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Fraudulent Airbnb listings increasing, with mega $$$ lost to consumers last year

It looked like the perfect Airbnb.

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There was something not quite right about this Airbnb listing for a “luxury villa” in Bondi. Photo: Airbnb

Spacious and light-filled, with floor to ceiling windows, it was just moments from Bondi Beach in Sydney Australia.

The sharp white furniture had that sleek five-star look, as if every piece had been custom-designed for the space.

It seemed too good to be true. It was.

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Bondi or Florida? An image taken from the fraudulent Airbnb listing, which has been removed.

The six-bedroom “Bondi Beach luxury villa,” listed at $731 a night for 12 people, was not in Bondi at all.

A quick Google reverse image search on the photos of the listing revealed that the luxe coastal pad was in fact in Florida, almost 15,000 kilometres away.

It is one of a growing number of fake house listings on the home-sharing platform and other comparable sites.

In 2016 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recorded almost 200 complaints about fraudulent Airbnb listings, resulting in $88,000 in consumer losses.

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Complaints last year had tripled since 2015, when there was $65,000 reported lost to these scams.

ACCC deputy chairwoman Delia Rickard said consumers should never make a payment outside the official Airbnb website..

“Anytime you are asked to pay via a wire transfer or gift card, anything that is difficult to trace, that should tell you it’s a scam,” she said.

“If you have been scammed you should report it to Airbnb and also to the ACCC’s ScamWatch service.”

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Bondi or Florida? Another listing for the Florida house which was used in a fraudulent Airbnb listing.

Ms Rickard said home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb would be wise to conduct reverse Google image searches on property listings.

“These image searches are one of the things we encourage dating sites to do on all profile pictures. We certainly encourage online booking sites to do something similar.”

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ACCC deputy chairwoman Delia Rickard says the sharing economy has a responsibility to maintain “appropriate safeguards” for consumers.

In the case of the Bondi “luxury villa,” the first warning bells rang for this reporter upon reading the property’s description.

“PLEASE do not book before you contact me! All the bookings made without prior contact will be canceled! [sic],” it read.

A response to a further  inquiry stated that payment could be made through the Airbnb app, but not before personal details such as a full name, address, ID and utility bill had been provided.

In another example seen by Fairfax Media, an Australian consumer was also urged to email a property owner to make a booking, instead of using the app.

This led to the consumer mistakenly using a wire transfer service to send more than $5000 to an identity masquerading as the property host of a European ski chalet, after receiving highly realistic emails purportedly from Airbnb.

The consumer later discovered the property’s true address was in another country to that advertised.

An Airbnb Australia spokeswoman said its global Trust and Safety team “worked 24/7” to respond to issues raised by guests and hosts and prevent fraud.

“Airbnb will never ask you to pay the cost of a reservation off-site or through email. The bottom line is when you book a reservation through our secure platform, you receive the benefits of Airbnb’s global trust and safety team,” she said.

“More than 150 million guests have had safe, positive experiences on Airbnb and negative incidents are extremely rare. We proactively educate our new guests on the importance of keeping their bookings strictly on the Airbnb platform…”

The home-sharing platform would not comment on how many fake property listing reports it had received in the past year, nor whether it conducted Google reverse image searches.

After being contacted by Fairfax Media, Airbnb removed the Bondi “luxury villa” listing from the website, banning the relevant host from the platform.

In 2015 the ACCC became one of 60 member countries in the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network.

Last year the network released a set of guidelines relating to safe online reviews and endorsements, such as those published in relation to accommodation and other travel related products.

Ms Rickard said that while the guidelines did not specifically comment on fraudulent listings, the message to the sharing economy was the same.

“The sharing economy holds itself as a safe alternative to business, therefore it has an obligation to have appropriate safeguards in place.”

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Henry Sapiecha