In the days of COVID, it often feels safer to stay in a private home where you and your family won't encounter strangers in elevators. Airbnb has initiated some pretty strict cleaning protocols, and with a little extra effort, you can create your own little home away from home. Unless your rental is a scam.
There’s a lot going around about scammers on Airbnb, mostly those who are listing properties that make their place look like a dream destination when it’s actually more like a dumpster in a back alley, miles from anything you’d like to visit. Even worse is the potential for a total scam where there is no property at all. In these rare situations, you have essentially paid for air.
Because you pay for your stay upfront, you are at the mercy of the property owner to provide what they say they are going to. It would seem that the review system on the site, coupled with the fact that payment is not made to the host until after you arrive at your stay would prevent scammers from turning a profit.
Here’s the official Airbnb payout schedule from their host FAQ’s:
Airbnb typically releases your payout about 24 hours after your guest’s scheduled check-in time. The time it takes for the funds to arrive in your account depends on your payout method.
As in many other online businesses, Airbnb scammers can be adept at finding loopholes in the plan. I refuse to give potential new scammers ideas by detailing some of the things that have worked, but I am happy to share ideas with you about how to avoid being a victim.
Before we go further, I want to assure you that regardless of the sensational headlines around this topic, the vast majority of Airbnb users are satisfied. One study done by Morgan Stanley pegs the satisfaction rate at around 93%. To make sure that you are in that group of satisfied guests, let's look at ways to protect yourself from the small percentage of scammers who are gaming the system.
Check the map
The first thing I do when I start looking for a rental in an unfamiliar area is to open Google Maps on a full-size device. My goal is to get the lay of the land. Where are the things I want to be close to? Are there facilities like public transportation, restaurants, grocery stores? What is the exact name of the neighborhood I want to stay in? Only then do I actually start my search on the Airbnb site.
Once I have a few properties in mind, I really zoom in on Google and use the satellite version to get a better feel for the immediate area around each of my potential rentals.
Read reviews outside of Airbnb
Obviously, you are going to read the reviews of the properties/hosts you are interested in on Airbnb. But take that another step by seeking off-site reviews of the same property. Do an Internet search for whatever the host calls their property. Newer properties will not show up in places like Trip Advisor, Yelp, or Google, so that’s a bit of a red flag.
Read reviews and check rates of other properties in the area
Compare the rates of your top properties with those of the nearest Airbnb listings. Are they in line? If it looks too good to be true…
Having said that, I recently stayed in a lovely flat in Berlin at a bargain rate, primarily because the host was too new to hosting to realize that it was a prime tourism weekend that had driven up the rates on other properties.
Also keep in mind that Airbnb uses gorilla marketing tactics on its hosts, continuously urging them to lower their rates when they have vacancies. Because of that, the rate should never be the deciding factor you use to rule out a property. As long as the rate is within a reasonable range of those around it you are probably safe.
And don’t forget to scour the reviews of other properties in the same neighborhood, especially the ones you are not considering. Look for important clues about the neighborhood, like distance to food or transportation and whether or not anyone mentions the overall vibe of the area.
Converse frequently with the host
Start a conversation with the host. Ask lots of questions until you are satisfied that you are dealing with a real person who knows the neighborhood and the property itself. Scammers will avoid talking with you, so the rule is “No talkie, you walkie.” As in, simply walk away from a listing if they won’t respond to your questions.
Read reviews of restaurants and other businesses, including hotels in the area
These reviews can be critical, not just from the point of view that you want to know where to eat and shop if you stay there, but they often provide additional clues about the quality of the neighborhood. That is especially true of the hotel reviews.
Always have an alternate plan
No matter how carefully you plan any stay, even in a traditional hotel, there is always the potential for glitches. Things happen beyond the control of even the most scrupulous host. Your travel plan should include alternate plans for a place to stay (you’ve already researched the hotels, right?). You also should travel with an emergency fund or credit card for payment of alternate lodging should the need arise.
Leave your own review when prompted
The key to the platform working for the majority of users is the review system. Failing to leave an appropriate review for your stay is misleading to those that follow in your footsteps. The idea that you might have difficulty finding a rental the next time you want one simply because you left a negative review on a property that was substandard is bunk.
The vast majority of hosts have nothing to fear from a guest who writes a well-thought-out review, even if it’s negative.
It’s easy to fall into the Airbnb hate club these days. Personally, I’m a fan of them when I travel. I am far more concerned with the need for greater regulations to prevent damage to residential neighborhoods that they can cause.
The good news is that with plenty of research, you need not worry about being scammed, and you just might end up staying in an ideal spot living out your dream trip.