Getting Scammed (Twice) On Airbnb: How It Happened, How We Recovered, and How To Prevent It

Let’s be clear right up front: we’ve used Airbnb quite a few times, and have always been quite pleased with their service. And with one exception, we’ve never been unhappy with the hosts we booked with. (See our story about our stay near Naples, Italy.) But we’ve never encountered an outright fraud before. Until now. Maybe it’s just a matter of time. But whoever could have imagined that it would happen twice, consecutively, and in the same town?

It all began on Monday morning, December 27, as we were getting ready for our session volunteering with the kids in the treehouse classroom in Jaibalito, Guatemala. We’d been rehearsing a bilingual performance of a scaled-down edition of our take on The Tortoise and the Hare, which we thought would be a good icebreaker to get the kids excited about theatre. So we were all prepared, and we waited. And waited. And waited. But no kids and no teacher showed. As we’ve mentioned, it’s not at all unusual in Guatemala for things to run behind schedule. In fact, it’s the rule rather than the exception. Even so, the schedule was getting so far behind itself that it would never catch up (unlike the persistent Tortoise racing the speedy Hare).

So we decided we’d better check with our hosts to make certain that in fact there would be class today. Whereupon they informed us that, no, it had been decided last Wednesday that classes had been canceled for the entire week. And nobody had bothered to inform us. Yet another instance of poor communication, if you can call it communication at all.

Then we asked them if there was anything else we could do to help out during this week that we would not be assisting the teacher. Meanwhile, knowing that they wanted volunteers to create their own projects, Kimberly set out to create a how-to-get-there guide for future volunteers with photos and step-by-step directions.

And they replied: “Well, actually, we’ve been talking about that, and we’re thinking that if it’s not too much trouble, it might be best if we just didn’t have anyone here at all.” Which was a subtle way of saying that we were dismissed from our post. And just like that, we faced an abrupt end to the volunteer position that just started. And we realized that probably we’d never again see any of those kids that we were forming a bond with.

But the most immediate concern was getting a roof over our heads. We weren’t given a deadline to vacate, but we thought it best to make our exit stage right as soon as possible. So we stopped eating any of the food in their kitchen – as “rent” was due. And we got online and started looking. The big hitch was that we needed a place for the next week or so — which would include New Year’s Eve. And Lake Atitlan is a very popular place for folks to book a New Year’s stay. All the hostels were completely full. And only a handful of Airbnb’s had vacancies, most of them out of our price range. Finally, we found one in San Pedro, and booked it.

Only when we got back a confirmation message did we see something fishy. The message contained an address, and when we entered that address into Google Maps, the location turned out to be a big church. And then we found an online review by an Airbnb user who warned that the listing was bogus, and the “host” a scam artist. So we hastily canceled the booking, and Airbnb promptly refunded most of our money. The rest, however, is supposedly forfeited because of the refund policy of the “host”.

At 10 pm we were scrambling to come up with something else. We found a total of two more possibilities, one of which was on the pricey side — though we realized that since we were getting desperate, we still might have to spring for it. But we tried the other one first. Unlike the scam “host” we fell for, this one at least had a couple of reviews, both positive — though both were from the same person, a few months apart. So we pounced on that one. Whereupon we received the confirmation details, with the address. And when we looked it up on Google Maps, we saw… a hotel. A very big hotel that looked absolutely nothing like the modest little cottage in the profile photo.

Seriously, what are the odds of getting scammed twice through Airbnb on the same day? And in the same town, no less. Well, actually, when we thought about it, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. In some communities around the world, Internet fraud is a major industry — if not the chief industry. It’s even altogether possible that those two Airbnb profiles (and perhaps many others) even belong to the same person or persons. And those two reviews could be bogus as well, since they came from the same supposed guest.

Still, we decided to give it a chance, considering we had few other options. So first thing in the morning, after hitting the local market for some provisions, we hopped on a boat to San Pedro, and went in quest of the (perhaps) mythical location. As a backup, we had info on the more expensive alternative, which had enough reviews to convince us it was legit, and which still had a vacancy.

