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How airbnb lost me as a customer
78 points by ARobotics on Oct 5, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments
I don't have a blog where this story would be appropriate, but since I know airbnb founders/investors read HN, I figure my story might be valuable to them. This is how my first experience with airbnb is also going to be my last.

I recently rented out my apartment for a 2 week stay. With my nearly $3,000 payment being held by airbnb, I received an email asking me to "send in a scanned copy of your government issued ID and a copy of a utility bill". No form to do so, just the vague "send". I'm not really comfortable sending as much personal info as my drivers license contains (height, weight, eye color, DL number, photo) especially over unencrypted email, and when this requirement wasn't mentioned before listing my space.

Here is where they lose me as a customer though- I snapped a photo of a utility bill and responded to their email. Two days go by, my payment is still 'pending' now several days after the guest has arrived. I send a second email inquiring if the photo was ok (I don't have a scanner handy) and why they still haven't paid me, and get no response. More days go by with airbnb holding my payment, and I try to use their live chat. Live chat fails silently in firefox (clicking the button does nothing). I try in chrome and it tells me everyone is busy. Try again later and it opens a window... then 30 seconds later tells me everyone is busy and to email my request.

Finally, now 9 days after my guest arrived, I receive another email from airbnb which ignores all my previous messages and tells me to once again "send" them scans of gov't id and utility bill. Apparently my only option to get them to release my funds is to send highly personal information over unencrypted email, a requirement which was never made clear when I made my listing.

Airbnb seems like a great idea with an ideal set of founders and backers, but unexpected requirements and terrible customer support have turned me off their site.

It sounds like their customer support failed you. Whatever tool they were using to track your email thread failed or someone acted too hastily and responded to the thread inappropriately by asking for the same information. You are right they made a mistake in sending you two emails and it is annoying they are holding your money.

I have no inside information about Airbnb, but I'd guess they are slowing moving the money to try and prevent fraud on their system. Basically, A stolen card being used for a high value amount. Obviously that is annoying to anyone who is waiting for money, but I've seen it happen in many situations where money is transfered.

Are you a frequent hoster? If you have a lot of money coming in for your apartment, it is much more likely that it would be transfered quickly.

If you are a frequent hoster, is this a unusually large amount at once? Or is it from someone who is using Airbnb for the first time?

In the end, it sounds like your experience wasn't so great. But I'd hope you remember that it is just people on the other end answering your email and trying to prevent fraud. Many of those people answer hundreds of emails a day and probably make mistakes as often as anyone else. I hope everything works out for you.

Look at it from the other side of things: how would you react if AirBnB weren't doing these checks?

If I'm staying somewhere, I'm leaving my luggage, and there's plenty of opportunities for stuff to go missing, whether in the middle night or otherwise.

That's just the petty crime aspect, leaving aside other opportunities for much more serious badness.

It's bad that their customer service failed you, but I'd much rather there was a tiny bit of hassle for people renting out apartments for the safety of those staying there.

Heaven forbid they spend 10 dollars on a php upload script on SSL for this kind of information as opposed to "Scan you social security card and send it to customerservice@airbnb.com!"

Pedantic note: I'm not excusing them for lacking something as critical as a secure way to transmit sensitive information, but it's certainly more involved than "ten dollars worth of PHP."

You're probably looking at setting up a dedicated server to store the images (since you want the server locked down tighter than a normal web server, and you need to think about having different backups in place, etc) and then have one of the engineers spend a few days developing a system to upload the images and allow secured access to their support staff. Sure, writing the code to upload files is easy, but the security and UI take a good bit of effort. You're probably looking closer to $1k excluding the cost of hardware and the SSL cert.

Whoa $1K? I think I just spent that on hats for my dog last quarter. Seriously, there is NO EXCUSE FOR THIS.

But the document checks weren't finished yet and the guest still arrived. At this point, they're not really protecting the guest.

I have a feeling the OP couldn't care less whether AirBnB were doing those checks. The OP knows he lives there, he doesn't need someone to verify that.

If anything, I'm surprised they allowed you to rent out your place without that verification in hand. There is enough possible legal/liability quandaries around the idea of AirBnB that is seems risky to sanction the rental of a place without confirmation of the owner's identity.

(1) You refer to your "apartment", which by convention refers to a domicile that you are leasing. While other HN readers will contest this point, I'd be willing to put money on the fact that you violated your lease by renting out your apartment on Airbnb at all.

(2) HN is not a forum for complaints about YC companies, and while I didn't flag this post, you shouldn't overreact if it is killed. Nobody is trying to censor you; if it happens, just move your post to Tumblr.

