Bait and Switch: Unethical Airbnb Owners

This story is regarding my Airbnb rental and my host, Caroline. On December 17th, 2016 I made a reservation with Caroline to rent a home in San Pedro, CA, I received confirmation of my reservation and at that time my credit card was charged $1,829 for a one-week rental of the home. The rental dates were from February 18-25, 2017. On December 18th, 2016 I wrote to ask Caroline whether, during our stay, we could have a luncheon for my 90-year-old mother in law. She wrote back saying that would be no problem. Then, on December 19th, 2016, I was shocked to receive the following email:

“Good morning! I spoke with the owners this morning again about your booking and they are really worried about a party and are not keen to it any longer. They went to a neighborhood party and a few people mentioned that they were not happy about the last party and would report them. I’m sorry. I wish I could change their mind and they are sorry too but they can’t afford the risk. I hope you guys can understand. They also mentioned the house was booked at $200 and that they can’t afford to stay at a nice hotel for that and that they’d prefer a minimum of $250 per night. I’m not sure how our minimum got changed to $200 but that wasn’t correct. There’s been some software changes in the system but we can’t figure out how that could have changed. I hope this isn’t all too disappointing. I’ve never asked for a guest to cancel but this is what the owners want me to do. If you guys can make it work then I’ll need you to accept the changes or if it can’t work, which I’d understand, then you can cancel. Again, I’m really sorry about having to chance this on you. But I hope you’ve got enough time until February to choose another place if that may be.”

I had made a reservation in good faith to rent this property and now, with less than 60 days until the short-term rental began, I was being told the rental cost was being increased by 24%. As this rental was found on Airbnb, I contacted them to ask about this uncomfortable situation. I was contacted by two customer service representatives who said this was absolutely not acceptable behavior, that it was a “bait and switch” tactic, and against Airbnb’s policies. A few days later another representative from Airbnb contacted me and said she would work to resolve the situation. Instead, on December 27th, 2016, they informed me my reservation was being cancelled. I believe the actions taken by Caroline were illegal under California State Law, specifically regarding short-term rentals: “If you have a month-to-month (or shorter) periodic rental agreement, the landlord must give you at least 60 days’ advance notice if the rent increase is greater than 10 percent.”

Bait and Switch: Double Price in Spain

My husband and I booked a room for four nights in Cartagena, Spain. It was a good price and decent reviews. Shortly after booking the host contacted me to say he made a mistake on the price and it was actually double. He said I booked too quickly and he didn’t have time to change the price. If we wanted to have an enjoyable time at his place we should pay the higher rate. I checked the price a few days later and it was still the same. I declined the offer of the higher price and said I would find other accommodations as the new price is more than what we wanted to pay. I immediately reported to Airbnb and have yet to hear a reply. I discovered a few days later that we had actually been charged for the room we declined based on the new price. I have yet to hear from Airbnb about a refund. I contacted the hosts to let them know that this was a very dishonest practice but they don’t seem to care. I guess I will have to contact visa and let them know that this was a fraudulent charge.

Airbnb Nightmare: Chicago Bait and Switch

This happened over a year ago, but I thought I’d share. Two months before traveling to Chicago, I found a small apartment (in reality, the attic of an old Victorian) on Airbnb. I needed it for five nights and the description said there were three beds, a stocked kitchen, and a full bathroom. The price was right, so I booked it after exchanging emails with the host. In particular, I wanted to make sure it was safe and that I could prepare meals for my children. A week before traveling, I got a text message (off site) from the host. She said Airbnb made an error and because of that error the space is double booked. I told her that I didn’t know that was possible and, as I was the first to book, I should get priority. She didn’t respond.

We flew into Chicago and arrived at the place. It was adorable. However, there was one bed… not three. There was, however, a couch and a loft with a futon mattress. The kitchen had a sink and a hot plate. But, we could make it work. The first night, the host approached me by walking up the internal stairs (without knocking) and said that she will need us to move downstairs the next day. I was shocked. I asked why and she admitted that she was still double booked and that their business was economically better because the next family was spending a month; she couldn’t afford not to take their reservation. She said, “Not to worry… I have another space you can stay in.” I said, “Then make them stay there until we leave.” Obviously, that didn’t please her. But, she turned and left.

The next day, we went out to explore the city, returning at 9 PM. It was immediately obvious that there was a new rental car in the driveway. As we were getting out of the car, the host greeted us and told us she had moved our stuff downstairs and couldn’t wait to show us our “rustic cabin.” I was furious! But, I had kids and it was late so… what choice did I have? We were led downstairs and the host had the nerve to complain that we’d left dishes undone and towels on the counter upstairs. Well, yeah, we thought we would be returning to that room and planned to do our dishes then.

As soon as she opened the basement door, I was displeased. The stairs were steep, unlit and rotting. A string of Christmas lights had been hastily strung as lighting but it was dark. At the bottom of the stairs was an unfinished, stone basement. A small bathroom was crammed in this little area. The household boiler and washer/dryer were to the left. To the right was a room with drywall and a small fireplace. The TV was broken. The “bed” was a rock hard futon. There was exposed piping, wiring, unsecured chemicals, and spiders everywhere. But, worst of all, there were no windows or doors. Anywhere! The only escape was the stairs.

