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Airbnb security: tips for safe travel

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Airbnb is a very handy service that makes life easier for millions of travelers worldwide. But popular doesn’t mean problem-free. On the contrary, its universality makes it more of a target for scammers looking to maximize the number of their potential victims. This post walks you through the main dangers you might face when renting on Airbnb, and gives tips on how to stay safe.

Airbnb account security: protect your phone number

The first thing to remember is that your Airbnb account is tied to your phone number. During sign-up, Airbnb also asks for an email, but that’s a secondary detail. The problem here is that a phone number, unlike an email address, is quite easy to mislay — without the possibility of recovery. Most often, this happens if you linked your account to a burner SIM card or eSIM that you bought in the host country to save money. Alternatively, after your trip you might put the travel SIM in a desk drawer and forget to top it up, or change your phone number and forget to untie your account from the old one.

Some time after the prepaid period expires, the inactive phone number will be recycled and sold to a new user. And if they try to sign up to Airbnb using that number, the service will simply let them into your account by sending a one-time code in a text message.

Many other services and messengers that tie accounts to phone numbers offer additional protection against such things happening in the form of a good old password. Unfortunately, Airbnb does not provide this option. Which means you have to take care of security yourself:

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  • Keep a close eye on the “expiry date” of phone numbers linked to any accounts, including Airbnb, and top up in good time.
  • If you change number, make a complete list of the accounts you tied it to, then carefully go through it, relinking them all to the new number.
  • Avoid abandoning accounts: if you’re not planning to use one for a long time, best delete it.
  • And remember to unlink your payment method from Airbnb when the reservation period is over (not possible if your booking is still active).
  • If paying by card, try to use a virtual rather than a physical one. And use a credit not a debit card if your country’s laws give more protections for credit card transactions.

Airbnb fakes: free cheese that will cost you dear

Another danger to Airbnb users due to the site’s immense popularity is online scams. Not long ago, we posted a fresh roundup of online threats that travelers could face this holiday season. Naturally, it covered scam Airbnb clones.

Scammers have gotten pretty adept at copying the real Airbnb website. Scam clones are often very convincing, so if you don’t look very closely at the URL, you might not realize you’re on a fraudulent site. It’s this URL that most often gives them away. Therefore:

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Scam ads on the real Airbnb: anyone can be affected

Also bear in mind that Airbnb is largely based on trust and common decency. So, inevitably, there are those who try to exploit this. Even if we assume that Airbnb takes care to sift out unwanted listings, it’s still physically impossible to go through all the millions of accommodation options with a fine-tooth comb. Which means you might occasionally bump into scammers on the platform.

This happened to me a little over six months ago. I’d already used Airbnb dozens of times and everything had been hunky-dory, until one day an ad turned out to be fake. I arrived at the apartment block where I was meant to be staying, and phoned the owner. The guy who answered the phone explained, in broken English, that he didn’t know anything about my booking, the apartment was in disrepair, and there was no way I could enter the property and stay there.

Then we had a game of message tennis, the aim of which, it seemed, was to get me to go to a hotel at my own additional expense. To be honest, I no longer had the patience or energy to see it through to the end and find out how exactly they wanted to scam me. By this point I’d already contacted Airbnb support to cancel the booking due to the fault of the host, and was looking for an alternative: Airbnb agreed to return the money paid for the non-rental, but did not offer free replacement accommodation.

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Incidentally, I should say that the photos of the apartment block were genuine and matched the view you’d expect from the window. And the price was quite realistic — not too good to be true: just a regular Airbnb offer. Yet despite the lack of obvious red flags, it still turned out to be fraudulent. Here are some tips I can give based on my experience:

  • Make sure to read reviews about the host or owner before booking. If there are none or very few, think carefully about whether you want to run the risk of banging on a locked door.
  • Contact the host or owner as early as possible to discuss the check-in details. If something doesn’t feel right, try to arrange a fallback, or contact support immediately and tell them about your suspicions.
  • If you do encounter scammers, call Airbnb support asap. Get ready for a lengthy process: Airbnb will first contact the “host”, then phone you back, all of which can take a long time.
  • Most likely you won’t be offered alternative accommodation, so I advise taking care of this yourself without waiting for a resolution to the problem.

Hidden cameras: more common than you think

Another nuisance you may encounter as an Airbnb user is covert video surveillance. Today, miniature cameras can be bought for just a few dollars, and you don’t need to be a spy or hacker to install them.

As a consequence, secret video surveillance in rented accommodation is far more common than you might think. Such stories even get into the press once in a while — so one can only guess how many remain off the radar of journalists.

For example, a survey of North American Airbnb users several years ago revealed that 11% had found hidden cameras in apartments they had rented. And that’s only those who found cameras: just imagine how many didn’t notice they were being filmed?

  • There are several ways to spot a spy camera. Not one of them is 100% reliable, and all are time-consuming, but you could try them in situations where privacy is paramount.
  • Airbnb’s rules for hosts explicitly prohibit the use of covert video surveillance. So if you find a camera, be sure to report it to Airbnb support — some guests who did so were able to get a refund or change accommodation.

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