> (2) HN is not a forum for complaints about YC companies

The user in question looks like he/she has been here for a while, so isn't just someone signing in to bitch about a company. People also regularly use HN to complain about Google, since they are generally not that great at customer service, so it's hardly a precedent.

Ultimately, you are correct that it's not the purpose of this site, but as long as it's an occasional thing, done with respect and tact, and aims to improve the service, I don't think it's such a bad thing. I'm not sure this post is the best example of all those qualities, but AirBnB is also big enough to handle it, too, no? It's not like he's picking on someone just starting out.

You win some, you lose some. I was in the middle of a bunch of other stuff and dashed off a comment that got itself taken in ways I didn't intend. Sorry! :)

Your comments always make me smile Thomas, you seem like the real life embodiment of the "Lawful Neutral" alignment, always following the letter of each rule. My lease allows subletting, but there may be a provision which I'm not following, I can double check.

If this post gets killed, that's fine. I was hesitant to write it, but I thought it might be valuable to share. There's a fine line between useful critique or sharing an experience and ranting/complaining, perhaps my post leaned too far to the latter.

>Your comments always make me smile Thomas, you seem like the real life embodiment of the "Lawful Neutral" alignment

I've been trying to think of a good label for him for a long time, and I think that hits it on the nose.

I always kind of thought of myself as Neutral Good. I'm not a believer in rules for their own sake, but the good that comes from ignoring a rule should outweigh the harm incurred by surreptitiously changing the rules on everyone else. The most pernicious harms caused by breaking rules are the ones that aren't obvious, but rather confer an advantage to the parties that broke the rule that the rest of society can't easily detect, until those unscrupulous first movers have managed to roll the advantage up into a competitive moat.

I'm only commenting because I think it's interesting to think about why we think the things we do. I think it's a weird that anyone would want to fit an AD&D alignment onto me. :)

I can tell you why: You're clearly a (very) net positive contributor, however "strident" is a predictable default for any post of yours that's overly anything, combined with writing in a classical style.

Why people are trying to label you is you're hard to characterize yet are notably present.

You might want to check the zoning laws for your area too, that's another potential legal problem for this kind of thing.

(1) is immaterial to the topic at hand, which is AirBnb's customer service and unresponsiveness. That is between OP and his/her landlord.

edit: nevermind, beaten to the punch.

Please explain how (1) is relevant to the complaint at hand.

It's not, except to the extent that it might be hard to feel sorry for someone who is taking unfair advantage of his landlord and cotenants and then complaining about the poor customer service that he was provided when doing so.

Again though: it's not. It's a mostly orthogonal point.

> "except to the extent that it might be hard to feel sorry for someone who is taking unfair advantage of his landlord and cotenants"

The morality and ethics behind AirBnb is far from clearcut. The landlord-tenant relationship is also not so easily moralized - I'd take a flying leap off the high horse unless I knew more.

I'm sorry you felt like I was rebutting the complaint with the landlord thing. I'm not.

Then it was irrelevant.

I don't know about OP, but I've always assumed that by 2012 people would have the common sense to ask their landlords first for permission (either one time or recurring). I haven't listed on AirBNB but have sublet my apartment and that was obviously step one. Are most of the people using the site not doing that?

#1 is a common assumption, but really condos are a subset of apartments. "Apartment" can refer to a leased unit, a co-op situation, or an owned condo unit. The only thing that defines an "apartment" is that it is a housing unit contained within a larger unit.

sorry to side-track, but it looks like i've misunderstood american english. i thought "apartment" was american for "flat". but apparently it means "rented flat".

so what do you call a self-contained living area (several rooms - like a house, but it's not stand-alone) in a larger building if you own it?

A "condo" or "condominium", for something like an apartment that you own the interior of, or a "townhouse", for something like a house that is attached to other townhouses. There's considerable overlap and general fogginess between the two.

it depends on the ownership structure, but usually a condo.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condominium 'Colloquially, the term is often used to refer to the unit itself in place of the word "apartment". A condominium may be simply defined as an "apartment" that the resident owns as opposed to rents.'

In some places, you'll run into co-ops (cooperative). For example, New York City. Their prevalence elsewhere has, I've heard, generally declined in favor of condominium charters. (A major factor, I vaguely understand, being the increased autonomy of the members.)

I'm not versed in the details, but in co-ops, group administration seems to have a stronger role. For example, you may need formal approval of the co-op in order to sell your unit, with respect to the particular sale at hand. In other words, if they don't like the prospective buyer (and can argue this on a non-discriminatory basis, I imagine), you have to find another buyer.