When we arrived in San Pedro, we hiked to the supposed location, but were unable to find the house in the photo anywhere. We even went through some little courtyards off the street, little alleys and paths and uncharted territory, but found nothing in the vicinity of the hotel that looked like what we were seeking. We even stopped in at a Spanish language school, one of several in town, that happened to be in the same general whereabouts, and asked the gentleman there. He was very helpful, even leaving his business unattended so he could walk with us a block or so in an effort to locate the property.

But no dice.

In desperation, just as we were about to get online somewhere and book the other Airbnb property, we walked into the lobby of a hotel near the alleged house we were looking for. The desk clerk did not speak English, but we managed to explain to him our predicament, and he indicated that he, like everyone else we’d talked to, was unaware of a house like the one in the photo.

Then along came a gentleman who was obviously a foreigner, who spoke to the clerk in Spanish, and then to us in English. He was René de Carufel, a French Canadian who has been spending half the year here for many years. He also was unfamiliar with the house we were looking for. But, he added, “I live just around the corner, and I sometimes rent out rooms to people, though I don’t advertise. You’re welcome to stay with me if you’d like.”

Well, it was certainly our best (only?) option at that point, so we accompanied him to his house and found it to be quite charming and comfortable. So we asked how much he charged, expecting to be hit with a rate as hefty as the hotel itself. Instead, he replied 125 quetzales per night — about 16 U.S. dollars. Twist our arm, and you got a deal, especially if you add in the use of the kitchen, hot water, a microwave and a hammock on the roof.

To top it off, René is a photographer, a top-notch professional of many years’ experience. Which Kimberly was really excited about, as she has been working on developing her own photography skills. He even invited us to accompany him on his afternoon walk to the studio that he shares with another photographer. There we saw more of his photographs — there are also quite a few on display in the house — and met one of his favorite models, an older indigenous woman, dressed in colorful traditional attire that she made herself, who speaks no English, and apparently not even Spanish. She was a delightful soul who gave us a hug and made an effort to teach us a few words in her native Tz’utujil.

So all in all, things turned out very much for the best, and certainly much better than we feared. It’s astonishing to think how lucky we were — how several chance elements lined up in our favor. We happened to book a nonexistent Airbnb site that supposedly was located not only in the same town, but within the same block or so as Rene’s house. And we happened to stop into a hotel where he teaches photography seminars. And he happened to walk in just a few minutes after we did. And he happened to have room for guests at his house, at a very busy time of year. If we had not, say, stopped at the produce market in Jaibalito before catching the boat to San Pedro, we might have totally missed the connection.

Okay, so now we had two fraudulent Airbnb listings that we had canceled, and in both cases we were issued only a partial refund. Note that different Airbnb hosts have different refund policies; some of them give a total refund if you cancel within a certain time frame, while others only give back part. In our case, we were out 21 dollars for one place, and 55 for another. Our first step was to leave a negative review that warns other travelers to avoid the trap. Then we contacted Airbnb’s customer service (it’s a bit tricky to find, and you have to go through a bot first) to explain the situation, and point out that since we were defrauded, we should get all of our money back.

Figuring that Airbnb might be suspicious if we made this same complain on two “hosts” at the same time, we just went for the big one, fully prepared to write off the 21 dollars. To our surprise, however, a customer service representative contacted us a few days later to report that they were giving us a full refund not only on the 55 but on the 21 — which she had found out about without us even telling them! And they had terminated the accounts of the offenders, so we were happy to learn that no one else would fall prey to them.

So how to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future?

Again, we emphasize that Airbnb is quite trustworthy, and so are the vast majority of its hosts. But just to avoid the kind of thing that happened to us, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Try to avoid last-minute bookings. It was unavoidable in our case.
  2. Try to stick with hosts who have several positive reviews. And read the reviews carefully.
  3. Beware of hosts who have duplicate listings of the same property (as one of ours did). They may do this in an effort to hide negative reviews.
  4. Consider the host’s refund policy carefully.
  5. After you’ve booked, try to establish communication with the host. If they don’t get back to you within 24 hours, consider canceling. Even if they’re legit, that kind of failure to communicate could spell trouble.
  6. You should receive the address immediately after booking. Look it up on Google, and check out the photos.

And with that, we wish you safe and happy travels!

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