Fake rental listings skyrocket after City of Toronto releases registration numbers

A short-term rental advocacy group says online ‘hackers’ are stealing registration numbers from the City of Toronto’s website and using them to post fake listings on Airbnb. This is a problem that has arisen since the City decided to introduce a registration system as part of the regulation of short-term rentals. Rural municipalities considering or implementing a similar registration system are also vulnerable to this scam.

“The city is trying drastic enforcement measures to weed out hackers, but hackers easily republish fake listings by reusing permit data that the city leaves unprotected,” Fairbnbhosts.ca disputes on its website. “Visitors can’t be sure if they are booking a pirate space or a legal operator.”

As of September 2020, Toronto requires all short-term rental operators to register with the city. This is “to prevent the proliferation of ‘ghost hotels’ and protect critical rental stock by maintaining tenants’ access to long-term housing,” the city said in an email.

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As part of this process, operators receive a city registration number, which they use to compile their list. But all 6,277 of these registration numbers are publicly available online, as well as the first three digits of the postcode of the short-term rental. Scammers can access registration numbers and use them to create fake listings.

There is a simple solution, says George Emerson, director of Fairbnbhosts.ca, which describes itself as a travel industry trade association protecting the interests of Airbnb operators in Toronto. “The city says [the registration numbers are] how they check with booking platforms,” he says. “But if your website and my website want to exchange information, we don’t have to do it in a way that’s exposed to the public. We do this on a secure and protected website. We would use a database. Every website has a database, and we would use this method to exchange information.

Emerson adds that this is commonly done. “Computers are constantly verifying large sets of data by secure means without revealing identities.” But when he asked the city if it could privately exchange registration information with booking sites, staff told him that was not a priority.

The city is aware of the posting of false advertisements. To combat this problem, it performs compliance audits using data discovery techniques. “The city verifies flag listings for compliance that contain missing, inaccurate, or incomplete information that prevents the city from verifying registration status and operators who do not comply with the bylaw,” the city said.

But those compliance audits are part of what’s wrong with Toronto’s short-term rental regulations, Emerson argues. When creating a listing, the rental information must match the city registration data. “The address mismatches are so minimal, like there’s a ‘St.’ or ‘St’,” he says.

Other incorrect listing information includes operators using nicknames instead of their full name as shown on government-issued IDs, using incorrect zip codes, adding building names instead of street addresses. street, not including unit numbers or placing unit numbers in the wrong field.

If a listing’s information is flagged as incorrect during a compliance audit, the city will remove the listing. When the city flags a “hacked” listing, it can also remove the legitimate listing, penalizing an operator for complying with the regulations.

“No other type of business experiences this kind of crisis, this kind of harassment,” Emerson says.

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