Some friends bought into a co-op, and I was solicited to write a letter of recommendation. In addition to a good and well-worded argument for their tenancy, I "punched it up" by placing it on company letterhead and emphasizing the formal role. Apparently, that did the trick. My point being, they had to sell not just the owner but the co-op on their purchase of the unit.

As I think about this, I imagine many co-ops might have some strong opinions on their members' prospective use of AirBNB.

yeah this is a pretty classic example of what startups have to deal with: irrational customers.

the guy is getting $3k from a transaction that breaks all kind of rules, and is upset that a _SCAN_ of his Driver's License might be intercepted in a "man in the middle" attack on a sent email!?!?!?

And if I weren't upset with it, someone else on the internet would be calling me stupid and telling me I deserved it when my identity was stolen or some account was compromised because I was sending things over unencrypted email. Some days I guess you just can't win.

Again though, issue number 1 is unresponsive, unhelpful technical support.

The irrelevance of (1) aside, you are making a huge assumption there. In Ontario for example, you need to tell your landlord, but they basically can't refuse.

There are circumstances in Ontario, mostly relating to trying to terminate tenancy, where the landlord can't reasonably refuse a request to sublet the place. I believe the intent is that you don't get trapped in some lease when you've lost your job and have to move cross-country. The landlord is obligated to mitigate losses, and subletting covers that.

I'm going to assume "temporarily leasing my place to make $3,000" won't qualify, but I'm no lawyer. There are liability issues associated with people subletting, and I'm doubtful AirBnB has all those bases covered.

I've been a landlord in Ontario for 10 years and had a sublet request a few months ago. In Ontario, there are 2 stages: a tenant has to make a general request to sublet, and then a specific one. They can break the lease if the landlord refuses at either stage, but otherwise they have to provide a legitimate replacement tenant (as opposed to putting a random person forward as a pretext to break the lease) or stay until the lease ends.

Of course you could just stop paying rent and your tenancy will be terminated much faster and you won't have to go through the hassle of finding someone to sublet.

Edit: The above applies in the case of legitimate sublet request - a two week AirBNB guest wouldn't count.

The Landlord and Tenant act is the relevant law, and doesn't make any distinction between short term and long term sublets. You say you are subletting, and the landlord can refuse only with a compelling reason. There is nothing special liability wise, you are still liable for damages because you are still the one leasing the apartment.

It's too late for me to edit my original post now, but for posterity - airbnb contacted me and resolved the issue. The final customer service rep I spoke to was friendly and helpful, and they refunded the 3% listing/service fee as amends for the slow support.

It's amazing what some companies ask you to send via email. The inherent trust people put in email systems is honestly scary. envex seems not worried if someone has their eye color or height. I can promise you every bit of information someone can obtain on you IS useful.

Dear AirBnB,

Sending utility bills and drivers licenses over email is NOT appropriate!!!

This makes me want to pentest AirBnB and find their vulnerabilities before someone evil does....

> It's amazing what some companies ask you to send via email.

My state allows people to cast ballots via email.

During the hearing, some retired National Guard General testified that "security has gotten really good". I assume he's on the payroll of the vendor, but I didn't bother to check (this time).

Is it just me, or does that sound like a thinly veiled threat?

Although AirBnB customer service was bad here it seems you also were at fault. They asked for two documents. You didn't want to send one of them over email (understandable). At that point you should have cancelled the rental. Hoping they would get back to you and waive a requirement wasn't a good idea.

Not sure HackerNews is the right place for this. Emailing AirBnb's customer service/complaints department would be better.

As one of many start-up peeps here on HN we've very sorry you had to jump through those hurdles. Your post is on the main page and is certain to get the right attention quickly.

For the rest of us, the only responses required is someone who knows ABNB lets us know they contacted them, and then ABNB following up here with an apology to the user & HN.

Don't talk on and on about it. Just fix it.

Are you really worried that they'll have your height and eye color?

You've already let a "stranger" into your house, but these details to too sacred?

Just take photos off all and black out any info you don't think is appropriate.

It's more the principle of requiring additional information after a reservation has been booked instead of being up-front about it, and sending it over unencrypted email.

The biggest issue is that I responded to their original email within 24 hours, but have now waited 10 days without resolution or any feedback.

Envex, if you are not worried about this sort of thing. How about you go follow @ewconsultors on twitter. Dare ya...

