The Moment Of Truth For Airbnb As User’s Home Is Utterly Trashed

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Important updates to post at end

Until now everything has been just great for Airbnb, a service that lets people rent out their homes and become a sort of mini-hotel. The company launched in 2008 and has grown rapidly. They’ve been cloned by the Germans, which is always a mark of success. And they’re now a part of the billion dollar valuation club. Even the clone raised $90 million.

Which is all super great. But now the story of a trusting Airbnb user who’s had her home sacked (it’s the only way to describe it) is starting to spread. Airbnb’s response so far has been tepid at best. It turns out that when something like this happens, Airbnb isn’t financially responsible.

The facts: Last month “EJ” wrote a long blog post about how a renter spent an entire week carefully robbing and trashing her home. Walls were cut through to get to locked valuables, including her grandmother’s jewelry.

They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother’s jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals… my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied – using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests’ use. They rifled through all my drawers, wore my shoes and clothes, and left my clothing crumpled up in a pile of wet, mildewing towels on the closet floor. They found my coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond and used the discount, along with my Mastercard, to shop online. Despite the heat wave, they used my fireplace and multiple Duraflame logs to reduce mounds of stuff (my stuff??) to ash – including, I believe, the missing set of guest sheets I left carefully folded for their comfort. Yet they were stupid and careless enough to leave the flue closed; dirty gray ash now covered every surface inside.

and

The kitchen was a disaster – the sink piled high with filthy dishes, pots and pans burnt out and ruined. Comet Cleanser was dumped everywhere; the kitchen counters, wood furniture, my gorgeous new bed frame, my desk, my printer… all were doused in powdered bleach. The death-like smell emanating from the bathroom was frightening (and still is) and the bathroom sink was caked with a crusty yellow substance. Various pairs of my gloves were strewn about – leather, dishwashing and otherwise – I imagine in a weak attempt to cover up fingerprints. Whoever these people were, they were living large and having one hell of a time for an entire week inside my home, unwatched, unchecked, free to do whatever destruction they wished. And damn, did they do a lot of it.

The creepiest part of this is that the renter was sending cheerful emails during the week’s rampage:

All the while, Dj Pattrson was sending me friendly emails, thanking me for being such a great host, for respecting his/her privacy…. telling me how much he/she was enjoying my beautiful apartment bathed in sunlight, how much he/she particularly loved the “little loft area” upstairs… with an “lol” closing one sentence, just for good measure. It makes me sick to my stomach to think now of these emails.

EJ also explains how Airbnb’s policies of not letting people know who they’re renting to until the last moment makes a situation like this more likely to happen. She explains (convincingly) how Craigslist is actually safer because they warn people of the risks. Airbnb, in effect, is vouching for the renter.

Yet now I ask myself this: for what, exactly, did I pay a service fee to Airbnb.com? What did I get in exchange for my 20-something dollars? What was the advantage of using this service over Craigslist, which is free? Ironically Airbnb.com’s site states “the promise of our site is that it is entirely transparent” when in reality, it is not. And therein lies the fundamental, though not immediately apparent, difference: on Craigslist, I am warned loudly and repeatedly that use of the site is at my own risk. I am encouraged to take certain precautions, and I have the ability to do so by gaining quick access to the email addresses, phone numbers, and other identifying information of the person(s) I am communicating with, all of which can be researched and at least somewhat verified by means of basic internet searches. Alternatively, Airbnb.com tightly controls the communication between host and traveler, disallowing the exchange of personal contact information until the point in which a reservation is already confirmed and paid for. By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that Airbnb.com has already done the research for me, and has eliminated the investigative work that Craigslist requires. In effect, the friendly, community-based site with its Golden Rules creates a reasonable expectation that some basic screening of its users has occurred, and speaks little to the risks involved, primarily within the very small print of the lengthy Terms of Service. Thus by the time this reservation was confirmed and I was given Dj’s email address and phone number, I was on a plane heading East, and he/she was armed with my welcoming instructions on where to pick up the keys to my apartment.

Airbnb’s response has been diplomatic but tepid. CEO Brian Chesky wrote yesterday:

Hey everyone – we were shocked when we heard about this unsettling event. We have been working closely with the authorities, and we want to reassure our community that, with the help of our security infrastructure, we were able to assist the police in their investigation, and we understand from authorities that a suspect is now in custody.

We’ve created a marketplace built on trust, transparency and authenticity within our community, and we hold the safety of our community members as our highest priority. We will continue to work with our users to stamp out those who would put that community at risk in any way. The vast majority of our community members genuinely respect and protect each other, but we urge users to be careful and discerning with each other and to hold others accountable through reviews, flagging and our customer service channel. Our hearts go out to our host and we will continue to work with her and with the authorities to make this right.

The fact that the police may have arrested the person responsible is great. But EJ’s life has been completely turned upside down by this.

I can’t stay here much longer. The feeling of having been violated is overwhelming. The apartment’s energy – once light and airy – now feels thick and disquieting.

Suddenly Airbnb’s only FAQ on a situation like this doesn’t sound as witty and fun as it must have before.

Will someone steal my grand piano?

Highly unlikely. Grand pianos weigh thousands of pounds and do not fit through doors.

I wonder how Airbnb would answer a FAQ question that’s more to the point, like “What if my renter methodically ransacks my home and steals everything of value while sending me cheerful update emails saying how nice everything is?” Probably with something less pithy than before.

There’s a very short window of time for Airbnb to deal with this before it may spiral out of their control. Hotel lobbyists are already trying to crush Airbnb before it becomes more of a threat.

I spoke to Airbnb about EJ’s situation. They won’t reimburse her for damages, they say, and they do not insure against losses. They are helping police track down the person who did this, but their help ends there.

The hotel lobbyists couldn’t ask for anything more.

Update: I spoke with Brian Chesky. He says the company has offered “to assist financially, find new housing for the host, and anything else she can think of to make her life easier.” He says they intend to “go above and beyond” to make the situation right for her. This is different than what a company spokesperson said earlier (see above). I asked Brian if this sets a new policy, and he responded that they’ll look at it on a case by case basis.

The company also sent this email with corrections:

1) We have been assisting investigators and they have a suspect in custody.

2) We have been working with the host since the event and we have offered to assist her to the situation to everyones satisfaction. If you read the blog post, you’ll see that she points this out:

I would be remiss if I didn’t pause here to emphasize that the customer service team at airbnb.com has been wonderful, giving this crime their full attention. They have called often, expressing empathy, support, and genuine concern for my welfare. They have offered to help me recover emotionally and financially, and are working with SFPD to track down these criminals. I do believe the folks at airbnb.com when they tell me this has never happened before in their short history, that this is a one-off case.

3) We actually have an entire safety FAQ for our users. You can find it here: http://www.airbnb.com/safety

Update 2: Brian Chesky writes about the incident here.