Home > Essays, Whining > Airbnb Horror Story: Scoop or Scam?

Airbnb Horror Story: Scoop or Scam?

picture of improperly secured door from The Big LebowskiTo quote Jeff Lebowski, “Look, we all know who is at fault here.”

Or do we?

A month-old story, about a woman named EJ whose apartment was allegedly trashed by an Airbnb user, just went viral, but I think most of the commentary is getting the story totally wrong. And it’s not just the citizen journalists; big-time names like WaPo, perhaps not wanting to be left behind or perhaps due to lax editorial oversight in their online offerings, are also being negligent in terms of some really basic reporting.

What do we really know?

A blog entry, dated about a month ago, details a story about how a freelancer returned to her SF home to find it trashed and ransacked after she’d rented it out via the online service Airbnb. By her own account, she didn’t take the time to actually meet or even phone her renter. She just let the person know where to find the key.

She goes on to tell us that she contacted the SFPD, who investigated the crime scene. And that after several days she got through to Airbnb, who offered assistance of only a non-monetary variety.

A subsequent statement from its CEO suggests that Airbnb has cooperated with the SFPD, who have a suspect.

And what don’t we know?

It would be natural for anyone reading this first-person account to fill in a few blanks, and here’s where I think the early bloggers on the scene — TechCrunch, ZDNet, WaPo and SFGate, among others — are slipping. Namely, in a rush to get in front of your eyeballs, a lot of key questions are going unasked. Here are a few I can think of:

1. How much of what happened was EJ’s responsibility? Clearly, she didn’t heed Airbnb’s advice to meet with the renter or get a security deposit. And did she even have a legal right to use their service? If she’s a renter herself — she refers to her “apartment”, not her loft or condo — then she may be violating her own lease by subletting without the landlord’s permission. Perhaps for fear of being said to be “blaming the victim,” none of the early bloggers have addressed how much might be EJ’s fault.

2. Where is EJ now? Since posting of her ordeal on June 29, she hasn’t written anything else on the subject. No follow-up blog entry, no replies to any of the hundreds of commenters, most of whom offered support. There are a few comments that seem to be from writers seeking interviews. But no accounts say anything to the effect that “EJ could not be reached for comment” which in traditional stories would be a warning sign that things may not be what they seem.

3. Is any of this Airbnb’s fault? Maybe EJ’s guest left the door unlocked, or maybe someone observed her returning the key to its hiding place. Even assuming EJ is 100% trustworthy herself, there’s no way she can be sure who committed the crime. Considering the lack of facts, assuming any of this is Airbnb’s fault is pretty sloppy.

4. Was a crime actually committed? Where is the corroborating evidence? The original blog mentions the SFPD doing an investigation. Has anyone bothered to contact them concerning break-ins on the day (or during the week) in question? Getting an official statement from a government agency would seem be a pretty basic Journalism 101 move that none of the “nontraditional media” have taken.

5. Is there even an EJ? There are dozens of entries on her blog, but these could have been back-dated. Only one other post mentions SF. It’s dated January 2, 2011 and has only one comment, from someone named Lee Bob Black whose Blogger profile no longer exists. The font on the latest blog entry doesn’t even match the others. I’d think a decent journalistic effort would involve checking out at least a portion of the writing on her site to see if it tells a consistent story.

6. Where are the other voices? Where were the reactions from chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus, and competitors like Craigslist and couchsurfing.org? Good reporting looks for more perspectives beside the one being offered them.

7. Who benefits from this story? I can accept that Airbnb is suddenly attracting a lot more attention, what with raising more capital and being valued at over a billion dollars and all. Still, I would think a good journalist would at least consider who might gain from all this attention, especially a month after the fact. Airbnb? Competitors? EJ? Her landlord?

I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about

Just to be clear: my point here isn’t that it’s okay to use a service like Airbnb to rip off inexperienced hosts. But if we’re entering an age when stories like this one get covered by citizen journalists — and I’m not entirely against them, having occasionally served as one myself — we as consumers are going to have to be a lot more skeptical about what we read. Or be willing to go back to the “old” way of getting our news: paying for it.

UPDATE: I’m much happier about USA Today’s reporting of this story; see the comments below.

UPDATE 2: They call it “ransackgate”

UPDATE 3: EJ’s Oppression

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  1. July 28, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I really hope this story isn’t true, because it exposes something unfixable about our internet commerce. There’s no way to avoid this kind of thing unless one completely extracts themselves from online marketplace and this isn’t the story people are talking about. People are coming to the aid of “victim” whose story has not been verified and whose month old “crime” might be a hoax.

    • July 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

      Agreed. And while nothing can ever be 100% safe where people are concerned, dodgy rehashes posing as reporting doesn’t help.

  2. July 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    What I consider to be excellent reporting on this story can be found in the USA Today. Not only do they attempt to contact sources and other interested parties, they also make it clear that this is an “alleged” incident and that “EJ” isn’t necessarily a real person. For example,

    “EJ” – who didn’t list her name and didn’t respond to USA TODAY’s request for further comment – praised Airbnb for its emotional and financial support but also took the company to task for giving a false sense of security by controlling communication between prospective travelers and hosts and minimizing the risks involved.

    and

    Airbnb added that the renter is now in custody (though the San Francisco police department couldn’t confirm the incident), and said “we are now focusing our attentions on how to prevent an issue like this happening again” through such measures as doubling its customer support staff, offering insurance to hosts and “facilitating richer communication” between guests and hosts before booking.

    Now that wasn’t too hard, was it?

  3. July 28, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Whatever happened to that apartment I hope it is resolved and the true culprits are brought to justice. It seems a bit odd the police are unwilling to acknowledge the alleged crime took place?

  4. leebobblack
    August 9, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Hi.

    In your July 28, 2011 post — http://redlami.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/airbnb-horror-story-scoop-or-scam — you incorrectly assumed that my Blogger profile doesn’t exist. My profile simply isn’t viewable publicly. Many Blogger users have not yet elected to publicly share their Profile.

    So, now that you know I’m not a figment of EJ’s imagination, who are you? For starters, what’s your real name? (I’ve only read three posts on redlami.wordpress.com. My apologies if elsewhere you’ve identified your real name.)

    Lee Bob Black

    • August 10, 2011 at 7:14 am

      My apologies for suggesting that you didn’t exist. But you’re really missing the point.

      Not being able to see the profile and the profile not existing are pretty much equivalent for illustrating that coverage of the story didn’t do even the most cursory review of previous entries to see if there was a consistent story. I eventually did so, and I think my later posts make clear that I believe EJ is a real person.

      It’s not difficult to figure out who I am, as I’ve figured out many more details about EJ and no doubt could have learned all about you had I wanted to go down that rabbit hole. But my point wasn’t to “out” anyone, just to lament (as Jackie Treehorn did) that, regrettably, standards have fallen.

  5. leebobblack
    August 11, 2011 at 5:38 am

    My unedited comment (posted Aug 9, 2011 10:51pm) had 394 words, 318 of which comprised me being rude and insulting. Though you didn’t have to post it at all, you edited it down to the 76 words that formed a coherent, civilized comment. Thank you for redacting my post.

    Lee Bob Black

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