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How to spot and avoid an Airbnb scam like a pro

How to spot and avoid an Airbnb scam like a pro

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I fell victim to an Airbnb scam on my recent trip to Belize.

I’ve been using Airbnb for years to book accommodations. I’ve never had a problem booking a home, until now. In fact, I’ve even recommended the site to family and friends because of my raging success with the site and app. Well now, you can imagine how silly I feel after my current debacle. 

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How it happened

In January, I ventured to Belize for a week of relaxation in the jungle and exploring Mayan ruins.

Airbnb, which is relatively new to Belize, has a lot of new listings. I never consider new listings a red flag since Airbnb is so popular and many homeowners are looking for ways to make a few extra bucks. So after finally finding a listing in the area I was searching, which was already proving to be difficult, I didn’t bat an eye when it was listed as “new.”

The listing didn’t have many photos, and of the ones listed, I could tell that the place was sparse. I contacted the owner and asked if the property was ready to be rented. She responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!” and also asked for my services as a travel blogger.

She mentioned that her listing was new and that she was excited about some extra exposure. Hence, why her photos weren’t glamorous and why she was recruiting me.

At the time, I brushed away all the red flags giving this new Airbnb owner the benefit of the doubt. I saw this opportunity as a win-win situation.

Giving the benefit of the doubt

When I arrived, there was a huge mix up in getting the keys to the place. The owner, who is based in the States, employs a local to act as her rental manager. The woman who was meeting me refused to text me the exact address, which wasn’t appearing on my Airbnb booking, and said we should meet at a local bar because it was hard to find.

I waited for her for four hours.

When she finally showed up, she was angry with me because I apparently had “moved” from the local bar, making it impossible to spot me. This was not the case, but I brushed it off, giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Annoyed and peeved because I essentially wasted all my daylight waiting for this woman, and now wouldn’t be able to take photos of the unit. I grudgingly followed her to the Airbnb unit in my rental car.

Again, I know, all these red flags should have told me this was a typical Airbnb scam, yet I was hoping for the best. After an exhausting day, I wanted nothing more than a comfortable bed to sleep in.

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This listing was my worst nightmare

We pulled up and the building looked like the listing online. The house was located on a secluded street that overlooked the lagoon, so again, I was optimistic.

I was welcomed to this “private oasis” with the manager’s children screaming. They flipped and twirled on the three large hammocks that hung in the shared common space. Yet, around us, there was nothing in sight. Not other furniture or renters in this guesthouse-styled listing.

The manager, without pausing a beat, proceeded to give me a tour. We walked into the kitchen where there were dozens of boxes strewed about with glasses and dinnerware, clearly waiting to be unpacked. None of the appliances were pulled in, she informed me, so she hoped that that wouldn’t be a problem. Not really, since I conveniently spent the past four hours at a bar where food was readily at my disposable, but all the same, I was a little peeved.

We walked out of the kitchen down a hallway to where I was meant to be sleeping. Prior to my arrival, the host and owner of the Airbnb informed me that my room would be ready for me. When I walked in there was nothing more than a mattress. The manager mentioned that linens were in the pile of boxes in the kitchen and that I could put them on myself.

I cocked my eyebrow and stared at her.

Things were getting really weird

“We don’t put linens on because of the bat and gecko poop,” she told me, acknowledging my skeptical look.

I had to stop myself from, first, gagging, and, second, my jaw from dropping at this pure insanity.

Had she really said that?

She leads me outside of the bedroom, back into the living area, and motions to the walls that were lattice. She absent-mindedly says that I should probably turn off the lights soon to prevent bugs from congregating.

And again, she mentioned bats. Bats might come swooping in during the night in the common area so it might be best I spend the night in my bedroom.

Yeah, that room with just a mattress and a fan overhead that dared to topple off the rails and decapitate me in my sleep.

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I wish I was being dramatic

The manager asked me if everything looked OK and I responded with a solid, “No.” I informed her that the owner told me that the listing would be fully ready for me, and in addition, there would be rooms staged which I was supposed to take pictures of.

