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Why You Should Be Wary of Online Property Listings

via Online rental fraud rising steeply – BBC News | Guy Lynn and Ed Davey

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Too good to be true? It probably is. Image Credit: Airbnbhell

Rental fraud is rising sharply, the BBC has learned during an investigation in which it confronted two online fraudsters for their crimes.

Scam artists offer cheap flats for rental, demanding instant deposits. But they do not actually own the homes – and would-be tenants’ cash is lost.

Reports of rental fraud in England and Wales leapt from 2,216 in 2014 to 3,193 in 2015.

BBC researchers posed as tenants to expose tricks used by fake landlords.

One advert fraudsters attempted to place on the flat-sharing website EasyRoomMate offered a plush Kensington apartment for just £700 per month, far below the market rate.

Atta Nasim, of Milestone Estate Agents in north-west London, called the price “crazy”, adding that you would not get a garage for that price in the area.

When contacted, a woman posing as the owner and calling herself ‘Luise’ tried to convince a BBC researcher to wire over £1,400 to a branch of The Coventry Building Society to secure the flat right away.

Land Registry documents show she is not the legal owner of a property there and when researchers visited the mansion block it was to find all the flats inhabited. The BBC also confirmed with the owners a ‘Luise’ was not associated with the property.

In an attempt to convince the BBC of the veracity of her offer, the fraudster emailed both a contract and a passport image in the name of a German lady.

The BBC has since established the fraudster has stolen the identity of a real German woman.

A second fraudster, calling himself Gary, offered a handsome red-brick period flat in Willesden on the same website for well below the market rate, urging the BBC’s researcher to wire £1,500 to a Halifax account.

In reality, the property was home to Italian students. The managing agents knew nothing of ‘Gary’.

‘Gary’ claimed to be based in London – but a BBC analysis of his IP address showed he was in fact communicating from a computer in Lagos, Nigeria.

Confronted with his lies by telephone, ‘Gary’ replied: “I don’t know about that. You think this is a fraud? There is no fraud my friend.”

When accused of taking part in a crime, ‘Luise’ put the phone down. The BBC’s technical analysis showed she was in the UK.

The BBC has made the Coventry Building Society and the Halifax aware of the fraudulently-used accounts.

A Halifax spokesman said: “We are currently investigating the matter you have raised with us and will take the necessary action we deem appropriate pending the outcome of this investigation.”

Student Nikola Poncet, a victim of the crime, lives in a small bedsit in Luton. He was ripped off by a fraudster with a bogus advert offering a flat in Queen’s Park, west London, and lost £600.

Mr Poncet said: “I was willing to take the flat without a viewing based on the location, just on the price of it.

“[I felt] anger, disgust, I was really disappointed.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow I’ve spent money I couldn’t afford and what’s happening to me right now? I’m in a nightmare and I can’t wake up’.'”

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A “confirmation email” R and I received after inquiring on a flat in London via flat-club.com. We smelt something fishy when this “Hellen” did not agree to us viewing the property before payment.

The figures showing a rise in rental fraud were from Action Fraud, which collates national fraud statistics for City of London Police.

A spokeswoman for Action Fraud said it was working to stop those fraudulently advertising properties.

She continued: “We work with property adverting websites to ensure that they are able to recognise fraudulent advertisers.”

EasyRoomMate, one of the largest flat-sharing websites in the UK, filters adverts before they go live.

It blocks 5% of the 1,000 adverts placed on its UK site each week because they are suspected to be fraudulent. But a further 1.5% that slip through the net are taken down after publication.

Albin Serviant, CEO of EasyRoomMate, which assisted the BBC in identifying the two fraudsters, said of the criminals: “They are very experienced, they are very sophisticated and they are also adapting very fast.

“They are very creative so we need to make sure the team are experienced enough to cope with these kinds of issues.”

The adverts the BBC investigated were not allowed to go live by EasyRoomMate. Websites including Gumtree, Air BnB and Spare Room have also been targeted by rental fraudsters.

But for Mr Poncet, warnings come too late. He added: “I’ve got to start all over again.”

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Note: Since I am reposting this article, I used rel=”canonical to properly attribute the work. This means, blog traffic goes to the original source and not to Anthroonfoot. I encourage you to use this when reposting someone else’s online work.

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Why You Should Think Twice Before Trusting Airbnb Reviews

via Why you should think twice before trusting Airbnb reviews | Erica Ho

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After one terrible Airbnb experience, R and I are now more careful with our stays. After a week’s worth of search, we have just landed on a cozy and comfortable cottage with the warmest hosts ever! (Northern Yorkshire, 2016)

Ever met a perfectly pleasant stranger and then you were asked to critique their communication, habits and home? That’s essentially what leaving an Airbnb review is like.

Though there’s a lot of wonderful hype about Airbnb, there are tons of pitfalls to using the service, including its lack of privacy, poor consistency and the fact that there are some pretty terrible people out there — guests and hosts included. And unfortunately, this all gets swept under the rug because it’s really hard to put down someone after you’ve met them face to face.

More than anything else, it all boils down to the fact that people just hate giving bad feedback directly to people, and that’s why its often best to take Airbnb reviews with a grain of salt. A big grain of salt.

Fundamentally, at its core, Airbnb is the marriage of two preexisting concepts, a lovechild spawned between CouchSurfing and traditional vacation rentals, born into life by Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, Nathan Blecharczyk back in 2008. Like Uber and Lyft, the company fundamentally acts a third-party broker between its community. There’s a new reciprocal relationship in town where hosts can affect guests and vice versa, in equal footing that wasn’t there before. And it’s an interesting relationship in which I’ve certainly played my part in, as both host and guest since 2011.

