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Help! I Was Catfished by My Airbnb Host and the Place Was a Mess

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In July, my daughter, my partner and I spent every week in London in an $800-a-night rental flat we found on Airbnb. It was my first time using the corporate, and, as suggested, I sent a note to our host “Emily,” telling her about our trip. By the point we left for London, there was a second host listed, however the profile picture was still (we thought) of Emily. “Emily and Tony” instructed us to choose up the keys at a convenience store that worked with KeyNest, an organization that facilitates secure transfer of keys. However the keys weren’t there, so we called our host’s contact number and were connected with a representative of Houst, which turned out to be an organization that manages the apartment for the owner, which turned out to be one other company called Silverbird Properties. After we asked the Houst representative if he could run over an additional set of keys, he told us he couldn’t — he was in Portugal.

After almost three hours waiting on a somewhat dodgy street with our suitcases, our keys finally arrived. However the apartment was not as advertised: Amongst other things, the elevator was broken and had been for months, the lavatory was moldy and the shower was stopped up with a thicket of human hair I removed (ick) from the drain. After our stay I wrote to Airbnb requesting someday’s rental back — about $900 total with fees. Airbnb told me Houst had at first agreed to the refund but then reneged, claiming I had never returned the keys. (I did return them, to the identical convenience store.) I think I deserve that day’s rent refunded, but I also want Airbnb to make the listing clear for others that the property is managed by a third-party company operating on the low-cost posing as someone named Emily. Are you able to help? Jim, Bethesda, Md.

Hearing from a first-time Airbnb user is a breath of fresh air: I’ve used Airbnb usually enough to have normalized how absurd it’s that the face smiling out at you from countless host profiles is usually not the owner but a business representative or property manager aiming to look as if they’re welcoming you to their cozy home.

The svelte, swimsuit-clad blonde within the photo shouldn’t be Emily, a little bit of digging reveals, but a former girlfriend of the Hamburg-based photographer Patrick Pilz. He told me via email that he captured her posing in a swimming pool in Bali, posted it on his Instagram in 2014 and made it available as a free stock photo on the location StockSnap. It has since been used across the web.

More digging revealed that there’s a real Emily — she is a “Global Client Onboarding Lead” at Houst, a property management company that, though based in London, has customer support representatives anywhere from Portugal, as you came upon, to South Africa, as I came upon after I called and tried, in vain, to get them to discuss with me. (The corporate also didn’t reply to emails and LinkedIn messages; Emily didn’t reply to a private Instagram message.)

I’m undecided who Tony is, nor whether it was Emily or Tony who was writing to you, since they signed missives as representatives of Silverbird Properties, LLP, an entity run by a person named Vinodh Coomaraswamy, who’s (what else) a justice on the lower tier of the Supreme Court of Singapore.

But before we get back to this web of entities posing as a girl in a swimsuit, let’s get to your money. I attempted to get proof from KeyNest that you just did return the keys — as if there was any doubt after you sent me geotagged photos taken whenever you returned the keys at 7:39 on the morning you departed. But Florian Hoven, a KeyNest co-founder, said that providing proof could be tricky, because their systems are built around keeping key transactions as private as possible; they don’t even know which accounts are connected to Houst or Airbnb.

It turned out to not be vital. Though Airbnb didn’t reply to most questions I sent to them, they did explain in a press release why you weren’t initially refunded: their consumer protection policy — rebranded and revised in 2022 as AirCover — requires guests to report problems inside 72 hours of after they occur. But they did conform to refund $918 to you “as a courtesy.” I can only surmise that Airbnb will extend this goodwill to all customers, but just in case I’m flawed, travelers should report issues to Airbnb as soon as possible to satisfy the 72-hour requirement.

The Airbnb statement also included a semi-admission that the host had done something flawed. “We maintain top quality and repair expectations for our Hosts, and on this case we now have recently taken appropriate motion to implement our Host Standards.” It didn’t specify the motion taken, however the apartment you rented isn’t any longer listed and the photo on Emily’s other listings has been modified.

Now let’s get back to what I believe is the larger issue: the near-total lack of transparency over Airbnb hosts.

Airbnb has long touted its service as a method to “live like an area” and stay in an actual person’s home. In a post from the corporate last month featuring feedback from travelers who had been chosen to take part in its yearlong Live Anywhere on Airbnb program, one among three key findings was: “A positive, long-term trip experience normally involved an attentive Host and as such, access to the area people and proposals.”

Knowledgeable host or a hosting company can, in theory, provide such an experience, but in my dozens of Airbnb stays over time, it has at all times been the person hosts that stand out. I actually have long wished Airbnb would come with a feature allowing travelers to filter listings by whether the hosts are the property owners themselves. But only in looking into your case did I realize Airbnb already requires all hosts worldwide to declare themselves either a person or an organization “to comply with E.U. consumer protection law.”

In truth, because of an effort spearheaded by the Norwegian Consumer Authority, the European Commission extracted a commitment out of Airbnb in 2018 under which it agreed to follow European consumer regulations and clearly discover “whether a proposal is made by a personal host or by an expert” amongst other things.

Alas, the outcomes — only available when the guest searches on a European web domain like .ie for Ireland or .it for Italy — are inconsistent at best. Research by Inside Airbnb, an information project that’s critical of the corporate, found that only 11 percent of Italian listings were denoted as a “skilled host” — almost actually far fewer than there actually are. I logged into Airbnb.com through a VPN that disguised my IP address as coming from Madrid and thus got European listings, but I couldn’t find any “Skilled host” demarcations on any of the rentals I checked out — including the listing for the apartment you rented. Airbnb declined to reply any of my questions on the subject of host identity.

It is usually possible, nonetheless, to determine whether any particular Airbnb listing is owner-hosted. Some firms actually list their company name as host — kudos to them. And you may often tell from the photos or the outline’s personal feel that the host is the owner. If that fails, scroll all the way in which right down to the host profile at the underside; sometimes it should show a link to their other properties — an indication an organization is probably going involved. When it doesn’t, as within the case of your rental, Jim, check if the overall variety of reviews the property you’re taking a look at has received matches the number the host has received.

If it’s a mismatch, yow will discover the opposite listings on the host’s home page by taking the far-from-intuitive step of clicking on their profile picture, whether it’s of them or of the German photographer’s ex-girlfriend they’ve uploaded as an alternative.

In the event you need advice a few best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to trippedup@nytimes.com.

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