> and a copy of a utility bill

What a dumbass requirement. As if somebody with access to a printer would not be able to produce one.

I have never understood this either. These procedures must be a relic from a time when most people did not have access to laser printers.

Similarly when I went to renew my drivers license, they required proof of my social security number. My old license (with a picture of me, holograms, etc.) wasn't acceptable, but a health insurance card that could have been printed by anyone with access to a laminating machine was perfectly fine.

If we're going to rally against archaic "security" practices can we start to jerk about signatures? I'm not sure how my scribbles identify me when the person looking into it has no clue if those are TheCapn's scribbles or Brucehart scribbling "TheCapn" all signature-like.

I have seen people photoshop utility bills, proof of insurance, etc.

Requirements like this are hilarious.

except that if you are caught, it is a federal offense at least in the US to forge things such as utility bills etc. It is more of a deterrent than anything else against outright fraud.


The probably don't really care. It's just some CYA forced on them by their insurance company.

Airbnb should have a phone number that people who are renting out their homes can call 24/7 for help, advice etc. If they do have this why didn't the author use it?

You're essentially acting as a hotel business. I'm not sure you can do that with the level of anonymity you require to a legal corp like airbnb to remain legit. You may have unreasonable expectations. Try something even more underground next time I guess. There probably isn't anything they can do.

But yeah, I suppose listing it more clearly would have been nice :) (and better communication, something most tech startups need to learn to scale)

It's not about anonymity - they have a verified phone number and email address, they have my address and name. My payment is in the form of a check sent to the address being rented, paid to the name on the account. When I created the account, if they had said "We need a credit card number to confirm your identity" or "Use this secure form to submit a copy of utility bill" I would have gladly complied.

Asking me to send them over email after a reservation is much more frustrating. Not responding for two weeks when I do email them a photo of utility bill is more frustrating still.

I think you were right to avoid sending that info because that's an identity thief's gold mine. On the other hand, I wonder how many times airbnb has been scammed. Hopefully this is some kind of knee-jerk reaction to problems they are having and not just an unprovoked screw up.

I'm a little shocked that you overcame all of the other concerns of using AirBNB but balked at a failed firefox plugin. I'm sure there's a logical explanation and probably a little bit of mismanagement on behalf of AirBNB, but that's something that can be corrected.

i would not want to send my photo id over the internet either, they should announce before any transaction has taken place that this is a requirement

Isn't there a telephone number? any business dealing in multiple Nxthousands of dollars should have a telephone-help-line. There's no excuse for that (confirmed customer, confirmed booking = $3,000 deal | vs x Prob (1/n)x$15/hr service rep?). Assuming there is someone on the other line available, scan a photo, layer, lock it in a psd or pdf (ie, add further security as appropriate)...send it to them, provide password over the phone, to make it visible, etc).

I think this raises another point... shouldn't email be a secure method of communication? Do you think its time for mail servers to start supporting encryption as a default?

Small claims court.

This would be why the ycombinator startup churner is bad. It is entirely focused on having people with no technical skills create companies that rely very heavily on a solid technical foundation. My 8 year old knows not to send sensitive information over unencrypted channels, and that email is completely insecure. Why are people who don't know this making sites like airbnb?

It's not that they can't; it's that they don't care. Airbnb has a great engineering team who could definitely setup a more secure way to do this.

The issue is that they only do things that will make them money. Until a lot of customers complain and hurts customer acquisition or revenues, they're not going to change it.

This is exactly the MVP / "lean startup" approach: do the absolute minimum. It's a smart way to deploy capital. But customers of these kinds of companies should be careful but they're usually complete products (by design) and may have sharp corners.

I normally stay away from buying anything from startups for this reason.

By definition they can not possibly be a great engineering team if they demonstrate that they are completely and totally incompetent like this. "I don't care about doing important things correctly" is a statement of incompetence.

>"It is entirely focused on having people with no technical skills create companies that rely very heavily on a solid technical foundation."

Disagree. I don't need to know how to send/receive encrypted information, just that I need it. Someone else can get their hands dirty on the problem. No "technical foundation" necessary, just common sense.

Except that it requires technical skills to know that you need it. Your average joe off the street can have all the "common sense" in the world and still wouldn't know the risks involved.

Heaven forbid someone learns your highly secretive height, weight, eye color and DL license number which is completely meaningless.

They communication does appear to suck, but your paranoia is unfounded.

Maybe quit being a little bitch and send them your info? The fuck are they gonna do with your eye color and height?

Wait, are you sure it's airbnb and not citimortgage?

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