The manager responded with a shrug, handed me the keys and corraled her kids out the front door.

“The front door doesn’t lock, by the way,” she yelled as she piled all her children into her car.

I stood there stunned and appalled. Had this really happened? Had I just fallen victim to an Airbnb scam?

Within two minutes I placed the keys on the counter, got into my rental car and drove off to find a hotel. There was no way I was going to stay in a rental unit that couldn’t lock and where I could be surrounded by bat guano by morning time. Hell no! I didn’t sign up for this.

Eventually, the ordeal was sorted out, but it was a traumatic experience. I have since stayed at Airbnb listings that have been wonderful, so this experience hasn’t tainted my thoughts on the lodging site. What it has done, is provided me with some insightful lessons on how to weed out potential Airbnb scams.

Be wary of photos with bad lighting

Now, we all know there are folks that aren’t gifted at photography. Realistically, not all Airbnb photos will look light and airy, and that’s OK.

But if the photos look like they intentionally crop something out or parts of the room are blurred, blocked, that should definitely raise a red flag.

For this particularly listing, there were no blurred images. But there did lack shots of the overall view of the listing. For instance, there were only close-ups in the kitchen versus not showing the room in its entirety. Not entirely fishy, but something to keep in mind.

Carefully read the reviews

When I read Airbnb reviews, I tend to take them all with a grain of salt. Again, we live in a digital age where everyone feels like a slight inconvenience entitles one to a full refund or compensation of some sort. Sometimes anger is misplaced and a vicious review is written.

Now if numerous people have voiced the same concern, I would take that as a red flag. But one fluke doesn’t steer me away from a potential listing.

Also, note the tone of voice used in the review. Sometimes when owners are just starting out on Airbnb they get family and friends to write reviews about their listings to help boost their overall rating. It’s pretty obvious when you have a family member that writes a review if they end it with “xoxo Grandma.”

Interact with the host prior to booking

Sometimes you won’t realize a scam is unfolding until you’re at your destination. I always try to reach out to hosts beforehand, but with our hectic lives, it doesn’t always happen.

For me, it should’ve been a huge red flag that I wasn’t given the address beforehand and that the manager was hours late meeting me. Then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Triple check your link

Sometimes hosts message you that there’s availability in another one of their listings or a different room might better suit your needs. Recently, there has been another scam associated with this as well. Clone sites are another way consumers fall victim to Airbnb scams.

Scammers will send people a faulty link that closely resembles Airbnb, but it leads you to a different site. This site has a similar logo and layout with only a few minor differences including a live chat feature, which isn’t offered on Airbnb. These minor difference should clue you in that this is a scam.

Trust your gut

Sometimes, if it feels too good to be true, it is. This when you need to dive into detective mode and fully read the listing description, reviews, etc.

If you ever feel uneasy about a host or listing, do not hesitate to reach out to Airbnb support for assistance.

As I mentioned before, I still book accommodations through Airbnb. I now investigate a little deeper before booking. But, I still book, almost exclusively, with Airbnb on my vacations.

If you are interested in joining Airbnb, feel free to use my referral code to get $40 off your first stay.

This article contains affiliate links.



23 thoughts on “How to spot and avoid an Airbnb scam like a pro”

  • Oh no that’s awful you were scammed on Airbnb in Belize, I hope you reported this listing. I always use Airbnb, and am also a host, so it works both ways with the reviews. I totally agree about bad lighting, it’s always a warning sign. Haven’t yet seen ‘xoxo grandma’ lol but there’s always a first!

  • Ugh, that is so frustrating!! Sadly, even vigilance isn’t enough in some cases, and of course we always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when communicating across cultural lines. I hope that you ended up getting your money back (and didn’t give her those photos!), but of course, that doesn’t really solve the problem in the end. What a mess!

  • Sorry to know that you had such a nightmarish experience with airbnb. I for myself get confused with the properties that have less reviews and photos. Getting in touch with the owner is a good way to shoo off the doubts. I always however try to look out for reviews whereever available and if i dont get anything i just skip to other properties.

