Until recently, the name Airbnb was not something tossed around in the average news cycle or dinner party. However, since a story recently broke about malicious use of rented property and Airbnb's apparent woeful management of the crisis, the name is everywhere... and not in a good way.
Airbnb describes itself as a company engaged in "unlocking unique spaces worldwide." Through its web portal, the company allows people the world over to exchange housing, essentially turning private residences into mini-hotels, renting out their homes and finding residences to for short-term rental. The service has proved useful for thousands of successful exchanges but truly atrocious stories are emerging about how this can go wrong.
Here's the short version of what happened. A host (EJ) rented her home to people who contacted her via Airbnb. When she returned, there seemed to be no end to the damage she encountered. There were holes in doors and walls, items from shoes to an iPod were stolen, and her whole home was covered in powdered bleach. They even, allegedly, stole her identity. Soon after, another victim came forward and told his story of horror. While these stories are truly awful, they should serve as a strong reminder for companies and users. (Note that the CEO of Airbnb provided this response to these stories.)
Online, we can get lulled in to a false sense of security. We start to think that, because someone signed into a site or setup an account, they must be honest and reputable. This is why it's critical to always exercise extreme caution when engaging in person with someone you have only met online. In the real world, we would never hand over the keys to our house without some serious ID and references and assurances. The same should be true online.
Here are just a few other ways to help you keep yourself and your home safe and secure if you're using rental sites like Airbnb:
• Secure people: Look for ways that security initiatives have been engaged on the site. Does the site offer background checks for renters, in the same way that SitterCity offers them for caregivers? Does the site separate out those who have been vetted from those who have not?
• Assurances: Look for ways the site plans to handle 'security breaches.' Does the site have a process for compensation in the event of damage? Does the site offer or suggest short-term insurance options to cover loss?
• Organization history: Tech start-ups can have a brilliant idea, but don't always build-in crisis response mechanisms to help a customer. Does the site you're considering have clearly delineated departments for helping users? Is there a helpdesk that responds to your inquiry? Does the site provide an emergency contact number that is available 24/7?
• Check networks: It is ideal if you know the person you are renting to and great if you have mutual contacts who can be references. Since this may not always be possible, does the site provide other mechanisms to allow community vetting?
Like so many other online services, rental sites can offer us convenience and help. As consumers, we must ask the right questions so that sites also proactively embrace safety and security.
Follow Hemanshu Nigam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hemanshunigam