Need a ride to the airport within 10 minutes because your ride bailed? There’s an app for that. Need to satisfy your 2 AM chocolate craving in under an hour? There’s an app for that. Want to use a complete stranger’s fabulous, ocean-front villa for the weekend for less than what you would pay at a hotel? There’s an app for that too. But two travelers learned the hard way that having this type of power at your fingertips can come with a hefty price.
From Euro-trip to ISIS Hotbed
Nick is the typical wonderlust adventurer who could give TripAdvisor a run for their money. He has couch surfed and used Airbnb numerous times with no incident, but a trip to Brussels last summer felt like his last. Nick and a buddy decided to make a spontaneous trip to Brussels as part of their 4-month European tour. Thinking it would be a cool story to tell back home, they logged on to Airbnb and booked what they thought was a great deal for a one night stay in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. After a few email exchanges with an Australian host named Antonio, Nick and his friend were stoked to find a great place to crash on such short notice. But as they hopped on a train to Brussels that same evening, they had no idea that what awaited them was far from an ideal vacation. When they got off, they noticed that this town didn’t look like the parts of Europe they were accustomed to. The neighborhood was dirty, scattered with broken bottles and jail-style bars across the windows to ward off burglars. After a confusing walk through the neighborhood, they finally descended upon a disheveled building that was spray painted with graffiti. A man with a long beard and a thick, Middle Eastern accent greeted them at the door; clearly, this was not Antonio. The man refused to identify himself but asked for their names and if they were American. He was very irritated when they confirmed that they are. As they entered the apartment, it was also clear that this was NOT the same place that had been advertised on Airbnb.
I was shocked. It wasn’t like it was the same apartment and it just happened to be messy. This was a completely different place!
Condom wrappers scattered the floor, broken beer bottles were stashed in the corner and the sheets looked recently used. Refusing to provide any contact information, the host hurried off claiming he needed to be in Paris the next day; leaving Nick and his friend to absorb what had just transpired. Thankfully, Nick was able to connect to a weak, Wifi signal that allowed him to research their current location. What they found out was even worse than they had initially thought. Molenbeek is notorious for being an ISIS hotbed in Western Europe with frequent terrorist activity and corruption. What had started off as an exciting trip to a new city quickly became a matter of survival for these two unsuspecting travelers. While they knew they couldn’t go outside at this time of the night in an area crawling with ISIS, they also knew they needed to get out ASAP. So they did their best to get comfortable on the musty sheets and rest – but the humongous cockroaches on the ceiling didn’t help matters much. After a restless night of sleep, they jumped into action. They researched a safe and touristy area of Brussels, booked another Airbnb spot in a new location and hopped on the first train out of Molenbeek. They were relieved to get out safely but they were also keenly aware that they had been dangerously close to being breaking news on American television. Luckily for these two, the trip ended with just a big scare and a good lesson. But the next two ladies weren’t as fortunate.
Don’t Drink The Tomato Juice
When Lisa and her sister booked a place on Airbnb from a smiling blonde host named Leslie, they had no reason to be weary of their accommodations in the breath-taking city of Budapest. After a long day of traveling through different time zones, they were relieved to finally be at the front door of a quaint, renovated building in the middle of the city. But when the door opened, the seedy-eyed male staring back at them was clearly not the same Leslie on the Airbnb profile picture. The middle aged man with an American accent muttered an excuse about playing around with his profile picture since “Leslie” was a unisex name. This explanation was of no peace of mind to the girls. Immediately upon walking in, Leslie suggested they hit up some local bars in the area. Lisa, who was feeling very uncomfortable with the situation already, politely declined and explained that they were tired and had a long day ahead. Leslie didn’t seem to catch on to her reluctance and insisted the girls have some palinka with him. They were more than a little puzzled; what kind of host wants to get drunk with his guests within minutes of them walking in the door?
When he offered us the palinka and wouldn’t stop leering at my sister and I, we knew something was way off.
At this point, the girls just wanted him off their back so Lisa’s sister obliged to a glass of tomato juice instead. As Leslie handed her the juice, he complained that the girls “didn’t know how to have any fun” which was Lisa’s cue to grab her sister, go into the bedroom and shut the door. Despite feeling very skeptical of their host, both girls were exhausted and needed to get some rest before the next morning. They both crashed into a deep sleep until a sudden shuffling noise awoke Lisa. Through groggy eyes, she found herself starting at Leslie’s drunken face peering over them as he stood next to their bed. Her scream caught him off guard as he stumbled out and proceeded to pass out on the couch. This is when Lisa truly felt that they were in serious danger. Despite her shaking hands and the sweat soaking them, she sprang into action. She immediately tried to wake her sister, who was knocked out cold. A feeling of dread clutched Lisa as she realized her sister wasn’t in a deep sleep; her sister had been drugged by the tomato juice she accepted hours before. With every ounce of strength she had, she dragged her sister out of bed and snatched their bags. Carrying her sister, she softly padded past a snoring Leslie, opened the front door and escaped into the cold, night air of Budapest. Once outside, she crumpled to the ground and sobbed while trying to hold her sister up. “Do trains even run this late?” she wondered. A concerned stranger noticed them and gave her directions to the nearest train station. Lisa mustered all the energy she had left and half walked-half carried her sister to the station. Once on the train, Lisa was finally able to breathe normally, but not before her sister vomited half of the tomato juice all over Lisa’s hair and clothes. They eventually made it to the airport and was able to book a flight home, but the stink of that night remained much longer than the smell of vomit in her hair.
Being Careless Online Is Like Having Unprotected Sex – You’ll Eventually Get Burned.
While both Nick and Lisa were satisfied by the way Aibnb handled the situations once alerted (Immediate refunds, gift vouchers and empathic customer service), they both felt that much more could have been done to avoid the scenarios altogether. Both mentioned that enforcing a verification system for hosts and guests could drastically decrease the possibility of future incidents. They also mentioned the importance of doing their own research and being aware of possible red flags. A missing profile picture, negative or no reviews, unrealistic pricing and/or photos of the property should alert users to potential scams or suspicious activity. However, they were adamant that Airbnb could have done a better job vetting the host in the first place. After all, shouldn’t Airbnb stand by their hosts or at least do enough research to weed out the bad ones?
There’s no denying that we live in an innovative, hyper-convenient and socially driven era where technology allows us to manage our lives at the click of a button on our smartphones. A few years ago, if we were told that most of our lives would be streamlined by innovative services such as Uber, Airbnb and Seamless, we probably wouldn’t have believed it. It’s like living in an episode of “I Dream Of Genie”, only instead of a blink and a nod, it’s a press of a button on your iPhone. But as you can see from the stories above, this can have a downside. Not only do services such as Uber and Airbnb require us to provide sensitive information such as credit card info, home addresses and profile pictures; we are trusting that a total stranger online is exactly who they say they are. It’s easy to let your guard down when communication lines are this easy and fluid, but it also desensitizes us to very real dangers. Real dangers that could have led Nick straight into the hands of ISIS or Lisa dealing with a lot more than just vomit in her hair. We have nothing against these social platforms and think they are awesome ways to see the world, eat great food and so on – we simply want to start a dialog on how these services can keep their users safe.