Going on vacation should mean more than waking up in a different bed. It should also mean getting to see and know a place more like a local does. That's part of the appeal behind room-sharing sites like the incredibly popular AirBNB. AirBNB lets anyone with a spare room become a host. As a guest, you can stay with a local and get a real sense of what a location is all about. Also, you can save quite a bit of money!
However, the system is based on trust. Any time there's trust, there's some opportunistic crook waiting to make a quick buck by exploiting it. That's certainly been the case with AirBNB. The Australian Better Business Bureau reported a six-fold increase in scams related to the room-sharing service in 2016. The service recently expanded its offerings, allowing users to book independently-run guided tours or experiences in addition to rooms, and this expansion has been part of the drive behind the increase. Before you book at AirBNB, make sure you keep yourself safe from these scams!
1.) Fake websites
An AirBNB host you were interested in sends you an email to check out a few other properties they have for rent. These properties come complete with reviews, official logos and other hallmarks of authenticity. There's even a live chat service reassuring you that everything's official and on the level. So, you think nothing of wiring a fee to reserve your room.
Everything's fine until you go to confirm your reservation with AirBNB. They have no record of your transaction and don't even have the properties listed. What happened?
A scammer capitalized on your trust by directing you to a fake booking website that's not hosted by AirBNB. These groups go to extreme lengths to create accurate reproductions of the official site and have even fooled several veteran AirBNB users.
There are two ways to avoid this tactic. First, always check the URLs of sites you visit. Make sure you're visiting a site where the word AirBNB occurs right next to the .com. If there are words between the two, you may be visiting a phony site! Second, only pay through AirBNB's official checkout platform. They use modern encryption technology to keep your financial information safe. It's a whole lot more secure than paying outside the system.
2.) Phony excursions
A new feature of AirBNB is the ability to book "experiences," or days out on the town with locals. The site claims to be encouraging entrepreneurs by bringing in new clients for small businesses. For example, one Los Angeles resident offers pottery classes and guided meditation retreats for visitors. Another Sydney, Australia AirBNB user offers yoga retreats for guests.
While the expanded line of services is likely a boon to many small business owners, it also creates a new opportunity for scammers. Instead of needing a real property to hook potential victims, scammers can offer phony tours. While the company vets the potential tours carefully, it's difficult for one company to monitor a distributed network of service providers.
Experiences are a behind-the-scenes look at a city and may appeal to many visitors. However, it's always worth proceeding with caution. This service is new and experimental. Always check reviews (on a legitimate AirBNB site) before agreeing to pay for anything!
3.) External payment
AirBNB charges a 3% commission on all bookings done through the website. This may encourage some enterprising landlords to offer a discount in exchange for direct payment through a third-party processing site. Travelers on a tight budget might be tempted to save a few bucks this way. Those travelers would be shocked to find themselves out of luck when they get to their destination.
Resist the temptation. Payments outside the website don't have any conflict resolution procedures, so there's no guarantee you'll have a room at all if you use one. AirBNB earns its 3% by mediating disputes between renters and hosts, so there's a good reason to use the website's services.
Also, no legitimate business will ask you to wire funds directly to their account. Given the prevalence of services like Square and PayPal, even the smallest business has the capacity to accept credit or debit cards. When you use a card, you have some recourse if your transaction goes wrong for some reason. After you wire money, it's gone. Always insist on using a secured form of payment. If your host won't go along, just walk away.
Your Turn: Have you ever used AirBNB or a similar service? What was your experience like? Share safety and savings tips with us in the comments!