A Cautionary Tale on Airbnb

a laptop and phone on a table

A couple of quick points.  I didn’t start out yesterday to write about Airbnb.  I’ve also never stayed at an Airbnb property (or any other from the sharing community).  Nor have I ever contemplated staying at one.

I’ve written very little about Airbnb but it came up twice this week.  First, my friend Charles McCool wrote about 8 great Airbnb advantages.  I’ll willingly admit there are a few on the list (washer/dryer, private hot tub) that I instinctively knew you could probably get as an amenity but it never crossed my mind until Charles brought it up.  That being said, you’re still paying for a room.  And, I earn a lot of hotel points from my work travel, so many that I rarely run out.  So, Airbnb isn’t a natural fit for me even if it does represent a good value for the money spent.

Yesterday, I read this article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber about a truly disturbing story at an Airbnb property in Europe.  Before we even get into the context of the article, I know this is an isolated incident.  And, I’m not condemning Airbnb, just sounding a cautionary note for when you’re considering booking a room for a future trip using them or a similar service.

The opening of the article is chilling if you’re a parent (hell, if you’re a human being):

Early in the evening of July 4, Micaela Giles’s mobile phone started sounding alerts, and a series of messages straight out of a horror movie began scrolling down her screen.

Her 19-year-old son told her that his Airbnb host in Madrid had locked him in the fourth-floor apartment where he was supposed to be staying and removed the key. The host was still there, he said, rattling knives around in the kitchen drawer and pressing him to submit to a sexual act. He begged his mother for help.

When she called Airbnb, its employees would not give her the address and would not call the police. Instead, they gave her a number for the Madrid police and told her to ask the police to call the company for the address. But the number led to a recording in Spanish that kept disconnecting her, she said, and when she repeatedly called back her Airbnb contact, the calls went straight to voice mail.

According to her son, Jacob Lopez, he was sexually assaulted that night. Eventually, he persuaded his host to free him. He returned home to Massachusetts and is in trauma therapy.

It’s also worth noting that this can absolutely happen if you’re staying at a hotel. But, I think some people book a room using Airbnb or a similar service and assume it’s a hotel.  And, that’s where you’re wrong.  Many of these rooms are never inspected by any sort of government authority.  Nor are they patrolled by security.  That means you may need to ask questions you wouldn’t normally have to ask, as well as potentially take extra precautions.

Are there deadbolts on the door?  How about safety latches to prevent entry from the outside?  Is the unit well-lit from the outside at night?  These are all sound questions to ask before you book a reservation.

There is one point that I’ll take some issue with in regards to Airbnb’s policies:

According to Airbnb, this was a unique situation on a weekend when 800,000 people were staying worldwide with an Airbnb host. A number of the company’s safety procedures came into conflict. On one hand, Airbnb wants sexual assault victims to be able to decide for themselves when, how or if to report a crime. On the other, the company wants to report crimes in progress when customers are in danger and will turn over information quickly if the police request it.

In this instance, Airbnb’s employees believed that the assault had already taken place, according to Nick Papas, a company spokesman. Ms. Giles said she warned of an imminent assault when she first called but later, after hearing from her son, told the company that it had already happened.

“We realize we can learn a lot from this incident and we can do better,” Mr. Papas said by email. “We are clarifying our policies so that our team will always contact law enforcement if we are made aware of an emergency situation in progress. Safety is our No. 1 priority, and we want to get our hosts and guests as much help as possible.”

I’d like to think that the new policy would be that Airbnb would err on the side of caution and if there was any doubt an assault was still occurring they would contact police immediately and let them sort it out.  Some might disagree, but the existing (or former) policy doesn’t really strike me as the proper.  It strikes me more as “arms length”, maybe not specifically built that way to shield the company from liability, but certainly not as protective as most hotels in similar situations.

Bottom Line It For Me, Ed

Use common sense when booking an Airbnb and when you arrive at your destination.  Don’t assume that someone else is in charge of your safety.  Treat the experience like what it is, more similar to a rental of someone’s home than a hotel stay.  Protect your valuables if your Airbnb destination doesn’t have a safe (standard in most hotel rooms) and be aware of safety risks.  There may be money to save, but protect yourself first so it’s truly an enjoyable trip.


