Eight tips for using Airbnb and similar travel websites safely

The questions to ask, precautions to take and situations to avoid given recent cases of sexual assault by holiday home hosts, including allegation by Hong Kong women against Italian recently convicted of raping 16-year-old

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 12:20pm

The recent Airbnb horror story of a young American man who says he was held captive and sexually molested by his host in Spain in July this year raises once again the question of how to use the popular site safely.

Jacob Lopez, 19, from the US state of Massachusetts, was staying with his host in Madrid when he was locked in his room from the outside. The host then “pressed him into a sexual act”, according to The New York Times, although the host denies this.

Airbnb refused to give Lopez’s mother the host’s address or call police (the host had shut off his internet access, so he was unable to contact her).

Things happen in hotels, too, but Airbnb guests need to realise that they will never have the same safety net that hotel guests have. It’s a chance they take in exchange for saving money. The same applies to home rentals and exchanges.

And although the thousands of guests who use travel websites such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb each day enjoy their experiences, this  hasn’t been the first sensational horror story. Cases have included everything from guests claiming they were drugged by hosts – among them 15 women, including two from Hong Kong, who filed complaints of sexual assault against a former Italian police officer, Dino Maglio, recently convicted of raping a 16-year-old Australian traveller – to guests being attacked by a host’s dog. There have also been instances of fraud (hosts listing apartments without the right to do so).

Airbnb does not do background checks on hosts (or on their pets, for that matter). It does not require even rudimentary safety devices, such as smoke detectors and fire alarms (much less the automatic sprinkler systems found in many modern hotels), or bedroom doors that lock from the inside, in the accommodations it lists. There is no front desk to call if there’s an emergency, nor are there safety deposit boxes or room safes for guests to store valuables. In short, most of the regulations and safety norms that guests have become accustomed to, even in the most rudimentary hotels, are lacking.

The company is making enormous profits and is valued at US$25 billion. It can well afford to begin doing thorough background checks on hosts. Perhaps hosts who have gone through such checks could be listed as such.

Airbnb suggests that hosts have working smoke and carbon dioxide detectors, but doesn’t require them or check to see if they are in place and functioning. Again, the company should at least do spot checks. Same  goes for “clearly marked fire escape routes”, which the company suggests that hosts provide, but doesn’t require.

If something goes wrong with your stay – malfunctioning air conditioning or heat, for example – it’s difficult to get compensation or switch to another accommodation. In a hotel, it’s fairly easy to march down to the front desk and insist that something get fixed, and if it isn’t fixed most hotels will at least adjust your bill or refund that night’s stay.

Eight steps you should take to protect yourself

Talk to your host extensively before you arrive. It’s just like online dating: if you get a queasy feeling, back out. Ask questions. This isn’t foolproof but it is essential

Do due diligence. Is this rental legal? You don’t want to get a knock on the door from the building’s management saying you have to leave or learn that the person you gave your money to had no right to rent the unit

Stay with hosts that your friends or acquaintances have stayed with previously. Don’t rent “blind”

If possible, choose to rent accommodation where the host will not be sharing with you (Airbnb rents both types –sharing with the host and staying on your own)

Before you arrive, get the local emergency numbers for police, fire and ambulance services and know how to use your mobile phone to reach them. Make sure your mobile phone works where you’re staying

Tell friends, family or another responsible party where you’ll be staying. Ask them to check in with you by text or phone

Ask if the room you’ll be occupying can lock from the inside, and check to see that it cannot be locked from the outside

Ask if your host has working smoke detectors. Don’t be afraid to test them

Tribune News Service