A Which? investigation has proved just how easy it is for con artists to put fake accommodation listings on popular holiday-letting websites. We set up fake profiles on Airbnb and TripAdvisor’s Holiday Lettings, and successfully placed eight scam listings on each.
In each case, it took us just minutes to create the scam listings and we were never asked for proof of ID or any proof the accommodation actually existed.
Many holidaymakers have lost thousands of pounds through scam holiday lets just like this; booking online and then realising that the villa or apartment doesn’t exist. Given Airbnb now has more rooms to let than Hilton it’s no surprise the problem is growing.
Action Fraud, the UK’s reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime found that holidaymakers were conned out of 11.5m in 2015. Holiday-accommodation fraud was one of the most common scams. ‘Fraudsters are making full use of the internet to con holidaymakers,’ it warned last year, ‘including posting fake adverts on websites and social media.’
Our own investigation reveals just how easy it is for the scammers. We focused on three of the most popular listings sites, Airbnb.co.uk, HomeAway.co.uk and Holidaylettings.co.uk. Of these, HomeAway was the only one to demand photo ID, although it told us on the phone that we could avoid this if we paid £478 for an annual subscription.
To set up our fake listings we only needed an ordinary ‘pay as you go’ phone, some photos of an apartment and email addresses that we set up in less than five minutes.
Despite the fact that Airbnb asks travellers to provide a scan of their passport or other photo ID and a link to a social media account before they can book an apartment through the site, at no point were we asked to prove our identity before listing an apartment.
Airbnb and Holiday Lettings’ systems are supposed to catch any attempt to include an email address in the listing, as fraudsters typically encourage users to contact them directly. But we found it easy to include a disguised email in the description of the apartment, or embedded in a photo.
When Which? pretended to Holiday Lettings that we had been defrauded by one of the fake listings it removed it within hours. Airbnb also responded within hours – but only by putting us in touch with what it calls a ‘Community Expert’ – not a full-time employee but an ordinary member of the site.
The Community Expert told us that, ‘there are thousands of these scammers/criminals.’ When we queried whether he meant that there are thousands of fake listings on Airbnb he confirmed that he did and added, ‘not just here, but on all websites’.
It ultimately took Airbnb 13 days to remove the fake listing.
Airbnb, Holiday Lettings and HomeAway respond
Airbnb has denied there are ‘thousands’ of fake listings on its website, but wouldn’t commit to an estimate. It also told us: ‘We are reviewing the results of the Which? investigation as we are constantly looking for ways to stay ahead of fraudsters. The most important thing to know is that as long as you stay on the airbnb.com platform and only send money through Airbnb, you will be protected. We are looking at ways to provide additional warnings about these scams, as well as making it easier for users to contact us directly by phone.’ (You can contact Airbnb in the UK on 0203 318 1111.)
Holiday Lettings told us: ‘We’re disappointed these listings came online and, as always, we’re working to constantly develop our fraud-detection tools to stay ahead of scammers.’ It also addressed our success in placing an email address in an image of the accommodation: ‘We do have photo-scanning software and we’re investigating why this image was not caught.’
HomeAway told us: ‘Hosts don’t always have to supply a scan of their passport,’ but said ‘absolutely every listing goes through our risk engine to be reviewed. If there is any case of doubt, the trust and security team will then ask for further authentication, for instance the scan of passport.’
How to spot scams on Airbnb and other holiday letting websites – read expert advice from our investigator on how you can make sure your next holiday let really exists.