Is Airbnb Safe? New report exposes scams, bug infestations and discrimination

According to a scathing new report that analyzed complaints on Twitter, a lot can go wrong when you stay at an Airbnb. Asher Fergusson, a data scientist who runs a travel safety website, recently partnered with researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs in Colorado Springs to create a problem report that travelers are most likely to encounter when staying at an Airbnb. Fergusson’s site has previously analyzed topics ranging from the most dangerous places for female travelers to the most dangerous places for gay travelers to the worst places to raise a family.

The Airbnb project received funding from ASIS International (the world’s largest membership organization for security management professionals) and via a grant from John Jay College. For 2.5 years, teams have used machine learning and natural language processing techniques to analyze Twitter data resulting from customer complaints. “Our number one goal at the start of this research was to find out what was most likely to go wrong for Airbnb customers,” Fergusson told Forbes Women.

And there weren’t just a few Airbnb complaints. The teams analyzed a large dataset of 127,183 Tweets posted between January 1, 2015 and September 20, 2020 that contained customer complaints about issues encountered during an Airbnb stay, and then broke them down using a combination of human coding, machine learning and natural language. processing techniques.

The report documented numerous circumstances that countless guests experienced, from the most frustrating to the most dangerous (read on for some examples). “We have found thousands of cases of account hacking with vacation dollars stolen through fraudulent bookings as well as many other scams,” says Fergusson. “Then there were police interventions, bodily harm, threats, bug infestations, privacy breaches via hidden cameras, long-term negative health impacts after the client left Airbnb and much more. Even in 2021, the number of illegal, dangerous or bogus ads on the platform is staggering, more than any of us probably realize. “

The report also compiled more than 500 examples of photographic evidence of dangerous conditions, including infestations of insects, rodents, parasites, mold, body fluids, rotten food and other unsightly or dangerous problems.

In total, the report found that 72.2% of Airbnb issues were related to customer service issues, ranging from limited emergency assistance to unreachable or rude service. The next most common problem: scams, which accounted for 22.3% of complaints, from fake ads to hacked accounts. As a result (10.4%) the host canceled the stay. Next: 6.1% were dangerous conditions, from pest infestations to hidden cameras. And 3.7% of complaints documented discrimination, from racial discrimination to LGBTQ + discrimination.

Fergusson says he was inspired to do the study after his family bad Airbnb experience in 2017 when they experienced two consecutive nightmares that left them stranded in the streets of Paris with their 10 month old baby. “We had nowhere to stay and Airbnb support tried to ‘help’ us by suggesting a new place hosted by the same scammer who had just taken advantage of us,” Fergusson said. “This experience opened our eyes to the many flaws and shortcomings of the Airbnb platform. “

Releasing the report, Fergusson said he believes it is important for Airbnb users to know what they are getting into when using the platform. “The myriad complaints from Airbnb customers that we’ve reviewed on Twitter suggest the company is very good at getting around liability,” Fergusson said. “Their customer service often goes silent or quotes obscure and confusing terms of service when customers rightly request reimbursement for services not rendered. It’s important for users to understand that renting an Airbnb is not the same as booking a hotel.

Fergusson points out that hotels are highly regulated while short-term rentals are poorly supervised in most cities around the world. “For example, reputable hotel chains are not likely to rip off people en masse or to systematically cancel a reservation a few hours before the guest arrives,” says Fergusson. “It would be difficult to find a hotel without a smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector. But in an Airbnb, Fergusson points out that the ads may have missing equipment. Tragically, last week a California couple and their baby were found dead in an Airbnb probably because of a gas leak, ”he says.

Another big difference between an Airbnb and a hotel when you have a disappointing hotel experience: “You can talk to the front desk, you can talk to a manager, you can leave a scathing review online through a third-party review site,” Fergusson explains. “Conversely, with Airbnb, our research revealed that if you have a bad experience, there is no one to complain to in real time since there is no ‘reception’.