    1. Jay, it’s unclear from the article whether he could have called (he didn’t call his mother, he texted). And, while I’d love to think everyone in the world left for international travel prepared, I know plenty of folks who can’t dial internationally or shut their phones off when they travel abroad.

    2. @Jay wrote, “If he can call his mother he cannot manage to call the spanish [sic] police?”

      You’re in Madrid. You’re locked in a room. What is the number for the police or other emergency services?

      If you said 911, you just got assaulted. In Spain it is 112 for most emergencies.

      Of course, if you do have the presence of mind to have researched the fact that 911 is a United States emergency number, doesn’t work in Europe and you thought to look up the fact that the European Union emergency number is 112 (and if you are specifically needing police in Spain, you can call either 091 or 092), you’ve got the problem that the 112 or 092 operator is going to be speaking to you in Spanish. Know enough Spanish – and I’m not talking about Tex-Mex of Cali-Mex hybrid that passes for Spanish throughout the United States – to tell the operator 1) where you are, 2) that a crime is in progress, and 3) you’re the victim, not the intruder (you are, after all, in someone else’s house)?

    3. Have you ever tried to find a phone number for the police in a foreign country?! Clearly you have not. First, many things are not as present on the internet in many other countries as they are in the US. Second, without being fluent in Spanish, it may have been difficult for him to find that. Second, he may have not thought he had time to search the internet or to maybe he did not have the internet. He called his mom because he had immediate access to her number so she could do the legwork that he may not have had the luxury of the time needed to accomplish. And by the way, you are an asshole.

  1. I am aware of another issue with AirBnB. This time in San Diego, USA

    Some friends rented accommodation and paid as per the terms of AirBnB.

    After a while this guy arrives saying that he owns the property and the guests should not be in it. He alleges, that the guy renting the property was himself renting it and had no right to sublet it on through AirBnB.

    The “owner” then looked for more money if the people wanted to remain in the accommodation

    1. Michael, I would bet this happens more often than we think. If Airbnb has over a million rooms, if even 1/10th of 1% were controlled by a bad actor, that’s 1,000 rooms.

      1. Indeed Ed I agree, AirBnB’s public profile is pretty good, the bad news stories are few & far between, whether it is because there are none of people do not have an outlet to share them .. I am not sure

        1. Michael, I don’t see any reason why Airbnb’s can’t be very safe. It just seems like they may need a stronger focus on their internal policies and training. I’m sure there are hotels that can use this as well, but you’d likely be able to see that in TripAdvisor reviews or something similar with a bit more ease (though I’m guessing Airbnb has some sort of internal ranking system).

          1. As a (relatively) new company, AirBnB will want to be very careful with their image. Stories like these can decimate a companies image very very quickly

    1. brteacher, as I said in my post, things like this can (and do) happen in hotels. But, I think the message here is to understand that some elements you may take for granted in hotels (security) may not be present at an Airbnb location.

  2. We had good experiences with Airbnb when renting in Peru; but when trying to rent in San Francisco or Florida I found a lot of properties that show available on the calendar; but when you try to book they are not available. So if you are planning on renting please make sure you contact the host to verify the property is available at the time of your trip. Its annoying, since the properties show available on the site but they are not. A total waste of time. I tried over 10 properties in FL until I gave up and booked a Hotel. I emailed Airbnb (could not find a phone number anywhere to call); but all I got was “Book properties that have instant booking option” and we are revising our terms to require hosts to update the calendars more often. Good luck!

  3. I’ll weigh in as someone who has used AirBnB many times. I’ve traveled all over the world and stayed in a wide range of accommodations — hotels, resorts, hostels, AirBnBs, couch surfing locations — from five star to a straw mat on the floor. I generally avoid making definitive statements, but I think that story will stop me from ever using AirBnB again.

    I’m pretty careful — I always make sure someone back at home has the location where I’ll be staying, any names/phone numbers I have, etc. But wow — what a horror story nonetheless. AirBnB does have a system set up for reviews and I’ve only ever stayed at well-reviewed properties — but moving forward, I think I’d have a hard time justifying the marginal cost savings over a hotel in a short-term situation.

    For long-term (several month) stays, I’m not sure there is currently a better, more widespread option — but, again, this story will give me pause. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Nicholas, thanks for weighing in. I can certainly understand your concern. I’m glad you use some common sense when booking a room overseas, whether it’s Airbnb or something else. If people are more cautious having read this point, then it served its purpose.

