Aug. 2, 2011 — -- An online short-term rental went horribly wrong for a San Francisco woman after someone who signed up through Airbnb.com trashed and robbed her place.
After posting a "sunny, bright, cozy loft" on the rental marketplace, the woman, who uses the pseudonym EJ, returned to find the apartment ransacked by a renter using the name "DJ Pattrson."
Following a media firestorm, Airbnb, an online marketplace in the same vein as Craigslist that focuses on short-term rentals of homes, apartments and bedrooms for people on the go, has implemented changes to the rental process for users. On Monday, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky wrote a blog post apologizing to EJ and detailing the new tools.
In an item titled "Our Commitment to Trust and Safety" Chesky wrote, "…[W]e let her down, and for that we are very sorry...We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive action to make sure she felt safe and secure."
The company's new safety tool, Airbnb Guarantee, covers theft and vandalism charges of up to $50,000 for hosts and the online market place is creating a trust and safety department.
These changes came after a June blog post on "Around the World and Back Again" had gone viral and threatened to hinder the Web site's meteoric rise.
"I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked…My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed by a 'traveler' I connected with via the online rental agency, airbnb.com," wrote host EJ.
Attempts to reach "EJ" were unsuccessful. San Francisco Police, who are looking into the case, said she didn't want to be identified.
Airbnb is utilized by both hosts and renters. The hosts pay a fee of 3 percent for successful bookings.
Renters are billed a service fee of 6 to 12 percent to utilize the website that has investors like Ashton Kutcher.
Last week, the company announced $112 million in financing and has seen its valuation increase to more than $1 billion.
The Web site has a social media component that allows users to interact on the platform without disclosing any personal information like email addresses or phone numbers.
The service does not allow users to communicate off the platform until a payment or offer is accepted on the portal. At that point, travelers and hosts communicate about how to access the room or apartment for rent.
Following a stay, a host and renter can a post review and rate the rental experience.
"By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that airbnb.com has already done the research for me, and has eliminated the investigative work that Craigslist requires," wrote EJ.
Airbnb.com's sleek Web site has contributed to its explosive growth as a rental marketplace, leading to more than 2 million nights booked using the service.
"…I liked the idea of someone being there, looking after my thirsty houseplant, and of course the opportunity to earn some extra cash was more than appealing," EJ wrote.
But, an opportunity to make money quickly became a net loss for the user, who said she discovered a hole in a locked door in her flat that held special items personal items such as passport, cash, credit cards and her grandmother's jewelry.
"They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals... my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied - using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests' use," she writes while describing the incident under "Violated: A traveler's lost faith, a difficult lesson learned."
"Various pairs of my gloves were strewn about – leather, dishwashing and otherwise – I imagine in a weak attempt to cover up fingerprints. Whoever these people were, they were living large and having one hell of a time for an entire week inside my home, unwatched, unchecked, free to do whatever destruction they wished. And damn, did they do a lot of it."
The incident might well have been avoided had the renter taken additional steps, one person who has rented through the site said.
"It's a statistic; it's an inevitability. A person does have to do a bit of their due diligence when it comes to vetting people. At minimum that means being able to be there when the person arrives and have some level of supervision," says Andrew Jurinka, a host who has used Airbnb.com for a year.
"I've had nothing but positive experiences with [Airbnb] and their staff. The fact that they have a paper trail is an added insurance that does not exist with other types," says Jurinka.
There is one flaw to the system, according to Jurinka. If a host rejects an offer from a renter it can affect your search results on the Web site. "Anyone who is creatively manipulative can kind of game the system," says Jurinka. "Fortunately, most people that fall in that category are rather dumb about it. They write a one sentence email to you, or something curt, not very inviting, or they are not respectful of the fact that it's your home. I tend to ignore people like that."
In response to the incident, in July, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky posted to a guest blog on the tech Web site Tech Crunch.
"With a single booking, one person's malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been – for 2 million nights – a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good," Chesky said.
"Trust and safety are Airbnb's highest priorities and as such the improved safety processes are being implemented immediately and will roll out of the coming days, weeks and months," the company wrote in a statement to ABCNews.
"Whilst we are truly shocked and saddened by this incident we are relieved we had the systems in place to be able to assist with the investigation and the authorities now have a suspect in custody. We are now focusing our attentions on how to prevent an issue like this happening again."
Since June, the web startup has doubled its customer service team to include representatives across the globe in all time zones. The company is also looking into VOIP or video chat to assist in the authentication process.
According to Airbnb, the company has worked with investigators and a suspect has been apprehended.
In a post yesterday, EJ wrote that she is still fearful of the perpetrators and it's unclear if anyone has been jailed. "I was - and still am - scared of the unsettling fact that there are still psychotic criminals and identity thieves on the loose who already know much too much about me," she wrote.
"As of today, July 28, I have received no confirmation from either the San Francisco Police Department or the District Attorney that any culprit is in custody for my case."
According to the San Francisco Police Department, two people were detained and released pending further investigation on June 28. Property from the alleged theft of the home was found during a search of premise in Belmont, California, according to the SFPD.
The SFPD arrested Faith Clifton, a 19-year-old white female, for possession of stolen property, methamphetamine, fraud charges and an outstanding warrant out of Milpitas, Calif. Clifton is no longer in the custody of the SFPD.
Based on police records, Clifton is now in the custody of the Santa Clara Police Department in connection to an outstanding warrant in Milpitas. Clifton is scheduled to appear in Santa Clara County Superior Court's Hall of Justice on August 5 for felony charges surrounding the theft of credit cards and fraud, according to court records. We were unable to reach anyone at a number listed in connection to Clifton. Yolanda Trevino, a public defender representing Clifton, declined to comment for this story.
In San Francisco, the case has been referred to the district attorney's office.
"SFPD has been in contact with the victim and have been in contact with the website company, who has provided as much information as possible in this matter. Please respect the privacy of the victim," SFPD wrote in a statement.
The burglarized user says she has not heard from Airbnb since 3 days after she blogged about her apartment being vandalized. The victim references occasional contact from the Web sites co-founders.
"The staff at Airbnb has not made a positive contribution to me personally or my situation in any way, particularly since June 30."
While the company has mentioned financial compensation, the user says she is "still displaced, bouncing between friends' homes" and scouring pawn shops searching for her stolen treasures.
Airbnb Guarantee will be extended to EJ and any other hosts who may have reported property damage while renting on Airbnb in the past, according to Monday's blog post from Chesky.
To readers offering to send donations, EJ wrote: "keep the money and use it to book yourself into a nice, safe hotel room the next time you travel. You'll be glad you did."