Now that a horrifying trail of destruction — wrecked apartments, scammed renters, terrible service — has caught up with Airbnb, the once hot vacation listings website is apologizing and making all kids of promises to change. Don't listen.
In a mass email to customers and on the company blog, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky apologized for his handling of "EJ," a San Francisco resident whose place was ransacked and then basically destroyed by a tenant she met on Airbnb, and who waited 14 hours to get her call to the company's "urgent" phone line returned, hearing back only after a friend intervened at the company. After EJ blogged eloquently about her story, it emerged that other Airbnb listers had also been pillaged, and that plenty of tenants have been scammed, too, for example by paying rent to people with no rights to the apartment.
In his blog post, Chesky announced a 24 hour hotline, a doubling of the support staff, and a "$50,000 Airbnb Guarantee," which covers "loss or damage due to vandalism or theft caused by an Airbnb guest."
Of course, Chesky had to add that "terms will apply to the program and may vary," and there's the rub: You still have to trust Airbnb not to screw you over; the company could attach onerous terms, classify a legit claim as fraud, underpay for damages or simply drag its heels, as it did in responding to EJ.
And you shouldn't trust Airbnb or its CEO. Here's why:
- The CEO admits he says things he doesn't mean and will not stand behind, on blogs. Here's what Chesky wrote about a post of his that ran on TechCrunch six days ago: " I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn't reflect my true feelings." Trashing your last blog post is a terrible way to build credibility in your current blog post. Just saying!
- Airbnb tried to cover up the pillaging of EJ's apartment (in an incredibly sleazy way). An Airbnb co-founder asked EJ to remove her account of her terrible Airbnb experience, saying it would hinder a funding round the company was trying to close (and ultimately did close). He brought this up in a conversation about the police investigation into her case.
- Airbnb's people ran a scam on Craigslist where they would disguise themselves as ordinary Craigslist users, email people listing their vacation apartments on the site, and urge them to list on Airbnb, saying it was a better site. The operation may well have violated the federal CAN-SPAM act, which says ads must be clearly labeled, must not contain misleading headers, and must respect opt out requests (the Craigslist scam was run even on users who had opted out of unrelated commercial offers). Airbnb leakers blamed the incident on rogue contractors who had been hired to sell "person to person," somehow. The company has never addressed the incident officially, despite widespread coverage in the tech press.
- Airbnb still hasn't taken the best, most obvious safety step. EJ never asked for a guarantee from Airbnb. Instead, she wrote that the company should have given her the identity of the person she was renting to — a full name, maybe a Facebook link, an email address, a personal website — before the deal went through. Such disclosure would be a very powerful way for Airbnb users to vet one another. But allowing this would mean some users would complete their rental transaction away from Airbnb, leaving the startup without its cut of revenue. For all its purported concern about safety, Airbnb still doesn't care enough to tell you who you are actually renting to before money changes hands. That's insane.
The Airbnb guys just banked $112 million and are trying to live up to their $1 billion+ valuation. Fine. But that doesn't mean you have to take huge risks alongside them.