In fact, the report found that customer service emerged as a major issue in many Twitter complaints it analyzed. “Based on the results of our study, in countless cases Airbnb is dropping the ball when it comes to customer service,” Fergusson says. “As evidenced by so many customer complaints, Airbnb relies heavily on robots and AI technology, obscuring important information and outsourcing to call centers. We’ve read countless complaints that their tactics wear people down so much that customers are likely to give up before receiving a refund.

Another problem: censorship of critics. “Airbnb has very strict review guidelines that allow them to censor reviews for a variety of reasons, including ‘circumstances totally beyond the control of others,’” says Fergusson. “This means that previous critical opinions might never be published on the platform. For example, we were contacted by a young woman who had been sexually assaulted in front of her Airbnb building. She said her opinion that Airbnb was in a dangerous area had been withdrawn because it came under “circumstances totally beyond the control of others.” It’s hard not to find these alarming accounts.

In the report, researchers found many issues related to women’s safety. “We have seen a multitude of examples of harassment, assault, illegal video recording and insecure registrations that have affected women’s safety,” says Fergusson. “Since Airbnb has historically not screened all of its hosts or even verified all of their listings, it is possible for unscrupulous people to take advantage of the platform and cause harm or discomfort to female travelers. . For this reason, if you are traveling alone, we recommend that you be especially careful if you plan to use Airbnb.

As the report focused on Airbnb, Fergusson says the issues aren’t limited to that brand and could be representative of the entire vacation rental industry in the short term. “We only looked at Tweets related to Airbnb. However, I think there are a lot of unfortunate issues with all short term rental platforms, ”Fergusson says.

So what does Airbnb say about all of this? In a recent article written by Bloomberg, the company said less than 0.1% of stays resulted in a reported safety issue. But Fergusson has problems with the wording of this statement, which he finds too opaque. “Are these just the circumstances in which the guests sustain bodily harm or worse?” And it doesn’t even begin to capture all the very costly, frustrating, and upsetting issues that aren’t security issues like the common complaints we [identified], “he says. Plus, if you break the numbers down, 0.1% of the 200 million stays per year is 200,000 safety issues per year.

There are ways to protect yourself if you’re staying at an Airbnb or vacation rental. “Our biggest advice is to treat reviews like a detective story. Read every review between the lines, because most people will dance around the negative experience they may have had and then shower it with flowery compliments, ”says Fergusson, who points out that sociologists wrote about this phenomenon in an article. entitled “If almost all Airbnb reviews are positive, does that make them meaningless?

Some other tips Fergusson described in his report:

• Never book a place without a review: only stay in places with an average rating of 4.85 stars or higher

• Don’t just look at your ad’s reviews, look at your host’s overall reviews.

• Communicate with your host before your stay.

• Document everything that’s wrong with photo and video evidence to help you get a refund.

Below is a breakdown of the top three complaint topics the report revealed, along with more detailed descriptions of each related issue. On the Fergusson site, you can see embedded examples right from Twitter.

1. Scams (28,325 instances or 22.27% of all customer complaints)

  • Multiple listings for the same property (11,652 instances or 9.16% of all guest complaints)
  • Property not as described (7,286 cases or 5.73% of all customer complaints)
  • Hacked Account / Fraudulent Charges (5,872 instances or 4.62% of all customer complaints)
  • Fake ads and / or reviews (899 or 0.71% of all customer complaints)
  • Other scam or fraud (2,616 or 2.06% of all customer complaints)

2. Unsafe conditions (7,719 instances or 6.07% of all customer complaints)

  • Infestations / unhealthy / unhealthy (4,305 or 3.38% of all customer complaints)
  • Serious safety concerns (1,274 or 1.00% of all customer complaints)
  • Host and / or obnoxious environment (1160 or 0.91% of all guest complaints)
  • Unsafe or broken amenities (581 or 0.46% of all customer complaints)
  • Hidden cameras (251 or 0.20% of all customer complaints)
  • Theft (149 or 0.12% of all customer complaints)

3. Discrimination (4,851 or 3.81% of all customer complaints)

  • Disability (2,891 or 2.27% of all customer complaints)
  • Race (1,051 or 0.83% of all customer complaints)
  • LGBTQ + (153 or 0.12% of all customer complaints)
  • Other types of discrimination (756 or 0.59% of all customer complaints)


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