Until now everything has been just great for Airbnb, a service that lets people rent out their homes and become a sort of mini-hotel.
But now the story of a trusting Airbnb user who’s had her home sacked (it’s the only way to describe it) is starting to spread. Airbnb’s response so far has been tepid at best. It turns out that when something like this happens, Airbnb isn’t financially responsible.
The facts: Last month “EJ” wrote a long blog post about how a renter spent an entire week carefully robbing and trashing her home. Walls were cut through to get to locked valuables, including her grandmother’s jewelry.
The creepiest part of this is that the renter was sending cheerful emails during the week’s rampage:
All the while, Dj Pattrson was sending me friendly emails, thanking me for being such a great host, for respecting his/her privacy…. telling me how much he/she was enjoying my beautiful apartment bathed in sunlight, how much he/she particularly loved the “little loft area” upstairs… with an “lol” closing one sentence, just for good measure. It makes me sick to my stomach to think now of these emails.
EJ also explains how Airbnb’s policies of not letting people know who they’re renting to until the last moment makes a situation like this more likely to happen. She explains (convincingly) how Craigslist is actually safer because they warn people of the risks. Airbnb, in effect, is vouching for the renter.
Yet now I ask myself this: for what, exactly, did I pay a service fee to Airbnb.com? What did I get in exchange for my 20-something dollars? What was the advantage of using this service over Craigslist, which is free? Ironically Airbnb.com’s site states “the promise of our site is that it is entirely transparent” when in reality, it is not. And therein lies the fundamental, though not immediately apparent, difference: on Craigslist, I am warned loudly and repeatedly that use of the site is at my own risk.
Suddenly Airbnb’s only FAQ on a situation like this doesn’t sound as witty and fun as it must have before.
Will someone steal my grand piano?
Highly unlikely. Grand pianos weigh thousands of pounds and do not fit through doors.
I wonder how Airbnb would answer a FAQ question that’s more to the point, like “What if my renter methodically ransacks my home and steals everything of value while sending me cheerful update emails saying how nice everything is?” Probably with something less pithy than before.
I spoke to Airbnb about EJ’s situation. They won’t reimburse her for damages, they say, and they do not insure against losses. They are helping police track down the person who did this, but their help ends there.
The hotel lobbyists couldn’t ask for anything more.
Update: I spoke with Brian Chesky. He says the company has offered “to assist financially, find new housing for the host, and anything else she can think of to make her life easier.” He says they intend to “go above and beyond” to make the situation right for her. This is different than what a company spokesperson said earlier (see above). I asked Brian if this sets a new policy, and he responded that they’ll look at it on a case by case basis.
The company also sent this email with corrections:
1) We have been assisting investigators and they have a suspect in custody.
2) We have been working with the host since the event and we have offered to assist her to the situation to everyones satisfaction. If you read the blog post, you’ll see that she points this out:
I would be remiss if I didn’t pause here to emphasize that the customer service team at airbnb.com has been wonderful, giving this crime their full attention. They have called often, expressing empathy, support, and genuine concern for my welfare. They have offered to help me recover emotionally and financially, and are working with SFPD to track down these criminals. I do believe the folks at airbnb.com when they tell me this has never happened before in their short history, that this is a one-off case.
3) We actually have an entire safety FAQ for our users. You can find it here: http://www.airbnb.com/safety
Great case for startups: safety issue and legal aspect can make or break the startup. Questions: Has airbnb.com done everything right? What else can they do?