Security Threats All Airbnb Users Need to Know About

Philip Bates 19-10-2016

Airbnb seems like a great idea.


Founded in 2008, it allows homeowners to rent out rooms or whole premises if they’re going on holiday themselves. With over 2 million listings across 191 countries, Airbnb offers hosts an easy way of making some cash from their superfluous space, while travellers benefit 5 Big Benefits of Booking an AirBnB Room over a Hotel AirBnB has enhanced the guest experience, and mainstream hotels are starting to feel the heat. Here's what AirBnB is doing different, and how it'll improve your traveling experience. Read More from generally cheaper, and arguably friendlier, accommodation.

As ever, though, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth The Risks and Rewards of Renting Out Your Apartment on Airbnb Are you thinking about renting your spare rooms out on Airbnb? Here's why you should, and also why you might think twice. Read More . You might think homeowners are most at risk, but guests also face major concerns when booking, and during their actual stay.

Airbnb can be a security nightmare for those renting — but what can you do about it?

Fake Links

You’ll find all kinds of phishing scams What Exactly Is Phishing & What Techniques Are Scammers Using? I’ve never been a fan of fishing, myself. This is mostly because of an early expedition where my cousin managed to catch two fish while I caught zip. Similar to real-life fishing, phishing scams aren’t... Read More on classified advertisement sites like Gumtree and Craigslist: in retrospect, such exploitation methods seem obvious, but we never think it’s going to happen to us.


It should not be a surprise, therefore, to find that Airbnb-inspired scams occur via these places.

Scammers do this a number of ways. The first is by taking conversations away from the Airbnb platform, which is naturally frowned upon. Airbnb, however, typically charge 15% more than the homeowner requests, so cutting out the middle man is tempting.

Airbnb Building
Image Credit: Airbnb via Flickr

Picture the scenario. You find a great apartment on Airbnb, and there’s an email address also listed to send questions to. You do exactly that, requesting certain dates. Unfortunately, you’re told the apartment isn’t available for those dates, but that there are some related properties nearby. Helpfully, there’s a link to these apartments.


This should be ringing alarm bells, but the link is back to Airbnb, so what’s the harm? The site, though, is a fraud, created to look like the genuine Airbnb website using fake content, copied from the original. Sarah Ruiz-Grossman, who was victim to such a scam, notes:

Their site has the Airbnb logo, and the design matches Airbnb’s to a T. The URLs almost looked legit — they said “,” and the difference went right over our heads. Who looks that closely at URLs? Clearly, we don’t. The listings also had glowing reviews that look just like the ones on Airbnb… The killer move? The fake site’s “About” information, which appears at the bottom of each page, links back to the real Airbnb’s “About Us” page. Genius.

And in case you’re skeptical, the fake site also offers an instant messenger supposedly with the Airbnb team to verify properties are real. Except the real Airbnb doesn’t have an instant messenger service.

Victims are then encouraged to make bookings through bank transfer, which is never advisable.

Fake Listings

The second way cybercriminals can make serious cash is easier than setting up a fraudulent website: they set up a fake listing.


It’s the same principle: scammers get photos of other people’s properties, and dress them up as their own. It’s obvious how that scam progresses. If you don’t smell something fishy, you could not only end up being scammed out of hundreds of dollars, but also go on vacation expecting to have accommodation — then realize you’re out of luck while away from home.

It’s a nightmarish scenario, and there’s even a whole website dedicated to horror stories, AirbnbHell.

There, you’ll find tales of grime, leaks, and various miscellaneous problems to leave you ready for Halloween. You’ll also see complaints about fake listings from verified users. Yes, verified. The system was introduced to reassure users, but ever-resilient scammers have used it to their advantage, often through identity theft.


Airbnb is cracking down on fraudulent listings, but is generally little help to victims unknowingly duped into transactions away from the platform.

Airbnb Office Sign
Image Credit: Airbnb Office via Flickr

Still, the ease with which fake hosts can put up advertisements is troubling. One first-time user recalls how they almost engaged with a supposed homeowner outside of Airbnb, but realized how dangerous it was. However, the scammer then created fake listings under the guise of that user, using photos and details scoured from Facebook. The victim then had issues complaining to Airbnb:

If I don’t have an officially listed property, have not become a member, and do not have an account, why did the Airbnb system not recognise that? … It’s a shame but the company’s arrogant and hands-off attitude to dealing with serious problems is earning them no friends. They are so difficult to actually get hold of. In fact, it’s impossible if your problem doesn’t fit one of their neat little categories.

Wi-Fi Concerns

Let’s say you’ve actually managed to secure accommodation A Traveler's Tales: How To Save Money On Your Next Trip With Airbnb We are always eager to cut costs while traveling. Hotels are expensive. Ludicrously so. But are there any alternatives? Until recently, the answer to that question was a loud ‘no' till AirBnB came along. Read More . You’re relaxing in a lovely apartment, and plan to check out the local area. You search the internet with your smartphone or tablet, and — as you come to expect from any commercial overnight stop — you do so using their complimentary Wi-Fi. It’s free, fast, and saves on mobile data 8 Useful Tips to Reduce Mobile Data Usage and Save Money Want to get the most out of your mobile data plan? These apps and tricks can help you squeeze out every last megabyte. Read More .

Unfortunately, scammers can still take advantage, and potentially inflict more damage than via fake listings!

