Oh Brother! Extortion and Intimidation in Toronto

Traveling is stressful enough as it is, especially when you are coming from a week of business travel in Europe, to a quick vacation stop in Toronto, before returning home. However, when you throw extortion by your Airnnb host into the mix, it elevates the stress to a whole new level.

Let’s set the scene: I (female) was meeting up with my male friend in Toronto for an event. We wanted to stay in the city and found this listing that appeared to be decent enough. The inside of the house looked charming, with a view of the CN Tower. It was titled the “420 Cottage” and was described as 420 friendly. This was not something we were interested in, but it was located in a great area and for a decent price. We decided to book the property.

Upon arrival on a Friday night, the property looked rundown, with the small front “lawn” a jungle of clearly neglected waist-high weeds. The listing didn’t include a picture of the front of the property, only the inside and view looking towards the city… for good reason I suppose. We got into the property without any issues, and Friday night went smoothly enough, if you could ignore the overly potent stench of marijuana emanating throughout the walls of the unit and the faucet handle that wasn’t even attached.

Upon exploring the unit, we noted that there was a locked door leading to a downstairs unit, which we did not have access to. We also noted some information about parking guidelines and local things to do posted on the fridge and left on the table. Saturday morning I woke up at around 7:15 AM and noted that it sounded as though somebody was entering the property. It sounded as though they spent a couple minutes in the kitchen area, near where the door to the downstairs unit was located, and then left, locking the door behind them. Assuming it was the host, we did not think much of it.

We left for our event at around 8:00 AM, locking the door behind us. At this point, it should be noted that there are two locks on the door: a bolted lock and a lock on the doorknob. I did my due diligence as a renter and locked both locks, from the outside of the house. We returned to the property at around 4:30 PM and were unable to gain access. The bolted lock would unlock, but the lock on the doorknob did not. We texted the host, who stated that we didn’t follow the rules, which clearly stated that the knob lock should not be locked as it cannot be opened with the key provided. However, given that the lock cannot be unlocked with the key provided, one would assume it cannot be locked with said key, which means we should not have been able to lock the door.

In addition, there were no house rules posted inside the home; if there were, they were not clearly visible, and the only rules noted on the Airbnb listing were: “No parties or events. Not safe or suitable for children (0-12 years). No parties are permitted in the house, but there is plenty to do nearby.” There were also no notes posted near the door or the lock, indicating to renters that the lock would permanently lock you out of the property. The host noted that she was out of town and unable to help, which was not previously disclosed to us, but that she would have her brother come let us into the property at 8:00 PM.

At this point, it was an inconvenience to not have access to the property, but we didn’t have another option. At around 8:15 PM we returned to the property and were able to get inside by only unlocking the bolt lock. We showered and headed out to dinner. This time when locking the door, we locked only the bolt lock and were very careful not to adjust the lock on the nob, as instructed. When we returned from dinner, just before 11:00 PM, we found that the nob lock was once again locked. Knowing that this was not our doing, we once again texted the host indicating that we had been locked out, explaining that per her instructions we did not touch the nob lock. Her response was: “That’s awful that the door locked again. A locksmith is $150. My brother says he will come for $100. I am in Windsor and cannot help you.”

With all of our belongings inside the house, including passports, laptops, and luggage, it was very clear at this point that we were being extorted. Knowing that the brother had access to the property and the host was out of town, we speculated that it may have been him who entered the property in the morning and that he had deliberately locked us out of the property later in the day. After stating that this request was unreasonable, I tried calling Airbnb to get advice on how to handle the situation and was placed on hold. Simultaneously, my friend was on the phone with the host (the booking was in his name) trying to figure out what to do. He was told by the host that “if the knob lock is off by even a millimeter, the door will be locked,” which is not how locks work and indicates that she was aware this lock was problematic and failed to correct the problem or disclose the information to her guests.

My friend indicated that we didn’t have that much cash on our persons, to which she stated that she more or less has to bribe her brother to help. Out of desperation, my friend agreed to pay $80, all the while I was still on hold with Airbnb. We were told that the brother will arrive in 25 minutes. For my safety, I take my friend’s belongings, besides the $80 and his cell phone, and wait in our car down the road. About 15 minutes later the brother showed up while I was waiting in the car, about 45 minutes after being placed on hold with Airbnb.

I finally got in touch with somebody who refused to help me, since I was not the individual who made the reservation. Despite being able to confirm the name and dates, and stating that I was not looking to file a claim as my friend will do that later, I was just looking for guidance on how to handle a situation in which I feel unsafe and taken advantage of, I was turned away. Immediately after hanging up with Airbnb, I got a text message from my friend stating that I should come retrieve my belongings, as he did not feel safe enough to continue our stay. He told me that when the brother arrived to unlock the door, prior to giving access he stated: “I am an opportunist – I will take the money now.”

I entered the property and grabbed my belongings, loaded up the car, and we left to spend the night in a hotel. At this point, my friend called Airbnb and began filing a complaint. Similarly to myself, he was placed on hold for about 45 minutes before getting in touch with a person. He explained what happened and was told to hold again while he was being transferred to a manager. Over 20 minutes later, he got on the phone with a manager, who offered virtually no assistance. She stated that we can be refunded for one night, since we exited the property, but that nothing else will be done since “there is no documentation and it is he said/she said.”

Despite indicating that we have text messages documenting the case of extortion, that the host was aware of the issues with this lock and failed to correct or disclose them, and that we felt extremely unsafe in the situation, we were told nothing would be done. By the time we were finished with the calls, having accomplished very little, it was nearly 2:30 AM.

The next day, we were refunded $171 of the $409 we paid for the rental, which is hardly enough compensation for what we went through. I have since filed a police report and we are continuing to pursue the issues with Airbnb, who remain utterly useless. Never would I have expected to be extorted by an Airbnb host; never again will I be using their company, and I will encourage everyone I speak with to not use them. There was obvious negligence on the part of the host to disclose important information regarding the use of the property, including both information about her being out of town during our stay and the known issues with the locks. Given that she was out of town, an additional local contact should have been provided, or some form of emergency contact information. Maintenance of the property to provide a suitable unit for renters was clearly neglected.

The host and her brother locked our belongings in the property and used it to get additional money from us. Then, the negligence of Airbnb to provide any form of assistance when a guest who is using their services (although not the owner of the reservation) is placed in an unsafe situation, is horribly irresponsible. If I had been traveling alone, as a female who was not local to the country, who does not carry cash on them when traveling, I would have been in an even worse situation with limited options and been left even more vulnerable. When traveling, I try to screen my hosts and ensure they are somebody I would feel comfortable interacting with. Had I been aware that I would have to deal with the host’s brother, I would have changed my choice of accommodations.

Lastly, Airbnb’s inability to rectify the situation with my friend, the reservation holder, is appalling. The fact that Airbnb is claiming that we do not have any ground to stand on with these claims and stating that our concerns are irrelevant, is a testament to their unprofessional business practices and lack of concern for their customers. The fact that I was extorted and felt so unsafe that I needed to file a police report in the hopes that it would prevent other people from going through a similar situation speaks volumes to the severity of the situation. Airbnb’s failure to identify this severity and keep their customers safe is an indication that they are an unprofessional company and should not be doing business.

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