The Dark Side of AirBnBs

Author: Vaishali Bansal, Graphics: Acasia Giannakouros

The BRB Bottomline

AirBnB, the popular lodging and rental service, has been plagued by crime for years. From million dollar payouts to censoring negative reviews, AirBnB has attempted to hide the truth and protect their image.

AirBnbs have always been a popular alternative to hotels. Not only are they cheaper, they often come equipped with household appliances or are located in a more convenient area. To many, AirBnb seems like a great place to stay if they ever go on vacation. However, there is a dark side to this seemingly perfect option. AirBnB as a company has struggled with security and crime since its beginning years. Despite this significant problem, AirBnB has carefully articulated its image as a family-oriented and safe business. And this is where the true issue arises. Rather than focusing on the protection and safety of its customers, AirBnB’s crime-handling unit has mastered the art of covering up crime—often through the form of payouts. 

Crime at AirBnB Properties

Many sexual and physical assault cases have taken place on AirBnB properties. For instance, an Australian woman was held at knifepoint and raped when staying at an AirBnB in Manhattan in 2015. The assailant, who had somehow acquired a duplicate pair of keys, had been hiding in the bathroom. How did the intruder manage to get a pair of keys to the property? After investigating, police discovered that anyone could come and pick up the keys to the unit without providing identification. Despite the graphic nature of the crime, it went unreported in local news, and AirBnB’s name was never mentioned in the legal proceedings that followed. This lack of coverage is in large part due to the seven million dollar settlement that was reached with the victim by AirBnB. In exchange for the money, she neither mentioned nor blamed the company for criminal negligence.  

This is just one instance out of many. In September 2016, a traveler discovered that his residence was being used as a brothel. In October 2017, a couple staying at an AirBnB discovered hidden cameras meticulously placed around their home. In November 2018, a guest staying in Melbourne, Australia was murdered by his host for being unable to pay the rent. Despite these obvious safety violations, AirBnB has refused on multiple occasions to acknowledge and take responsibility for crime on their properties. 

Rather than targeting the root of the problem and working on developing more effective safety measures, AirBnB has focused on hiding the issue in an attempt to protect their image. In fact, AirBnB has censored many negative reviews on their website so they can continue to make money off of potentially unsafe listings. A study done by the New York law firm, Fulbright and Jaworski, LLP, found that an average US company spends around $12 million on litigation activity. This number seems quite small in comparison to AirBnB; they spend about 50 million dollars on payouts and legal settlements each year, which begs the question: what are they hiding? Among other things, this money has been spent on “hiring body-fluid crews to clean up blood, paying to have bullet holes in hosts’ walls repaired, and covering costs relating to the discovery of dismembered body parts.” Other reports have revealed that some of the money went towards paying for STI tests and counseling therapy for victims that have been raped on their properties. Several former AirBnB staff members have come forward, revealing that they felt pressured to protect the company’s image by encouraging people to accept the offered settlements.  

Money Payouts and Scandals

However, sometimes, money payouts are not enough to keep people quiet. AirBnB learned this the hard way. In early 2011, AirBnB faced another huge scandal, #RansackGate. A host in San Francisco returned to her home to find it ransacked, looted, and completely trashed. Her passports, credit cards, jewelry had all been stolen. She decided to voice her frustration on her blog, not expecting much. However, as her blog started gaining increasing attention, Brian Chesky, one of AirBnB’s cofounders, reached out to the host. Rather than apologizing or offering any support, Chesky urged her to take down the post because it had the potential of hurting their funding. The host decided to write a follow-up blog post about Chesky, and it soon turned into a major public scandal. As the issue started to gain more attention, more hosts came out with similar stories of crime and AirBnB’s disappointing and unsatisfactory response. This scandal forced AirBnB to make major changes to their business policies in order to appease the public. Not only did Chesky issue a public apology, he established a $50,000 guarantee for hosts, a newly established trust and safety department, and a 24-hour hotline in case of emergencies. This #RansackGate scandal is one of the main reasons why AirBnb’s safety response is the way it is today. Without the scandal and public disapproval, Chesky would have never been motivated to increase its customers’ safety or offer a financial guarantee. AirBnb’s response was more an attempt to protect it’s image rather than it’s guests and hosts. Only when publicly called out for their actions did they make any changes to their company policies. 

