07/28/2011 06:29 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

Airbnb Burglary: SF Woman 'Violated' By Visitor Using Local Startup

This story comes to us courtesy of SF Weekly's The Snitch.

By Peter Jamison

A San Francisco woman has come forward with a horrific tale of her experience with local startup Airbnb, an online service that matches travelers with hosts whose homes they can rent for brief periods.

The woman's story -- her apartment was ransacked and burglarized by at least one Airbnb patron while she was out of town -- raises questions about the site's security measures even as Airbnb announced this week that it had raised $112 million from new investors and achieved a $1.3 billion valuation.

In a blog post titled "Violated: A traveler's lost faith, a difficult lesson learned," the woman -- who refers to herself only as EJ, wishing to remain anonymous -- describes what happened while a person known simply to her through Airbnb as "DJ Pattrson" stayed at her place in San Francisco while she was traveling:

They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother's jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals... my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied - using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests' use. They rifled through all my drawers, wore my shoes and clothes, and left my clothing crumpled up in a pile of wet, mildewing towels on the closet floor...

They did weird stuff too: moving things around in a spooky, psychotic kind of way - creepy little things that I am still discovering as I dig through the wreckage - like cutting the tags off my pillows, and hanging a painting of Paris on the wall that I had never hung before... probably while wearing my now-missing Ugg boots and Roots cap.

San Francisco police investigators are looking into the incident.

Airbnb cofounder Brian Chesky said in a statement that he was "shocked" by the crime. "We have been working closely with the authorities, and we want to reassure our community that, with the help of our security infrastructure, we were able to assist the police in their investigation, and we understand from authorities that a suspect is now in custody," he said.

In her blog post, victim EJ asserted that Airbnb's rules are partly to blame for what happened. Hosts and renters get access to each other's personal contact information only once they have finalized a transaction. (By contrast, people who seek a similar arrangement via Craigslist can trade information at any point, and, in theory, vet each other more thoroughly ahead of time.)

Some believe that Airbnb's rules are intended to prevent people from doing side deals that deprive the site of its transaction fees. EJ writes that, given the lack of transparency among site users ahead of time, she assumed that Airbnb was doing a better job of screening its customers:

By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that has already done the research for me, and has eliminated the investigative work that Craigslist requires. In effect, the friendly, community-based site with its Golden Rules creates a reasonable expectation that some basic screening of its users has occurred, and speaks little to the risks involved, primarily within the very small print of the lengthy Terms of Service. Thus by the time this reservation was confirmed and I was given Dj's email address and phone number, I was on a plane heading East, and he/she was armed with my welcoming instructions on where to pick up the keys to my apartment.

EJ also asserts that it took 14 hours for Airbnb to return a panicked phone call she made to the company after she discovered what had happened.

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