Column: Airbnb is an awesome service — until the guest from hell shows up
Homeowners around the world have found Airbnb and other short-term rental services a great way to make extra money.
Until the guest from hell arrives.
Emily Mastren, 30, and her husband have been using Airbnb to rent out their backyard bungalow in Long Beach since December. It goes for $65 to $99 a night, and the couple have hosted dozens of people over the last half-year.
“It pays our entire mortgage,” Mastren told me. “That’s pretty nice. But now I’m worried about the safety of my family.”
The booking was made recently by a woman I’ll call Sylvia. That’s not her real name, but she has sent Mastren threatening messages and I don’t want to make a bad situation worse. Mastren has a 3-week-old daughter at home.
Sylvia booked the bungalow on a Thursday morning and arrived that afternoon around 1 p.m.
“I got a bad feeling as soon as I saw her,” Mastren recalled. “I could see she was wearing a cheap wig. She was really thin. She was dressed like she was going to a club, around lunchtime on a Thursday.”
Even so, Mastren welcomed her guest and handed over the keys.
Sylvia checked out the next morning but failed to leave the keys in a lockbox, as is customary with Airbnb rentals. Mastren said she spotted Sylvia’s car parked on the street, where it appeared Sylvia was sleeping.
Mastren approached the car, roused Sylvia and informed her that the keys hadn’t been returned. She said Sylvia rummaged in a bag, found the keys and handed them over.
Suspicious, Mastren said, she played back video taken overnight by the security camera outside her home. She said four different people could be seen visiting the bungalow at roughly 90-minute intervals.
I asked Mastren what she thought Sylvia was doing.
“I think she was prostituting out of my Airbnb,” Mastren replied.
The cleaning lady arrived Friday afternoon. “She texted me,” Mastren recalled. “She said I better come see this.”
Mastren said she found cigarette butts throughout the bungalow — her listing specifies that a $250 cleaning charge will be applied to smokers.
In the bathroom wastebasket was a syringe. There also was a baggie. And an AriZona tea can that had been cut in half and used to heat something up. Mastren took pictures, which she submitted to Airbnb and shared with me.
“I was furious,” she said. “I felt violated.”
Mastren reached out to Sylvia through Airbnb and requested the $250 smoking fee. She noted the syringe and possible drugs in the wastebasket.
Sylvia replied with a message accusing Mastren of being “ghetto” for going through the trash. She said she didn’t complain to anyone even though the tires on her car were slashed while she stayed at Mastren’s bungalow. She said she’d be back “to get my things.”
Mastren responded that the cleaning lady discovered the wastebasket contents as part of routine maintenance. She also pointed out that she saw Sylvia’s car the next morning and the tires were fine. She said Sylvia left nothing at her house, and if she came by again, Mastren would call the police.
Sylvia continued messaging Mastren via Airbnb for several days. She said she hadn’t been alone at the bungalow and any drugs weren’t hers. “I’ll take drug test,” she said. “I can prove to u and I will sue u for slander. My lawyer will contact u soon.”
Subsequent messages said, “Your n trouble lady” and “Thanks 4 free money lady. Ur gonna pay !!$$$$.”
Mastren posted a review of Sylvia on Airbnb.
“Do not let this woman stay in your Airbnb,” it said. “Heroin and syringe found in my trash can by my cleaners!!! Smoked cigarettes inside, per my surveillance had people in and out of my place all night — looks like prostitution was happening … Save yourself and do not allow her near your home.”
Mastren also called Airbnb to report the matter. She said a service rep informed her that this would be something for the company’s safety department, but the call couldn’t be transferred. The rep said Mastren would receive a call back within 24 hours.
It took nearly 100 hours for the company to get in touch, Mastren said.
Insult to injury, she received an email from Airbnb saying her review of Sylvia was “in violation of our content policy.… We cannot allow reviews to stand when they contain content that is profane or obscene.”
“As such, it is our responsibility to remove your review.… As of this correspondence, it has been taken down.”
Airbnb didn’t have much to say about all this.
“The reported behavior has no place in our community,” a spokesman, who asked not to be identified, told me by email. “We’ve suspended this guest’s account while we investigate and are providing our full support to our host.”
He emphasized that “there have been over a half a billion guest arrivals in Airbnb listings to date and negative incidents are incredibly rare.”
The company also sent me a link to its “community standards,” which state that Airbnb users should not “target others with unwanted behavior” and should “refrain from endangering or threatening anyone.”
I found no admonition in the standards about not breaking the law by, say, using someone’s home as a bordello.
The standards do say, though, that “you should not commit physical or sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, domestic violence, robbery, human trafficking, other acts of violence, or hold anyone against their will.”
They also specify that “members of dangerous organizations, including terrorist, organized criminal and violent racist groups, are not welcome in this community.”
Airbnb says that “in the rare event that any issue should arise, Airbnb’s global Customer Service and Trust and Safety teams are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in 11 different languages to help make things right.”
Mastren’s experience suggests these teams might need to focus a bit more on responsiveness.
She observed that it took nearly a week for Airbnb to suspend Sylvia’s account, and this seems to have occurred only after I started asking questions.
Suggestion: Airbnb should encourage all hosts to have keyless-entry systems that can be recoded for each guest. At least this would address the unreturned-keys problem.
By the end of last week, Mastren received an email from Airbnb saying that “we have reviewed this matter and decided it best for the community that we remove this guest from the platform. Thank you for helping us to keep the community safe.”
Mastren said Airbnb has paid her the $250 cleaning fee. But she’s not sure she’ll continue using the service.
“I feel that, as a host, my safety was put in jeopardy for five or six days until they took action,” she said.
“I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
Your guide to our new economic reality.
Get our free business newsletter for insights and tips for getting by.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.