Market Overview

Will Criminals Kill the Airbnb Business Model?

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Mom always said to lock our doors when we leave the house. But she didn't say anything about the need to lock out paying customers.

Airbnb, the startup that claims to “connect people who have space to spare with those who are looking for a place to stay,” is coming under fire this week after one room-seeker trashed the place of one homeowner. Mashable is among the many sites that have picked up on the story, which includes excerpts from the homeowner's blog:

“I am crouched low on the carpeted steps of my apartment building's old staircase, bent over into something resembling the fetal position,” she wrote. “There is a skylight overhead; the sun's hazy glare makes me want to close my eyes, and not have to see for a while. But instead, I take this opportunity - with head resting heavily on the step above me – to record this moment in writing.

“I am just half a flight away from the top floor, where my home is located. But I don't have the mental energy to take those last few steps into my apartment. It's too creepy in there anyway.

“Three difficult days ago, I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked.”

While these gripping words may have sounded like they came from a novel, this is reportedly the real-life story of what happened to an Airbnb user that opened her home to a stranger.

In response to this horrible ordeal, Airbnb released the following statement:

“We were shocked to hear about this unsettling event. We continue to work closely with the authorities to bring justice to the victim. We want to reassure our community that, through 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.

“We've created a marketplace built on trust, transparency and authenticity within our community, and we hold the safety of our community members as our highest priority. The vast majority of our community members genuinely respect and protect each other, but we urge users to be careful and discerning with each other and to hold others accountable through reviews, flagging and our customer service channel. Our hearts go out to our host and we will continue to work with her and with the authorities to make this right.”

Hmm. Reviews, flagging, and customer service? That's Airbnb's form of accountability?

When you go to a hotel, you can typically expect to see a handful of security cameras, an alarm system, and (hopefully) at least one guard. (TechCrunch's Paul Carr has a full list of the reasons why hotels are safer than the average space you'll find on Airbnb.)

On the flip side, if you were in charge of a hotel, you would have a degree of security knowing that there are laws in place to protect your building should a rockstar – or any other tenant – decide to trash the place.

As regular homeowner, you don't have those same rights. You are not held to any particular standards because you are not expected to be renting rooms to the general public. Likewise, your prospective customers know that when they enter your home, it is unlikely to have the same level of security as a hotel. They know that it will (almost certainly) have a greater number of valuables than the average hotel. They know that if they break the law, it's up to one individual to notify the police. And by then it could be too late.

I would love to ignore the aforementioned story and pretend that the average renter is a man or woman with a heart of gold – someone that would never even think about causing harm to you or your home. But even if that were true, that heart-of-old tenant could still plug your toilet, stain the carpet, break a valuable item, leave a window open, forget to the lock the door, or invite one too many friends over for a party. After all, you wouldn't think twice about partying in a regular hotel room, would you? Airbnb assumes that its customers will always make a distinction between the two. But that defeats the whole purpose of the site: to make us believe that a spare room is just as good as a hotel, if not better.

Sadly, we don't live in a safe society anymore. Frankly, I'm not sure we ever did. But regardless of the way things were when your grandpa was a boy, this is not a time in which people should happily open their doors to strangers. Hence the reason – one of the reasons – why New York Governor David Paterson signed a bill that makes vacation apartment rentals illegal in New York City.

If Airbnb was free to operate as it does now, it would only be a matter of time before the resulting crimes began to mimic those associated with Craigslist. In theory, Craigslist is supposed to be this great place for selling or buying products and services. But it has turned into one of those seedy, underground websites that must be approached with caution – not the open arms Airbnb is expecting.

I have no doubt that Airbnb wants its customers to be safe. But in addition to the risk of property damage, this service also exposes its customers to the same kinds of dangers that Craigslist users face. It also exposes them to an issue no one wants to talk about: bed bugs.

Think about that the next time you want to rent your home to strangers.

Follow me @LouisBedigian

Posted-In: Airbnb bed bugs Craigslist MashableLegal Startups Tech General Best of Benzinga

 

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