Vandalised home puts pressure on Airbnb

Airbnb, the private home rentals website valued at $1.3bn in a fundraising this week, is facing pressure to improve security for its customers after one blogger detailed how her apartment was “ransacked” by users of the service.

More than 2m nights of accommodation have been booked on the 3-year-old website, which functions as an Ebay-style intermediary to connect private home owners with spare rooms or short-term vacancies with holiday-makers and travellers.

As on other marketplace sites, reviews and social networking profiles of both hosts and guests are designed to build trust in a counterintuitive transaction that sees homeowners hand over their front door keys to strangers.

Last month, a San Francisco-based blogger, writing under the pseudonym “EJ”, catalogued the theft and vandalism visited upon her home by Airbnb customers.

“Whoever these people were, they were living large and having one hell of a time for an entire week inside my home, unwatched, unchecked, free to do whatever destruction they wished. And damn, did they do a lot of it,” she wrote.

Abuse included credit card fraud, burnt possessions, bleach spread around the kitchen and bedroom, and blocked sinks in the bathroom.

“They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother’s jewelry I had hidden inside,” EJ wrote. “They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals … my entire life.”

The incident occurred at the end of June but the victim’s blog post was only picked up widely online this week, days after Airbnb said it had raised $112m.

The post provoked an outpouring of criticism on blogs and social networking sites and highlights the risks of greater abuse as Airbnb gains greater popularity. Publicity for the site has been fuelled in part by its eye-catching valuation.

Although she praised Airbnb for its “wonderful” customer service team after the incident, EJ also criticised its failure to explain the risks.

“By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that has already done the research for me,” she wrote. “In effect, the friendly, community-based site ... creates a reasonable expectation that some basic screening of its users has occurred, and speaks little to the risks involved.”

Brian Chesky, co-founder and chief executive of Airbnb, told the Financial Times: “I was extremely shocked when I heard about it. We’re working closely with the authorities to bring justice.”

He said that a suspect was already in police custody and that Airbnb was in regular contact with the victim to help her get over the incident.

Airbnb had already taken steps to improve security, he added. These included doubling the size of its customer support team, setting up a 24-hour telephone hotline, and offering insurance products.

Airbnb’s simple premise has sparked several similar sites in Europe, including 9Flats and Wimdu. Airbnb’s large funding round has been seen as an attempt to build scale quickly outside the US to head off such competition.

Venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz, Digital Sky Technologies, and General Catalyst participated in the financing.

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