    • Yes, I was already in touch with the owner, yet I still fell victim to this scam. And that’s good advice but isn’t always an option. Especially in areas where Airbnb is just introduced, sometimes listings are scarce in areas — typically areas that I like to cover for Quirky Globetrotter (off the beaten path!).

  • This is why I am always apprehensive about booking places which are ‘new’ and don’t have reviews yet. While I understand that there can be genuinely new places, having heard of so many scams on airbnb, I am a little vigilant about these things. I cannot believe that actual BATS enter the common area of the house! And the main door doesn’t lock? That’s just insane. I’m glad you decided to go for a hotel instead and I hope you gave them a review on airbnb, just to let others be warned of the situation. And I hope you let airbnb also know!

    • Hi Medha! Yes, I’ve always heard of the Airbnb scams, but I’ve never been a victim of one — until now I guess. Regardless though, I’ll definitely continue using Airbnb! Their support team is the best and they definitely know how to help someone out in a pinch. Thanks for reading!

  • It happens, no matter how many times you booked and are careful. It’s one of the main reasons we no longer book new units! We experienced a similar experience in Tamraght Morocco where the unit was not only filthy but not the unit we rented and lacked everything mentioned. It’s the last time we rented a just listed unit because out of all our rentals, the three with issues where brand new.

    • Oh definitely! I always like to help out new business owners, so I try not to avoid new units for that sole reasons. Yikes! I sorry to hear about all your trouble you’ve had! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • We have traveled through more than 20 countries in Europe and have been booking apartments, most of them through Airbnb but luckily never faced any problems or scams. Your experience really scares me, I definitely wouldnt want to face that in a foreign country when am looking for some relaxed vacation time. I would definitely emphasize on reading reviews and interacting with the house owner before finalizing the booking.

  • Haven’t tried Air BnB personally but havent head such a scary story of an experience like this within my circle. This was really scary and tricky. You did just the riht thing dear not to stay there. I will also keep in mind these points to take care whenever I am booking any BnB.

    • Hi Judy! Yeah, my story is unique — ha! That’s OK though, we all have to live and learn. Don’t let my experience scare you and definitely book an Airbnb because they’re definitely worth it. Safe travels to you!

  • Have yet to get my hands into AirBnB, I usually prefer hostels, or even hotels. I can only imagine, what kind of ordeal you must have had to go through, and hope this blog post turns out to be a means of practicing caution when booking an AirBnB, in a new country. It can either, make or spoil your travels.

    • Hi Arnav! While this Airbnb experience wasn’t the best, I definitely didn’t let it ruin my trip. You’ve got to keep a positive attitude while traveling and not let the details bog down all the surreal experiences you’re having. Thanks for reading!

  • I have never used Air BnB because I was always afraid of such nightmarish experiences. You have really been scammed as there was not even basic facilities of hostel room also. This kind of stay really loses the feel of travel and we get into fights and verbal accused which is a mood spoiler. I also check photographs which are bright not blurry types and read all reviews before booking any hotel. Sometimes I try to find the hotel address on Google street view to exactly know the surroundings. I will now take more care before booking any stay.

  • Sorry you had such a bad experience! This could happen to anyone and we had a similar situation with hotels too! I always referred to reviews and TripAdvisor now!

    • Hi Katie! Yikes — I would hate to have that happen at a hotel because I usually hold them to a higher regard versus a person’s home. I don’t know about TripAdvisor anymore because of the recent London restaurant debacle, but I definitely say reviews are worth reading. Safe travels!

  • Oh my goodness! That’s terrible!!! Staying alone in a secluded house that doesn’t lock where bats & bugs might visit you??? Whoa!!! No thanks!!! I’ve stayed a couple times in Airbnb. Yeah, as you say, the reviews are what rely on.

  • Oooops. This sounds terrible and must have been so scary for you. I am glad you left the place immediately and brought it up here. This listing should be blacklisted by Airbnb. I hope they did something about it. I generally keep away from listings which dont have reviews but sometimes we do take a chance. But after reading this, I think we have all learned a lesson.

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