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.
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.
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.
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.