  4. I’ve had some wonderful Airbnb experiences and have had equally awful-kicked-out-by-the-police-in-the-middle-of-the-night-for-illegally-subletting-in-an-unauthorized-airbnb experiences. I’m wary now as the assistance I received middle of the night with no Real Airbnb backup was not sufficient. It’s a buyer beware kind of purchase that I hips will improve with diligence on the part of Airbnb.

  5. Thank you, Ed, for including the link to my recent article about the advantages of Airbnb. When traveling with my family (2 teens), more often than not we stay in a vacation rental property rather than a hotel. It does take more effort and research to identify, filter, and choose/book desirable places, but, of course, I feel like Airbnb and vacation rentals are often a better value. Last week, we stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment with full kitchen, large living room, two bathrooms, right on the SF cable car line. The price was less than nearby hotel rooms; that is one single hotel room, and we would have required two rooms for party of 4.

    When I travel alone, on the other hand, I rarely use Airbnb or vacation rentals.

    With any lodging choice, I will peruse reviews or (if a last minute drive up) go through my own check list before booking.

    1. Charles, you definitely pointed out some of the positives of Airbnb, something I haven’t considered in the past as an option. Still don’t think it’s a fit for me, and I think they need to tighten up their safety procedures.

  6. The author didn’t indicate who or what the gender of the sexual assaulter was. Presumably this was a homosexual man on teenager sexual assault, given its unlike a teenager would be sexually overpowered by a woman, not that that’s absolutely impossible.

    1. Andrew, there’s a quote in the article saying the assaulter disputed the claims and said the youth was transphobic. That leads me to believe the assaulter was transgender.

  7. I’ve had several excellent experiences with airbnb, usually in places where regular hotel rooms cost and arm and a leg. I always read reviews of potential hosts, and I’m sure they read reviews of me – the risks cut both ways. I tend to avoid letting myself be swayed unduly by isolated incidents. There are people who are still afraid to go to Aruba because of the Natalie Holloway incident several years ago. The risks of driving to work each day (and I nearly had an accident Friday) are probably greater than the risks of staying with an airbnb host. It’s just that some risks are so familiar to us that we discount them. We could all stay under our beds all day, but then there could be an earthquake.

    1. Dave, I agree that one story shouldn’t be the only thing you use to determine any decision. But, I do think there are legitimate issues raised by the article (and by comments below) that people should use to be safer when traveling. I think the Natalie Holloway comparison is an accurate one, but I’m not sure about your ride to work being safer. I gather there are many Airbnb issues that don’t make it to public view.

  8. This is why I prefer to use HomeAway or VRBO. You can rent the whole apartment or house and not have to share it with a creepy host. You also don’t have to pay the 12% booking fee that Airbnb charges.

  9. I have used AirBnB twice. Once in Philippines, once in Costa Rica. Both were fro periods longer than 2 months at a time. Philippines was a drama because of the construction site next door on the island of Boracay. Had to move after a few days as the noise in a quiet, idyllic paradise was crazy when the workers started jack-hammering at 4 in the morning and finished at midnight every day including Sunday and of course the charm of Philippine radio blaring all day. It took AirBnB a week f back and forth to finally accept that I had no intention of putting up with that for 3 months.

    The second time was Costa Rica and was absolutely fantastic. The place was exactly as described, the location was brilliant and the best part was the hosts could not do enough to make the stay enjoyable.

    My suggestions when considering AirBnB. For short stays, don’t. Use a hotel. For long-term stays, yes but as Ed articulated, do your homework. Do a list of your expectations on everything before you start looking. Cross-T’s and dot-I’s. Send those questions to your potential host and get everything back in writing. Cut & paste words from the listing “eg; Panoramic views” and ask them to send actual view. So be thorough.

    And one key suggestion. When you arrive in your new place ( if internationally ), get a local sim card. Spend a few bucks and do it. It will come with a local emergency call number should you need it.

    As for AirBnB, I have found them to be reasonably helpful as long as your problem does not involve the call centre person having to think for themselves or move away from their computer. There is not much initiative shown and they always appear to be super-busy so they can get you off the line, especially when you have an issue.

    1. Robbo, thanks for the very detailed perspective on your experiences. I think they’ll be very helpful for others considering Airbnb. I definitely think Airbnb should be a quill in every traveler’s arsenal. You just need to learn how to shoot a new arrow!

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