Wi-Fi Router Tinkering
Image Credit: Pete via Flickr

You should know about the dangers of using public Wi-Fi 5 Ways Hackers Can Use Public Wi-Fi to Steal Your Identity You might love using public Wi-Fi -- but so do hackers. Here are five ways cybercriminals can access your private data and steal your identity, while you're enjoying a latte and a bagel. Read More , which includes sidejacking and shoulder-surfing. It’s not recommended, especially if you’re accessing private information. Security expert, Jeremy Galloway, warns that connecting to a router at a rented property could be worse than that — and it’s not necessarily the fault of the homeowner.

The homeowner might use their own internet to infect their guests’ devices, but it’s just as likely that previous guests could’ve compromised the accommodation’s Wi-Fi. Having direct access to the router can lead to the so-called paperclip threat, which literally means hitting the reset button using a paperclip. Galloway recalls this as a sort of hobby while on vacation:

I snowboard like a Texan, and I wanted to lift my spirits, so I thought: “I’ll head back to the rental, and hack the network to mess with my friends’ browsing”. Within five minutes flat, I owned the network.

By accessing these credentials, a cybercriminal could enable a fake Wi-Fi connection, or ongoing man-in-the-middle (MITM) What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack? Security Jargon Explained If you've heard of "man-in-the-middle" attacks but aren't quite sure what that means, this is the article for you. Read More attacks, thereby intercepting any communication between two parties.

Similarly, packet-sniffing means a hacker can collect a wealth of data that runs across a network, and browse at their leisure. You could be falling victim to a guest who stayed in the same property a year ago, and not even realize it.

Advice for Staying Safe

Do not leave Airbnb. It doesn’t matter how real an email looks. If it has a link in it, don’t click it. Even if it purports to lead back to Airbnb itself. Indeed, there have been reports of emails from addresses like booking@airbnb.whatever, which looks real but absolutely isn’t. Real emails can be spoofed too What Is Email Spoofing? How Scammers Forge Fake Emails It looks like your email account has been hacked, but those weird messages you didn't send are actually due to email spoofing. Read More , so don’t rely solely on checking the “From” address. Look out for tell-tale signs 5 Examples To Help You Spot A Fraud Or Fake Email The shift from spam to phishing attacks is noticeable, and is on the rise. If there's a single mantra to keep in mind, it's this -- the number one defense against phishing is awareness. Read More , like bad spelling and grammar.

You might think you’re safe if you click on a link but don’t insert payment details. However, you could be leaving yourself open to ransomware. Instead, delete the message, open a new browser window and sign into your Airbnb account; genuine messages will appear there.

Similarly, don’t be taken in by “Special Offers” supposedly from Airbnb. More often than not, they include links to fake sites.

Beware bank transfers. Use Airbnb’s internal payment system, no matter how persuasive the supposed homeowner is.

Reverse image search can help combat fake listings; you simply right-click on a photo and go on “Search Google for image”. There’s a handy Firefox add-on that does the same Catch Image Thieves With Who Stole My Pictures And Also Put It To Five More Uses [Firefox] When it comes to textual works, we have seen how easy it is to catch the copycats. But what about pictures and photographs? Is image search that easy? Probably not; but that’s not to say... Read More too. See if the same image crops up on Craigslist, and check credentials. Is the property really the correct place being advertised? In addition to that, you might find reviews that will sway your decision either way.

And when you arrive at your accommodation, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) 6 Logless VPNs That Take Your Privacy Seriously In an age where every online movement is tracked and logged, a VPN seems a logical choice. We've taken a look at six VPNs that take your anonymity seriously. Read More if you really must connect to their Wi-Fi. It encrypts your data, which certainly isn’t fool-proof Don't Believe These 5 Myths About Encryption! Encryption sounds complex, but is far more straightforward than most think. Nonetheless, you might feel a little too in-the-dark to make use of encryption, so let's bust some encryption myths! Read More , but is a very solid step to securing your personal information.

The Onus Isn’t Always on the Guest

You need to take steps to battle identity theft 9 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft by Computer Hackers In this digital age, where almost the entire human knowledge is stored online, some of the most valuable information you possess is your own identity. The term refers to information that enables an identity thief... Read More , but homeowners should help as well. It’s in their best interests to secure their Wi-Fi, and Jeremy Galloway advises:

Lock the router up and it keeps it away from people that are curious… The point isn’t to create perfect security; the point is to raise the bar. Right now, all an attacker needs to do to own a network is want to.

It might seem extreme, but if it side-steps serious security problems, it’s worth it for everyone.

What further steps do you take when renting a property? Do you use an alternative to Airbnb 12 High-Quality Airbnb Alternatives for Any Budget Airbnb gives you thousands of rental properties to choose from---but it isn't perfect. Why not try one of these Airbnb alternatives instead? Read More ? Or are you trusting of the service?

Image Credits: Elnur/Shutterstock

Related topics: Airbnb, Online Fraud, Scams.

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  1. dragonmouth
    October 19, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    You pays your money and you takes your chances. That's what you get for trying to do things on the cheap. If you make reservations in a reputable hotel, you have recourse if things go south. If you make reservations in some cut-rate, fly-by-night joint, you're on your own.

    • Philip Bates
      January 31, 2017 at 5:05 pm

      I agree with you to a certain extent, but the worry about Wi-Fi, and proxy connections extends beyond cheap places you might find on Airbnb - you could book a self-catering place from a well-respected firm and still become victim simply by using a local connection.