How to avoid the latest Airbnb scam

Check email, website addresses carefully to avoid being conned by a rental host fraudster

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

A friend of mine showed up last night at a place we some­times meet. He looked like Red Sox pitch­er Chris Sale after lob­bing a game-end­ing home run to Aaron Judge of the Yan­kees. He was sup­posed to have been on a plane to Italy. I asked him what happened.

Adam Levin, chair­man and co-founder of Credit.com and Cyber­Scout (for­mer­ly IDT911)

We were all set to head out,” he said. “First leg: Rome. But I just can­celed our tick­ets, like, a sec­ond ago.”

I asked why.

Airbnb scam,” he said.

It was sup­posed to be the per­fect trip. He and his wife have a 2-year-old, so they were look­ing for a des­ti­na­tion vaca­tion that would let them hang out in one place. The patch of par­adise they rent­ed was not an easy jour­ney: two flights, a long car ride, a fer­ry and anoth­er long car ride.

That said, it seemed worth it. The fairy-tale vil­la was on an island off the coast with views of the Mediter­ranean, a swim­ming pool and more than enough room for three fam­i­lies. The fee was steep, but not ter­ri­ble since three renters were shar­ing it: 6,000 euros a week.

We were bummed that we had to be a day late to the place, but it turned out to be a god­send, because when our friends got there yes­ter­day, the own­ers were there,” my friend said. “They weren’t rent­ing the place. It was the third time that month they’d had peo­ple show up who had rent­ed their house on Airbnb.”

The only inac­cu­ra­cy in his state­ment is this: They didn’t rent the house via Airbnb. They thought they did.

A sim­i­lar thing hap­pened to a woman who arrived in New York from Bar­ba­dos to buy her wed­ding dress. Malis­sa Black­man rent­ed two apart­ments in the heart of the city to accom­mo­date her mom, two sis­ters and two brides­maids. When they arrived at 400 Fifth Avenue, the door­man gave the bad news. They’d been suck­ered, and they weren’t the first vic­tims to come look­ing for nonex­is­tent rental apart­ments in the build­ing. At least two oth­er groups had suc­cumbed to the same nefar­i­ous plot, pay­ing as much as $400 a night for the fic­tion­al flats.

Out $2,000, Black­man was forced to pay for two hotel rooms at an addi­tion­al cost of $2,600. The next day, she found her per­fect dress made by her favorite design­er, but after the swin­dle, the $2,500 price tag was just too much for her. She had to get a cheap­er dress and was heartbroken.

What makes these scams possible?

You’re not alone in think­ing that Airbnb should have shut down these scams the first time they hap­pened to a cus­tomer using their site. But they haven’t because the scams didn’t occur on their site.

Black­man had respond­ed to a prop­er­ty on “airbnb.com” and start­ed to dis­cuss terms with the “own­er” of the list­ing on the site’s pro­pri­etary and secure app. She was offered anoth­er option dur­ing that chat and was asked if it would be pos­si­ble to email the link. She allowed it, and that was how the scam went down.

Airbnb is clear about the dan­ger of going off its site or app to con­duct busi­ness. They send a warn­ing email if a mem­ber of Airbnb asks to com­mu­ni­cate via email. The prob­lem here is that these warn­ings can be missed in the flur­ry of email that is trig­gered when you do busi­ness online. Com­pound­ing that prob­lem, warn­ings are so com­mon these days we may ignore them so long as we feel we’re in famil­iar territory—for instance, while look­ing at what appears to be a legit list­ing on the site warn­ing us.

In Blackman’s case, the scam­mer sent her a link that took her to a clone site, a per­fect copy of Airbnb with one key dif­fer­ence: The URL was airbnb.com-listining-online31215.info. At first blush, this might seem like a hard thing to detect, and maybe you’re right there with Black­man, feel­ing per­plexed. There is a clue though, and one you won’t miss going for­ward if you want to play it safe on the inter­net. The URL in ques­tion goes to a dot­in­fo address, not a dotcom.

Airbnb phish­ing tales abound, but these ploys are avoid­able if you know what to look for. (Here are three dumb things you can do with your email.) If you are asked to wire mon­ey or pay in a way that doesn’t use Airbnb, stop com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the renter. It’s a dead give­away a scam is afoot. Whether an Airbnb user lures you off the site or you receive an email with a link to the site, always look at the URL care­ful­ly. The dif­fer­ences can be sub­tle. Bet­ter yet, take Airbnb’s advice and stay on its site or app.

If you believe you’ve been the vic­tim of a scam, don’t shrug it off. You can check for signs of mis­chief by view­ing two of your cred­it scores for free on Credit.com.

Full dis­clo­sure: Cyber­Scout spon­sors Third­Cer­tain­ty. This sto­ry orig­i­nat­ed as an Op/Ed con­tri­bu­tion to Credit.com and does not nec­es­sar­i­ly rep­re­sent the views of the com­pa­ny or its partners.

More on iden­ti­ty theft:
Iden­ti­ty Theft: What You Need to Know
3 Dumb Things You Can Do With Email
How Can You Tell If Your Iden­ti­ty Has Been Stolen?