That’s because in the new “sharing” economy (let’s be real, it’s still transactional), two-, three-, or four-star reviews are essentially dead.

Reviews are either “awesome!” or horrible.

Got something lukewarm to say? Don’t be surprised if that’s perceived as completely negative. Courtesy now dictates behavior and guests/hosts will often refrain from leaving a critiqued review unless it was just truly, truly an awful experience. Minor issues get glossed over. And that’s unfortunate, because, like in many review systems, it’s the three- and four- star reviews that are often the most objective.

For better or for worse, social niceties are getting in the way. Rarebit CEO Hampton Catlin illustrates this best when he posted on a blog about his own Airbnb experience:

In fact, we’re currently struggling with this feeling with the AirBnB we’re currently in. It’s slightly dirty, has a loud workshop next door that wakes us up with banging on the wall, has a bathroom that is very hard to get to from the bedroom, and, above all, was pricey! But we met the owner. He seems nice. The place is pretty large. The internet is fast. Plus, he keeps asking if everything is okay and we don’t want to seem like complainers. He’s been really apologetic about the issues in the place but hasn’t really done anything…

The issue is that for most people, it’s against our nature to say bad things about people we just met. It stresses us out and makes us unhappy. So we find it far easier to say “everything’s fine” than “your house isn’t very nice.”

In a world where bad reviews can influence future earnings or the ability to save some money, both hosts/guests will err on keeping the peace in cause of the greater good. Quora and Airbnb user Gillis Danielsen further chimes in on the subject, pointing out his own observations:

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Image Credit: Quora

This essentially skews the numbers, creating a weird five-star halo effect. If everyone essentially chooses to abstain from reviewing mediocre places, then the system is not accurate. If there are eight five-star reviews but 20 people can’t be bothered to leave three-star reviews, than the real average for a property would be 3.5 stars. But that’s not what you would see, at all.

Airbnb even subtly acknowledges this, requiring Airbnb SuperHosts to receive a review from a guest at least 50% of the time.

It also doesn’t help that when Airbnb first initially launched, reviews between hosts and guests were published instantly, thus setting the tone. Since Airbnb participation relies on strong reviews, it was detrimental to leave a negative review—no matter how honest they were—for fear of retribution and getting embroiled in a “he said, she said” conflict. And let’s be honest, no matter who is right in that particular argument, a winner rarely emerges from the fray.

The old adage thus prevailed: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.”

It wasn’t until last year—a full six years after the company’s inception—that Airbnb took serious steps to rectify the issue, during six years is a virtual lifetime.

Unfortunately, even with these changes it’s not enough. The company furthered altered their review policy to let hosts and guests leave both public and private feedback simultaneously. While it lets hosts/guests see what can be improved upon during the experience, it significantly minimizes the amount of public negative feedback. Both hosts and guests feel freer to comment honestly, but the thing is that it all happens behind closed doors with no accountability that the issue will be fixed in the future. There is no transparency for future host/guests, who are forking over their cash or their home.

Even though Airbnb has a valid interest in trying to police their community so that there are no bad eggs, Airbnb has a financially vested interest to at least ensure satisfaction levels appear to be high. Unlike most review sites, it should not be forgotten that Airbnb takes a decent chunk of fees (a healthy 6-12% depending on the cost of the total reservation) out for every transaction made. These fees make up a huge portion of their estimated annual $250 million profit in 2013.

(Compare that to Yelp and TripAdvisor, who don’t necessarily have financial interests in every single property featured on their site. TripAdvisor does review FlipKey, another vacation rental site they own, but the problems with TripAdvisor are well documented).

One anonymous Quora user has pointed out that Airbnb does not, in fact, leave its reviews alone. In fact, he notices that the site has had a tendency to hide its reviews to further its own goals.

Frankly, that’s disturbing. Especially when travelers are paying hundreds of dollars for a decent roof under their head that may make or break their trip experience. To clarify Airbnb’s position, I emailed them regarding the removal of negative reviews, asking in particular, why that Quora user may have had the experience that they did.

Their spokeswoman redirected me back to their official review guidelines:

Airbnb’s default position is not to censor, edit or delete reviews. However, there are rare cases in which we may take the extraordinary step of disallowing or removing reviews or review responses. We reserve the right to remove reviews that violate review guidelines.

Not totally reassuring.

At least there seems to be a better system set up for honesty on other sites, where users can post their own pictures, where business owners can offer their responses, and there are no adverse effects to users posting honest opinions. In truth, those systems punish property owners more than it punishes travelers.

That system creates a pro-consumer culture where property owners have to maintain a level of consistency. And Airbnb’s main flaw is that hosts have varying degrees of professionalism and understanding that it’s a business transaction. The experience is completely variable. Unfortunately, this particular system also doesn’t account for someone who might come in and wreck your home, too. While it might not be the particularly best system for Airbnb, there is also more honesty on one side of the coin.

Perhaps the best thing for Airbnb to do is to keep the policy as is but without notifying either host or guest that a review has happened on either side. Most hosts and guests can generally sense whether a lukewarm review is imminent, so it’s possible to game the 14-day window by waiting till the very end or waiting for other positive reviews to deflect a negative or lukewarm review. Another option? Hide the names of users/hosts for their written and starred reviews to keep it less personal. That would simplify things.

So how do you tell someone who you’ve seen in their jammies that their place might be a bit a dump after coming into their home? After they went out of the way to make coffee? Or how to ask your guest not to eat your food while they’re dumping milk into their bowl without being an asshole? I’m still trying to figure that one out.

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Note: Since I am reposting this article, I used rel=”canonical to properly attribute the work. This means, blog traffic goes to the original source and not to Anthroonfoot. I encourage you to use this when reposting someone else’s online work.