No scamming at this Airbnb…

‘Airbnb users say website is failing to protect them from scammers’ – The Observer, November 15

LAPTOP perched on the dining table. Words to type. And a guest to come downstairs sometime soon. The bed is comfortable, they often say, and occasionally they oversleep.

When our overnight Australian visitor arrived yesterday, she drew up in her car just as I was parking mine. I wasn’t hightailing it out of York with her £25 in my pocket, just opening the front door and pointing out the slightly eccentric location of the shower (downstairs by the front door: it was there when we moved in and is still there now; the estate agent called it a ‘wet room’ – accurate as it was very wet).

Not that I could vanish with the readies, as the money thing is organised over the internet by Airbnb. Normally you receive an email while your guest is staying to say that the money is being transferred and will be in your account in a few days.

One of our early guests was a little suspicious before he arrived, asking for various reassurances. It turned out that he’d been scammed in the US, having turned up at his New York apartment to find a locked door in an abandoned building. And had nowhere to stay although he’d paid his money through the website.

Airbnb is often cited as being part of the new sharing economy made possible by the internet. Sadly anything good that can be made on the internet can also be abused by swindlers and rogues. Create something that is mainly for the general benefit, and soon enough an ungodly assortment of fingersmiths and cutpurses will spoil the party.

At least the old highwayman was an honest to goodness thief who stood before you and demanded the contents of your purse. His modern equivalent lurks in dark cyber corners while working out ways to fleece people from the safety of his laptop (important qualification: some laptops are just used for creating a sea of words in which the only sharks are jokes that sometimes pass beneath the surface).

A Cabinet Office report in 2011 put the cost to Britain of cyber-crime at £27 billion per annum. The report warned that internet crime is “highly lucrative and the barriers to entry are low”.

The Observer story last Sunday featured people who had booked a break or holiday through Airbnb, only to discover the money had disappeared and they had nowhere to stay. One woman is said to have paid nearly £5,000 for a holiday villa on Mallorca and was asked by the ‘owners’ to pay upfront. She sought advice from Airbnb and says she was advised to go ahead and pay in full.

Another woman lost £670 “when she booked two nights in Amsterdam in August”.

Two thoughts occur to me on my ledge (room available, comfortable bed, bit of breakfast but not the full English – well what do you expect for twenty-five quid?)…

One: Those are very expensive stays, well away from the humdrum night here and there that Airbnb seems to be very good at facilitating. Perhaps it is best to stick to the basics like a room in a semi in York.

Two: whenever someone has a good idea, there will always be some bastard ready to pick your pocket – without ever coming within a sly finger’s distance of your wallet.

We have hosted many guests and fleeced not a single one, although we did inherit half a bottle of shampoo the other day. And we have been a guest once and the room we’d paid for was there when we arrived, and still there when we left.

Our guests have been uniformly pleasant – some we hardly see, others sit downstairs for an interesting chat. Although come to think of it, there was that one man who expressed his undying love for David Cameron. A touch of frost settled that night.

Not a bad hit rate after six months of being an accidental B&B host.

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