I told her this wasn’t what we signed up for (especially since my six year old was crying about the darkness of the place). She actually got offended and said, “I live here. I gave this up so you wouldn’t be stranded.” She said, “For your trouble… I can comp you.” As we had nowhere else to go, I said ok but asked for more lamps and lighting. The next day, we got up bright and early for a visit with family. When we got back to the basement, the host was in the basement, arms folded. She said she had thought it through and prayed about it and told me she needed to charge me still. I protested because this wasn’t right and the space wasn’t safe. She then said, “I told Airbnb to refund you, so we can do this in cash since I don’t have this apartment listed yet.”

I refused. I told her we would leave and she acted offended. I ended up paying $342 for a hotel. Airbnb did nothing! When I explained the safety concerns in the basement, they said they couldn’t address them because it wasn’t listed on the site. The only thing they cared about was her attempt to use cash. But, even that didn’t bother them because, again, she wasn’t attempting to get cash for the basement listing. In the end, she got away with it. Now, however, the basement is listed despite the safety hazards.

Landlord Did a Bait and Switch – Kept Full Rent Paid

We are from Maryland. In July, we hosted visiting German relatives (a couple with two small children) who also asked to see New York during their stay. My husband had work commitments and could not go with us, but I and my 81-year-old elderly mother-in-law agreed to drive them there for a few days’ stay. Using AirBNB, we selected a property in the Bedford Stuyvesant (“Bed Stuy”) neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY at 138 Lexington Avenue, owned by a Crystal Elly Haylett. Here’s the link to the house: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/3752035. The 5-star feedback on this property (which we later realized was entirely provided by visiting foreigners living outside the U.S.- should have been a red flag) gave no hint at all about the high crime factor in this neighborhood. While the landlord and AirBNB tamely describe Bed Stuy on the AirBNB site as “a neighborhood in-transition”, we later learned that this is a far more dangerous place that continues to show up in the high crime rate zone for shootings an murders (see the crime map for Bed Stuy for the time period we were searching, above). We used the positive feedback that Crystal displays in her AirBNB ad as our guide in deciding to book this property; feedback that we now realize could likely be edited since we were unable to leave details of our own bad experience. Once we discovered, to our horror, more details about the high crime in her Lexington Avenue neighborhood, it was clear that it would be a coin-toss for us as to whether or not we felt safe enough to roam the streets there after dark. When my own sister (who lives just an hour north of New York City) and a niece (who commutes daily into the city to Penn Station for her job) called and begged us to move our lodging to another, safer neighborhood in New York, that was the nail in the coffin for us, and we asked Crystal to change shortly after we booked her place. However, Crystal initially refused. Since all of our vacation money was tied up in her deposit (something we were clear on with her) we had little choice but to move ahead and stay at her property despite the risks. We told Crystal quite clearly in writing that, because we could not afford to lose our deposit (again, our vacation money for lodging) we had no choice but to stay at her property, regardless of our crime findings. Perhaps she feared that we would leave a negative review for her (which caused us to be suspicious since she professed emphatically that it was so wonderful there), because she soon wrote back to suggest we look for another property that we’d feel more comfortable with. I thanked her and made it very clear that we expected to get 100% of our money returned, something she never once disputed. But once we made the change she herself requested, and found a safer property elsewhere in New York, she refused to give us our money back (again, 100% of the rental fee). AirBNB is standing by her, even though it’s clear that she is the one who asked us to look for another property, and did not dispute our request at all for a full refund if we acted on her request. One can easily see why neither the landlord nor AirBNB would be more forthcoming about the high number of shootings and robberies in neighborhoods like this – it’s unlikely that more Americans would book them – and it’s likely the reason why she has nearly all unsuspecting foreigners staying there. And so, here we are today, out nearly $1300 thanks to Crystal Elly Haylett who pulled a bait & switch on us – encouraging us to book another property in the explicit full knowledge that we could not afford to surrender our deposit (full rent) and kept our deposit. AirBNB is doing little to assist us, and a lot to defend this landlord. We’ve reported the full details of our experience to The Better Business Bureau and are hiring an attorney to pursue action directly against the landlord. AirBNB has so far failed to provide us with Crystal Elly Haylett’s full contact information so that we can move forward with our action. Despite this bad, eye-opening experience, my husband and I have had three excellent previous experiences with AirBNB. But this latest one has likely burst the bubble for us. Travelers reading this: BEWARE. AirBNB has so far done nothing to protect us and everything to protect an untruthful landlord who effectively stole our vacation money. Our German relatives are not impressed either and have professed to spread the word over there about our bad experience with AirBNB once they return. We will definitely share our experience whenever and wherever we can. Moving forward, we plan to use VRBO to book future housing. I encourage anyone reading this to consider doing the same.