Months before London-based Jonathan Moon would turn 30, he started musing over how to celebrate. While he had rung in past birthdays at home, he wanted to do something out of the ordinary as a farewell kiss to his twenties. A short ski vacation with friends felt like the perfect idea.
"I don't usually do birthday trips—this was an exception," he told WonderHowTo. "It's the 'biggest' birthday I've had so far, so I wanted to do something special."
He'd successfully used the rental site Airbnb once before and decided to try it again, cruising through listings in the Austrian ski village Saint Anton am Arlberg.
Moon came across a beautiful chalet close to a ski resort that wasn't cheap but wasn't outrageously expensive either, with all the trappings for himself and nearly a dozen close friends to enjoy a five-day getaway in the Alps. He dutifully dished out the money needed for the reservation and security deposit: €3,500 (roughly $3,700 US) or about two month's salary at his business development job.
But what seemed at first like an amazing opportunity to usher in a landmark birthday in style turned into a sickening mistake.
Moon fell prey to a con that has been popping up on Airbnb for the last several years. When the service is used as intended, all booking, payment, and communication between host and guests happens directly through Airbnb's platform, but bad actors have come up with convincing ways to lure people into sending money via wire transfer. Once the payment goes through, they disappear.
For Moon, it started when he found a listing that he liked that asked that he check his desired dates via email before trying to book on the site. Without thinking anything of the request, he sent the host a note and received a prompt reply that the chalet would be available. He then requested the dates through Airbnb's official channel and got an automated message promising him a confirmation within 24 hours.
What happened next sealed Moon's fate. A message from the email address "firstname.lastname@example.org" popped into his inbox, seemingly confirming his reservation and directing him to proceed to payment. The email mimicked Airbnb's style and aesthetic, so Moon didn't have any doubts about its legitimacy. And since he'd only used Airbnb once before, it didn't raise any red flags that he had to wire his payment instead of processing it onsite. So, he sent the money.
But suspicion started to bubble up in Moon when he received the email below from Airbnb telling him that his reservation request for the chalet had expired. What? Hadn't he just paid for it?
He contacted the company's Trust and Safety department and realized that he had, indeed, been duped. Worse, Airbnb said it couldn't offer him any compensation because the transaction occurred off of its platform.
He emailed the department back repeatedly and wrote a handful of Facebook posts trying to get the company on the phone—hoping that if he could talk to a real person he'd be able to appeal to their moral conscious and recoup some of his money—to no avail.
Although Moon is coming to terms with the fact that he won't get his savings back, he's still angry at Airbnb, which he feels doesn't do enough to protect its customers.
"The level of sophistication on this scam is pretty high," he said. Although Moon is inexperienced with Airbnb, he's a fluent and wide-ranging internet user. "If users like me are falling for it, I dread to think what would happen for people who are a lot older than me, less tech savvy, more vulnerable."
Although Airbnb includes ample information on its site about identifying and avoiding potential scams, Moon never suspected foul play, so didn't comb through any of its FAQ. It also proactively warns customers not to wire money in every message thread that happens on its site between hosts and guests, but Moon never saw it because he communicated via email. He urges the company to include a similar warning in its automated booking message or to prevent hosts from posting their email addresses in their listings.
Airbnb spokesperson Nick Shapiro told WonderHowTo that negative experiences like Moon's are "extremely rare" and that if guests use its secure messaging system, stay on the platform, and only send money through Airbnb, "they will always be protected."
He added that the site's risk-detection system actively tries to weed out fraudsters by evaluating "more than 300 signals such as host reputation, duplicate pictures, and other discrepancies."
But the system clearly isn't foolproof.
Moon said that after he'd realized what had happened, he spotted several other listings in the same area that are also prompting prospective guests to reach out via email first. We identified another listing live on the site that appeared to use the exact same photos used to trick Moon:
The host urges interested parties to contact her via email, starting the cycle Moon fell into all over again. The photo in both of these cases is actually of a chalet in Lech some 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) away that is operated by Bramble Ski resorts. People familiar with the area might be able to spot this discrepancy right away, but most tourists will not.
"It's frustrating to see how prevalent this is," Moon said.
Airbnb's Shapiro didn't get any more specific with the site's scam record than to say that they have been "very rare" within its over 140 million guest arrivals. But last year, Gizmodo published excerpts from 22 Federal Trade Commission complaints against the company. Meanwhile, Twitter accounts Airbnb_Scam and AirbnbScams purport to regularly highlight suspect accounts, usually tweeting out several apparent "scam" listings per day. Some listings subsequently get deleted, others don't, and there's no way to tell from the outside how many successfully lure people in.
Airbnb maintains a hardline on these cases, refusing to make any payouts, since in all cases the money gets sent to the scammer off of its platform. It advises people to try to get their money back by contacting their bank or filing a case report with the police.
"Again, we will never ask you to pay through your email," Shapiro said. "If you receive a personal email from anyone (including an email@example.com or any other firstname.lastname@example.org email address) asking you to pay or accept payment off-site, immediately report it to email@example.com and end communication with the sender."
As for Moon, his birthday plans have stalled. Losing so much money has dashed his hopes of doing something special. One thing is for sure though, he said: He won't be trusting Airbnb going forward.
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