Nova Scotia

Airbnb customer who lost $3,700 warns others to avoid scammers

A Halifax woman who tried to book an apartment through Airbnb is warning people about a holiday rental scam that cost her $3,700.

'As long as people stay on the site, they can’t get scammed,' Airbnb spokesman says

Halifax resident Myra Donnelly-Gay says she fell victim to a scam while searching for a rental on Airbnb. (CBC)

A Halifax woman who tried to book an apartment through Airbnb is warning people about a holiday rental scam that cost her $3,700.

Myra Donnelly-Gay has no expectation of getting her money back, but wants others to be aware of the potential pitfall.

Donnelly-Gay used the Airbnb site for the first time to find an apartment in San Francisco, and requested some dates.

"I got a reply back from the host and she said that this apartment was unavailable and was going under renovations at the time, and she had another apartment that was available at that time and would I like to know about it," Donnelly-Gay said.

The host sent her a link that she says looked like it was from Airbnb.

Link looked exactly like Airbnb

"It looked very good. It was unbelievable," Donnelly-Gay said.

She filled in the dates to rent the apartment and received a reply that she thought was from Airbnb, showing the company's logo, with directions on how to pay.

Those directions indicated she should pay by e-transfer to a bank in Ecuador.

Donnelly-Gay thought this was odd, so spoke to a friend who is familiar with online bookings.  

Her friend told her it's not uncommon for rentals to expect money upfront and some may be owned by people in another country.

Donnelly-Gay says with that assurance, she paid $3,700 and received a confirmation that, again, appeared to be from Airbnb.

 
This is the message Myra Donnelly-Gay received from a scammer. It used Airbnb's logo and linked back to the company's main page. (CBC)

"It was exactly the same. It was the same website, apparently the same logo, with all the same details on it. The same look. Even at the bottom all of the same features on it, and when you went into the logo, it took you to the real Airbnb site. So there was no way that I could figure [it] out. I'm not a professional, but it was well, well done," she said.

Airbnb sent alert

She subsequently received an automated email from Airbnb telling her, "Another Airbnb member either requested to communicate with you via private email or Facebook or sent a malicious message in which you may have been asked to verify your listing or copy and paste a URL into a new browser window."

It asked her to stop communicating with that person, alerted her to the scam and reminded her to only use the Airbnb platform for bookings.

"I wasn't aware that I was supposed to only work through Airbnb," Donnelly-Gay said.

Airbnb spokesman Nick Shapiro told CBC News the company has had 100 million bookings and problems like this are "very rare."

Pop-ups warn of danger

Airbnb confirmed that the alleged scammer has since been blocked from using the website.

"The only way scams can happen, no matter how real or fake the emails look, is if they convince you to talk to them off of the platform," Shapiro said, adding the company has gone to great lengths to tell people to stay on it.

He said Airbnb realizes the problem and automatically scans the site, and does not allow personal contact information to be posted there.

"When this user signs on to Airbnb, as soon as she had any questions about that listing, up comes the pop-up [warning users to only pay through the Airbnb site]," he said.

Donnelly-Gay has suggested the company put an alert on its home page warning that guests must stay on the site for transactions to be secure.

Airbnb says warnings clear to guests

She said she has found another story of someone being scammed the same way.

"I feel that there needs to be some warning on the front page of Airbnb to make people realize that they need to follow directions, that they don't go on blindly and they don't just assume that this is a safe platform," she said.

Shapiro said its warnings are clear to guests.

"As soon as you click on that listing, you see messages telling you to stay on the site, so whether you visit the site 20 times or the first time, if you ever want to communicate with a host or request to book, you get warnings and [pop-ups] because it is important. As long as people stay on the site, they can't get scammed," he said.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days, she's focused on helping consumers get the most bang for their bucks and avoid being ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.