What Does the Latest Airbnb Scandal Mean for the Future of the Company?

Last week, Vice News released an article titled I Accidentally Uncovered a Nationwide Scam on Airbnb, in which Allie Conti recounted her experiences with a shady Airbnb host and how she went on to unravel his calculated scheme through contacting other women who were caught up in the same mess. I mean… that’s pretty badass. But what’s not so badass is the fact that any of this was able to happen under the nose of a mega-corporation that prides itself on safety and security. 

Essentially, Conti was contacted by her host mere minutes before check-in and was told that there was a plumbing issue. He offered her a bigger property that he conveniently also managed and she reluctantly accepted. Conti then found herself in a dingy, falsely advertised space with no formal address, holes punched in the wall, and an array of beds messily stuffed into one room. Upon addressing this with her host, he asked her to communicate any concerns through direct message and to leave a five-star review nonetheless. This intimidation tactic seemed to be essential to the scammer’s routine. It turned out that this was happening to several women in major cities, all algorithmically identical situations, all orchestrated by the same host under different names. 

This isn’t the first time that Airbnb has been under fire; in the past, there have been instances of hosts spying on their guests through hidden or undisclosed video cameras. These instances have been brought forward to police but voyeurism cases are often a low priority, especially when a third party company with its own rules become involved. It is extremely important, now more than ever, for these companies to modify their agreements and rules so as to deter scammers from abusing such lax policies. Companies like Airbnb and Uber rely heavily on an honour system, whereby employees aren’t held to the highest degree, basing their effectiveness solely on background checks and photographs. Granted, with the surge of both companies’ demand in the last few years, it is difficult to stay atop of every transaction. But for Airbnb to be oblivious to an internal scandal that spanned eight cities and over a hundred listings is just absurd. 

So, what happens when a scandal like this breaks out? Lots of damage control. In this case, Airbnb’s priority is safety for guests and the company has made strides to move forward steadily. Airbnb’s CEO, Brian Chesky immediately went to Twitter stating, “We must do better, and we will. This is unacceptable”. Many were comforted by these words while others found them merely performative. Soon after, he brought forward some new changes. The first being that by December 2020, all Airbnb listings will have been re-reviewed thoroughly. Next month, they plan to introduce the “Airbnb Guest Guarantee”, whereby if a guest checks into a listing that doesn’t meet the accuracy standards, they will be rebooked into a place “just as nice” or will receive a 100% refund. Another major change is that Airbnb will now be launching a 24-hour hotline, led by a rapid response team, where anyone can call in case of concern. 

Now, I can’t be the only one who is concerned that these weren’t already implemented into a nearly twelve-year-old site. As someone who relies on Airbnb when I travel, I can’t help but see a multitude of flaws in their new design. Chiefly, Airbnb is not a hotel. There is no way to measure the so-called “niceness” of a property, so wherever you are relocated might be a substantial downgrade seeing as it is unlikely to find a similar quality property within the same radius. Not to mention, already a massive inconvenience with effectively no actual compensation. Ultimately, guests find themselves at the will of an app. And this hotline is nice in theory but what will it actually achieve? Should there be an emergency or threat to my safety, I’m sure as hell not going to think to call Gary from Airbnb. Also, it really seems as though Airbnb just heavily implied that they didn’t already do solid background checks on their hosts. That’s troubling to say the least. 

Granted, it’s easy to be me and critique mega-corporations for not being accommodating enough but what myself and thousands of other students have here, is a personal stake in the game. Often perceived to be a safe alternative to hostels, Airbnb gets a lot of traction from young people wanting to travel cheap and evade hotel costs. Scammers know this and use it to their advantage, as if you are already in a foreign city and your bank statements are littered with Kensington takeout meals or god forbid, $20 drinks at Rebel, you can’t quite hop over to the nearest Hilton and call it a night. 

Now, despite these criticisms, are Airbnb’s changes necessarily bad? No. It’s always better for companies to grow with the times and to promote safety for their users. In theory, should this have been handled long ago? Absolutely, but what use is it to quip about this any more than I already have. The main takeaway we have here is to be cautious with new technology. Ten years ago, the notion of staying in a stranger’s house or getting in a stranger’s car seemed too unsafe to venture. It’s imperative to keep some of that cynicism with us; cushy aesthetics and a few policy changes don’t ensure our safety. We’ll simply have to wait out the effects as Airbnb’s new policies roll in.

Image Credit: Joseph Albanese