Airbnb still has a problem with fake hosts and listings -- here's what needs to change

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  • Airbnb still experiences problems with fake hosts and fake listings.
  • The company has a number of policies to tackle the issues.
  • It does not, however, ask hosts for an official ID.
  • Airbnb Plus requirements might soon be rolled out across the general platform.

If you’ve ever used Airbnb you will be familiar with the slight feeling of uncertainty that comes with staying at homes listed on the platform.

While the majority of stays are good experiences, some are underwhelmed by finding that the photos don’t accurately represent the listing, or worse that their booking is a fake.

Travel blogger Asher Ferguson, whom experienced a series of unfortunate stays with Airbnb took it upon himself to analyse over 1,000 horror stories to uncover the site’s biggest problems.

With the help of Sheana Ahlqvist, an expert in user research, survey design, and usability testing, they found the biggest issues plaguing the site included fake listings, hosts cancelling last minute, unsafe conditions, scams, and discrimination.

Here’s a summary of Ferguson’s findings.

Asher Fergusson/ Supplied

We recently sat down with Airbnb’s Head of Global Policy, Chris Lehane, to discuss some of these issues, and find out what Airbnb is doing about it.

“0.005% of folks don’t conduct themselves appropriately on the platform,” Lehane said.

He bases that figure on the number of insurance claims made above $1,000.

“The vast majority of people use the platform the right way,” he said.

“Our brand is impacted, our community is impacted, when someone doesn’t conduct themselves the right way. Even one thing impacts everyone’s reputation, and all these other hosts who do a great job.”

While that seems like a small number, as Lehane says it’s the bad experiences which impact the site’s reputation.

ID checks

So what is Airbnb doing when it comes to ensuring a host is who they say they are?

“We do verify hosts in a variety of ways… but it’s going to be different from country to country,” Lehane says, adding that varying international privacy laws mean asking for certain information from a person can be difficult.

“There are places in Europe where you can’t ask for that stuff, there’s places in Asia where you’re not allowed to get access.”

He mentioned the site’s rating system which he calls “a social contract,” and Airbnb’s community standard “We Accept” which assists to verify hosts, but what about official documents?

When we pressed Airbnb on whether the company asks for an ID such as a license or passport, a spokesperson said:

Airbnb is a global community built on trust, and our community’s safety is our priority. We take a number of steps in advance to help protect our community to better know that our users are in fact who they say they are. To prevent bad actors from ever accessing our platform in the first place, each and every Airbnb reservation is scored ahead of time for risk. We have a real-time detection system that uses machine learning and predictive analytics to instantly evaluate hundreds of signals to flag and then stop any suspicious activity. When we detect potentially concerning behavior, our team takes a range of actions, including asking for a government ID, to verify your payment method, to removing a user from the platform entirely.

In other words, no.

Background checks

So what about background checks?

Lehane said levels of government and different databases each have varying information and levels of access, so getting that information can sometimes prove difficult for the company.

He also said that if it is available, often it isn’t not stored in a technologically efficient way for the platform to use.

A spokesperson further elaborated:

While no background check system is infallible, we screen all hosts and guests globally against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watch lists. Each and every person on Airbnb has a profile page with important information about themselves and their home. In order to book or host, you must provide us with your full name, date of birth, photo, phone number, payment information, and email address. Hosts can also require that guests provide Airbnb with a government ID before booking their listing, and then the host in turn is required to do so as well.

That’s an improvement, perhaps.

Because of this, Lehane says it’s going to come down to the public sector to change the way it stores and processes personal information in order to make it easier for companies to integrate it.

“I think society is going to have to make some decisions, because you get more and more of these platforms, to create systems to make it easier,” he said.

“As society evolves and starts to think about this… I think you’re going to start to see government thinking about this from a utility perspective.

“How can they create utilities so that this data is being handled and managed in a way that’s consistent with privacy concerns, but also accessible so people like us operating under certain protocols can use the information to be able to optimise for public trust and safety?”

He added: “We’re in those conversations, we’re pushing those conversations.”

Stricter requirements on the way

There is some good news in the form of Airbnb Plus, which is pitched as a more standardised style of service that is “verified for quality”.

“All Airbnb Plus homes are visited in person to ensure comfort, consistency, and design. They are checked for 100-plus things that guests told us they love, from must-have amenities to the art on the walls,” the company says.

Here are all the requirements a listing must meet in order to list on Airbnb Plus.

“Airbnb Plus is the direction we’re evolving at lot of the homes business to,” Lehane told Business Insider.

“That’s an example of where we are moving to.”

That, along with new technologies, could solve the current loopholes in the system.

“We have machine learning… [built into] our user experience on a constantly rolling basis so that we are able to identify things that get flagged before the incident ever takes place,” Lehane says.

“This is an elementary example but I think it makes the point: a 21-year-old renting a 21-room house half a mile from his house on New Year’s Eve.

“That would flag and we would go to the host [with that information].”

Lehane adds: “We have an enormous amount of systems and we’re always looking to improve them.”

“You as a guest have an obligation to understand that you are staying in someone’s home, and you should treat it like it’s your own home, and that’s part of the Airbnb ethos.”

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