Analyzing Research

In addition to affecting crime on an individual scale, research found that AirBnBs have the potential of affecting crime on a larger, societal one as well. A study published by Northeastern University in July of 2021 established a causal relationship between the number of AirBnBs and crime rates in the city of Boston. In neighborhoods where AirBnB listings had increased, researchers saw a corresponding rise in violent crimes such as fights, robberies, and attacks. Meanwhile, “noise complaints, public intoxication, domestic violence, and landlord-tenant disputes did not increase.” However, the reason for this rise in crime is not as simple as one may think. According to the researchers, an increase in AirBnB rentals means that long-term permanent residents are being displaced by temporary short-term ones. This rise in travelers and temporary housing disrupts the naturally developing, social organization of a community, which has often been associated by criminologists with lowering crime rates. Whether it’s a personal account on a blog or a research study conducted by a reputable organization, AirBnB’s response has been identical, once again reflecting how quick they are to defend their public image and forgo their customers’ safety.

AirBnB’s Criticism and Response

In response to Northeastern University’s research, AirBnB posted a lengthy response online, referencing the study and attempting to once again protect their image. Their first complaint was that the results of an experiment done in Boston, could not be generalized to AirBnBs across the world. In order to generalize the results to a wider population, a more representative random data sample will have to be used. AirBnB also called out the accuracy of the data, saying that it had been gathered unreliably. However, several scientists have argued that the data, which was taken from the third-party organization, Inside AirBnB, was accurately collected through careful analysis of online metrics. AirBnB also accused the study of using a “flawed methodology”, known as the Granger-Causality Method. However, upon closer look, it can be seen that this method was not used in the study, and an explanation for this was given in the research paper.  As can be seen, Airbnb’s corporate policy heavily prioritizes its reputation, often at the expense of its customers; when they call the study’s validity into question, they are not making objective criticisms about the study, but rather visibly biased attempts to defend their image. The company’s efforts would be spent more wisely making their properties and rental processes more secure, rather than going back and forth in a pointless game of accusations.

Possible Improvements for the Future

So what can AirBnB do to make their business safer for their hosts and guests? Many customers have complained about AirBnB’s inadequate customer service and their glaring inability to help consumers who have faced problems with their AirBnB rentals. An online study found that AirBnB tends to rely highly on bots and AI, which makes their customer support much harder to navigate. By expanding the size of their customer support team, they will be able to help more customers as well as retain and grow their customer base. AirBnb’s verification process is also very lenient, allowing non-guests to easily access the property. Sonder is a much safer alternative to Airbnb; this rental company mandates an ID check every time guests enter and leave the building. Furthermore, there are a sheer number of fake listings and hosts on the AirBnB website. AirBnB only asks for proper identification from the host after identifying suspicious behavior or after a customer has booked the property. By demanding identification before a host can even list a property, AirBnB could drastically reduce the number of fake listings on their site. An all-woman AirBnB alternative called Golightly has effectively solved this problem by mandating that hosts must either be referred by other members through a “friend of a friend” network or be thoroughly vetted by company staff.

AirBnB needs to make some major changes to their business model, not only for the safety of their customers, but also for their own profitability. If the company truly focuses on decreasing crime and ensuring a safe environment, rather than simply protecting their image, they would be able to grow their customer base at a much higher rate. AirBnB has a long way to go; they need to work on increasing their transparency, building a stronger relationship with their customers, and developing stricter security measures. They need to work on better identifying suspicious behavior, fake listings, and unsafe properties on their platform. But more than anything else, AirBnB must change its attitude towards crime on its properties, and work to prevent, rather than hide it. 

Take-Home Points

  • Crime and lack of security is common on AirBnB properties.
  • AirBnB has taken unprecedented measures, often through million dollar payouts and legal settlements, to keep victims quiet. 
  • AirBnB faced a large scandal in 2011 known as #RansackGate for attempting to ignore and censor several hosts whose properties had been trashed and looted. 
  • There are  fake listings on the AirBnB website, and several  instances of crime and physical/sexual assault have taken place on AirBnB properties. 
  • AirBnB is often more concerned with protecting their company image than making changes to their business policy.

1 Comment

  1. This is a very thorough review. Thanks. I also read similar stories on other platforms. After some mediocre experiences and one bad experience with Airbnb, there is no chance I’ll ever use them again. Hotels are safer and cleaner.

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