants” knocking on the door of the apartment, ready to move in and claiming it to be their new home for which they have already paid a deposit. The holiday rental guest who acted as the landlord or agent will be long gone.
Beside having to be reported to the holiday rental platform – Airbnb or any other – such property scams should also be reported to the Police and to ABTA, the UK travel association.
Whilst it has, overall, become safer and easier to rent a holiday apartment – and most transactions work flawlessly and leave only good memories – the market has also expanded significantly, and fraudsters have become savvier. Guest and tenant verification services are still not sufficient. Hence, trust remains a major issue, and peer reviews on holiday rental websites are unlikely to fully protect consumers from property scams. And when they happen, the consequences are all the more painful.