Ms. Geek Speaks: Buyer beware–Uber and AirBnB

As a child of a single mother who raised three children after being widowed, I know about scrimping and saving. I am not a child of the Internet, but I do love it. Loving it doesn’t mean loving all aspects of it and that includes Uber and AirBnB.

As a feminist, you already knew that because of the “Ms” part of my title, I’m not in favor of services that favor men over women, even if the bias is unintentional.

Recently, the New York Times columnist Ron Lieber wrote about Airbnb and a 58-year-old American who was attacked by a dog during his stay at an Airbnb  host in Salta, Argentina. The American, Mike Silverman, is white. He was attacked by a Rottweiler. The NYTimes reports that he suffered a “six-square-inch gash and a handful of puncture wounds.” Airbnb at first “declined to cover his two-night hospital stay. Silverman is not your average working-class guy. He and his wife were taking a trip from Alaska to the bottom of South America on a $100 a day budget. They have stayed at over 20 Airbnb properties without incident over the years.

Silverman calls himself a “student of the world” and has worked in technology as a strategy consultant. His story appealed to the columnist Ron Lieber of the New York Times.

Silverman now wants to know “how many accidents have happened at Airbnb-listed properties. He’s worried about things like “whether travelers have died of carbon monoxide poisoning” at an “illegally converted hostel.”

Airbnb only founded in August of 2008. It is not yet a decade old. As a techie, Silverman should have noticed some problems with Airbnb. First, Airbnb is not a hotel chain. It is not a franchise opportunity. It is an application, a software that allows people to connect to each other–landlords to short-term renters in a manner that may or may not be legal.

Silverman’s problem isn’t the first publicized in the media.

In 2011, a host had her San Francisco apartment burglarized. This wasn’t the first time. After the publication about the San Francisco apartment, another host came forward with an incident: Troy had some meth addicts trash his place.

That’s what can happen to hosts, and Silverman and Lieber weren’t concerned with these. Yet they also weren’t concerned with the 2011 incident where two American women were sexually assaulted, photographed and videotaped.  The two women, 24 and 26, were in Barcelona  in October. Their host took them around the city and got them very drunk. According to a Sky News report, the two victims were unable to physically resist. When the police searched his apartment in March 2012, they “found hundreds of similar photos and footage taken of other young women.”

These women weren’t the first. The others before did not report the rapes. This is something that the New York Times did not report about. If you want better information on Airbnb, seems to do a much better job.

Since safety should be an issue that we all care about, what assurances or pre-emptive measures does Airbnb take? Does Airbnb consider checking to see the criminal records of the hosts? Are any of the hosts sex offenders? Are any of the guests sex offenders? How would one know?

A more recent case came to light in Northern California. A woman ended up paying to have two tenants leave. The Santa Cruz woman, Poonam Sandhu, rented to a couple for two weeks, but on the third week, the couple asked to go off of the Airbnb contract and convert their agreement to a day-to-day cash agreement. Sandhu ended up paying $1700.50 to the two tenants to leave. The tenants weren’t named, but apparently already had a civil lawsuit against them for non-payment of rent, something that Airbnb does not investigate. The couple have a claim against them for $9825. The claim was filed in February of this year in Santa Cruz Superior Court according to the ABCNews video report (SCWWS150119).  Sandhu didn’t begin renting her room to this couple until 1 April 2015.

Aside from that, there are other problems with the rating system. The New York Times did make note of this in a January article about how Uber ratings by customers may mean fewer rides by drivers interested in keeping good scores. A research paper by a PhD student and two professors from the management and computer science departments of Boston University, considered how reviews on sharing economy sites were different from review sites like TripAdvisor.

One problem is clear: 95 percent of the properties have a 4.5 or 5 star rating and virtually none less than a 3.5. TripAdvisor has a much lower rating average of 3.8. If you wonder why all the experiences are good, then you haven’t checked out websites such as TrustPilot or AirbnbHell.

Or you can try something more traditional: The Better Business Bureau. As of today, Airbnb is not BBB accredited. It has 288 complaints closed with BBB in the last three years. Of that 131 were closed in the last 12 months. The majority of the complaints were under problems with the product/service (209). There were 46 billing and collection issues.

Some of the problems include listings that break the original owner contract with HOA. This problem was noted by in a 2011 article on Digital Trends which noted that “home or apartment renters are probably violating the terms of their lease.”

Last year, consumer advocate Christopher Elliott wrote about a person who cancelled a long-term reservation half a year in advance but received no refund until Elliott got involved. Does that story sound familiar?

Uber has taken measures this year for background checks but that was only AFTER it was banned in New Delhi as a result of an alleged rape according to a article. A 25-year-old woman accused a driver, Shiv Kumar Yadav, of assaulting her in December. The woman is suing Uber in San Francisco and the driver is being charged with rape and kidnapping in New Delhi.

That wasn’t the first case. In 2014, a Los Angeles driver, Frederick Dencer of Encino was accused of kidnapping and rape according to a report by the Daily Beast. At the time, Uber told the LA Times, “Nothing is more important to Uber than the safety of our riders.”

Yet the Indian driver was out on bail pending another rape case from 2013. He had previously been arrested for molestation in 2003 as reported by CNN.

