Travelers lose thousands on phony Airbnb accommodation ads: Internet Scambusters #662
The home-sharing site Airbnb has joined other accommodation service providers as a target for scammers.
Users are reported to have lost thousands of dollars by paying for non-existent accommodations advertised on the site.
Yet, as we report this week, by following one simply Airbnb rule, those users would not have been scammed. You can use it too, to protect yourself.
Let's get started...
Scammers Target Home Sharing Site Airbnb
Reports have been rolling in during the summer of a succession of scams that have hit users of the home-sharing service Airbnb.
The organization is a sort of clearing house for people offering to rent out rooms in their own homes or even the entire home, and travelers or vacationers looking for cheap B&B accommodations.
It operates in 34,000 cities in 190 countries throughout the world -- mostly, we stress, without fraud or other problems.
But when it happens, the main scam follows the old storyline of victims being tricked into renting and paying for accommodations that the scammer doesn't actually own.
This is already a common problem for people using other vacation rental services and online classified ad sites.
It works in a similar way.
The would-be renter spots a suitable accommodation on the Airbnb website and clicks on a button to contact the owner, or "host" as they're called.
If the host is really a scammer, they ask the renter to pay by money wire or bank transfer.
In the past, crooks have disguised the scam by using an email address that includes "airbnb" in it (but not simply "airbnb.com") or even by spoofing legitimate addresses, though the organization says it has changed its email system to reduce the risk of this happening.
Scammers also use logos and other official-looking designs and wording to make emails and documents seem authentic.
And in some cases, they actually send an invoice, in PDF format, again asking for payment by one of these untraceable methods.
These invoices and emails often include phony "guarantees" and claims that the wired payment will be covered against scams by Airbnb.
They may say that using the money wire service will be faster or even cheaper than working through the official payment service on the website.
They may also request victims' phone numbers so they can call and persuade them to wire the money, without using any traceable email services.
Sadly, all of this is phony. In one instance reported to an online travel forum, a victim lost $36,000.
After receiving payment, scammers will often send a confirmation, with a phony reference number, to delay identification of the fraud.
This means the victim may not find out they've been conned until they actually make their trip.
The key issue here is that the transaction is being handled "off-site" as Airbnb calls it, which takes it outside the security provisions of the organization's own on-site payment system.
Using the on-site payment method is critical and users shouldn't be fooled into using any other process than paying Airbnb directly on the website, with a credit card.
The company never asks customers to send wire payments.
As Airbnb explained to one victim: "Airbnb protects hosts and guests by handling all transactions through our secure payment platform. Guests pay through Airbnb when they book a listing, and hosts don't receive payment until at least 24 hours after guests check in."
Also, don't be taken in by hosts' claims to have been "verified" by Airbnb. In at least one reported case a scammer was listed as having been doubly verified by the company.
In other cases, crooks even seem to have manipulated the site's feedback system, giving themselves positive comments for their supposed reliability.
Sometimes, genuine hosts have had their Airbnb accounts hacked, usually via identity theft from other sources and by astute password guessing.
In this way, hosts are potential scam victims as well as the guests who try to book their accommodation.
Airbnb has responded to criticisms about how scammers have accessed its service and made some changes to tighten up security.
It has also issued the following guidance to users:
- Never pay or accept payment off-site.
- Airbnb does not send out PDF payment invoices.
- Nor does it request payment by any wiring service, cashier's check or money order.
- Pay and communicate only through the website.
- Beware of links in messages from other users, even those you know. Their accounts may have been compromised.
- Report users who ask you to work with them off-site.
The organization has several pages devoted to scams and security.
We'll add our usual warning: Never accept at face value that a message truly comes from whomever it seems to be from.
Scammers can disguise email addresses so they appear to have come from Airbnb or any other organization they want to spoof.
And stealing logos and other official-looking stuff is a piece of cake for crooks.
These tips can help you avoid getting scammed if you use Airbnb.
Alert of the week
Are you, or do you know, one of the millions of government employees affected by the hacking of records at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)?
If so, watch out for emails pretending to be from OPM or their security specialists, CSID, asking for confidential information that will be added to records already stolen for a potential identity theft.
Don't click on links in any such emails. Instead, visit the official site for information about the breach and how it affects you.
If you know someone else who may be affected, please pass this on to them.
Time to conclude for today -- have a great week!