There’s been some hair-splitting about whether an Uber driver was on or off the clock as in the recent case in Mar Vista. Last month, an Uber driver was accused of sexual assault in Paris. Closer to Uber’s home, three San Francisco women accused a driver of sexual harassment and the District Attorney’s joint investigation reportedly found “multiple legal infractions” in an ABC7News Report.

In 2013, a former insurance underwriter, a driving instructor and cab driver, wrote about his Lyft and Sidecar experience. Safety was obviously not very important aspect of the interview process. In 2012, a San Francisco Bay Guardian questioned unregulated cab services and predicting both fraud and safety problems. In another article, SFBG also noted the cab versus Lyft problem wasn’t all about technology, the cost of regulations are passed on to the taxi customers means cabs cost more but regulations are a good thing. In a letter to the editor of SFist, a cab driver explains why ride-sharing isn’t a good thing.

Despite all this, Techcrunch came out in favor of Uber, Lyft, SideCar and downplayed “the so-called problem.” The article was written by a man, Ryan Lawler who compared a single case in Washington, DC where a driver was accused of sexual assault and the number of sexual assaults by taxi drivers. Lawler wrote: “Do a quick search on Google or Google News for “cab driver rape” and you’ll find no shortage of articles detailing such cases. What stands out about the news stories in those links is the unfortunate and sad truth that sexual assaults by taxi drivers are not as unusual as they should be.” One of those links is actually about a fake taxi driver and not an actual taxi driver.

Lawler is not concerned about the safety of his female readers or the mothers and daughters of his male readers.

If Uber (founded in 2009), Lyft (founded in 2012) and SideCar (founded in 2012) didn’t make provisions for rider safety, then what makes you think that Airbnb has made provisions for consumer safety or health training?

Hotels, motels and even bed and breakfasts are regulated by local laws. Some complaints about Airbnb accommodations have been cleanliness. My one and only stay at an Airbnb was like one of those college experiences. I left on the floor of the kitchen/living room. The bedding wasn’t freshly cleaned, neither was the kitchen (including the microwave) nor the bathroom.

I chose to be in an apartment in a well-populated half-residential area a short walk from the subway station. Other places I looked at seemed like unregulated hostels for multiple people and others seemed to be shared apartment situations not unlike the Airbnb slumlord in NYC. Airbnb didn’t ban him until a ValleyWag article. Regulations and background checks work both ways. It might have saved an Airbnb host from dealing with two brothers who apparently make a habit of squatting and bilking people through crowdsourcing (e.g. Kickstarter).

Prior to Airbnb and another cheap option is Couchsurfing. Founded in 2003 as a nonprofit and then liquidated in 2011 when its assets were sold to a private for-profit corporation, Couchsurfing also began in San Francisco and used to have a personal vouching system that was discontinued in 2014. That means all members are responsible for their own safety.  Sexual harassment and sex-changing have been issues that Airbnb might have learned from. In 2009, there was the Leeds rape case, in 2012 a man was indicted in Marseille for sexual offenses. More recently, an Italian man, Dino Maglio, was accused of raping a 16-year-old Australian. The man had grown so bold, he didn’t prey on lone travelers. The girl was traveling with her mother and sister. All were drugged. Other women had also been drugged and raped, but CouchSurfing didn’t have any mechanism in place to prevent further incidents.

Instead, the other women went to the police and later to journalists. Yet only with the indictment of the man for the rape of the young Australian did these accusations gain greater media attention. Couchsurfer’s chief executive Jennifer Billock told Newsweek that “safety was a top priority and that the website is constantly evolving  to find and halt abusers of our system.” Yet apparently not fast enough. Maglio was convicted this month of rape and sentence to six years in prison. Maglio was a police officer before his arrest and that might have comforted the women he lured to his Padua, Italy apartment yet the police and Couchsurfing didn’t heed the experiences of his previous guests.

There is also a double standard. Couchsurfing is for some synonymous with sexsurfing. Male hosts may expect sex with female guests according to a blog entry by a woman who decided that on her next trip female hosts only. From the comments, some guests and hosts have a method (which introduced me to Roosh V).

Couchsurfing and Airbnb aren’t exactly the same thing. Couchsurfing is about staying somewhere for free. Airbnb is for paid stays, but I also got the feeling that sex was expected with some entries I read on Airbnb, the ones that were incredibly cheap and the male host was only open for young females travelers and sure to mention he liked to party.

What should be clear is that none of these services have thought about safety, particularly safety of women traveling alone.

If you only read the New York Times, the newspaper that decided the tale about a dog bite was important enough to devote a column, you might not have heard about these cases. Maglio was reported on 17 March 2015 from an AP report. The Leeds and Marseille Couchsurfing cases weren’t reported in the US newspaper of record.

The NYTimes did report on Shiv Kumar Yadav, the Indian Uber driver. The NYTimes does discuss house swapping, but not convicted Airbnb rapist Pablo Cesar Cordoba Riascos.

Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Couchsurfing are not regulated. They are not customer service oriented. they don’t require safety and health standards that might be expected of the established, regulated and more expensive traditional vendors. In some cases, the service you receive won’t even be legal.

What happened to Lieber was unfortunate. Yet I find it puzzling that the rape of American women would not get the attention of the NYTimes and that after the rapes that Airbnb still doesn’t do background checks. Finding a place to stay isn’t a problem; finding a safe play to stay and a safe ride is.

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