Woman loses $52k to Airbnb fraudsters

She responded to Paris listing and paid via link that opened fake site that looked like Airbnb's

Ms April Cho wanted a new shot at life after 14 years of being a housewife and raising two children, and registered for a seven-month pastry-making course in Paris.

On accommodation website Airbnb, the 41-year-old found what looked to be the perfect apartment next to the culinary school.

She and her husband, who did not want to be named, paid €32,154 (S$51,600) for the seven-month stay. But it turned out to be a scam.

Ms Cho had signed up for a €22,800 course at Le Cordon Bleu that started on Nov 20.

She found the Airbnb listing last month. Almost immediately after she first sent a message to the Airbnb "host", she was told to send an e-mail so she could sign a rental agreement, among other things.

"I know that France is quite bureaucratic so I thought it was natural," said the Singaporean permanent resident from South Korea.

Soon, the "host" e-mailed her a link where she could make payment. The website that the link opened was a fake one that looked almost exactly like the Airbnb site, complete with a "live-chat service", said Ms Cho.

The Straits Times understands that Ms Cho's husband sent the money through DBS Bank to an account called "Airbnb Euro Trans" in Poland.

A screenshot of the fraudulent Airbnb listing for a Paris flat that Ms April Cho responded to. She was told by the "host" to send an e-mail, and was then sent a link to a fake payment website that looked like the Airbnb site. Both the listing and the
A screenshot of the fraudulent Airbnb listing for a Paris flat that Ms April Cho responded to. She was told by the "host" to send an e-mail, and was then sent a link to a fake payment website that looked like the Airbnb site. Both the listing and the user have been removed from Airbnb. PHOTO: AIRBNB

Ms Cho said the fake site showed that she had successfully booked her trip to Paris. She suspected something was wrong only after the original Airbnb site did not show her trip.

ON GUARD AGAINST SCAMS

Fake or misrepresented listings have no place in our community. Our team is constantly working hard to strengthen our defences and stay ahead of fraudsters.

A SPOKESMAN FOR AIRBNB, which displays messages on its website warning users not to go off the platform.

  • How to avoid getting scammed

  • AVOID EXTERNAL LINKS, E-MAIL REQUESTS

    Airbnb's messaging platform automatically censors phone numbers, e-mail addresses and website links. But scammers can find ways to get around this.

    If someone tries to get you to click on an external link or send e-mails, do not do so.

    Airbnb has a list of e-mail addresses it uses (https://www.airbnb.com.sg/help/article/971/how-do-i-know-if-an-email-is-really-from-airbnb).


    USE ONLY AIRBNB PAYMENT SITE

    Never pay using anything other than the Airbnb payment site. Airbnb will never ask you to pay outside its page, through a third party, or through e-mail.


    ALWAYS CHECK THE WEBSITE URL

    Fake Airbnb websites look almost exactly like the original, so check that the URL begins with "https", which means that the communication between your browser and the website is secure.

After repeated messages to the "host" on Airbnb, she realised she had been scammed. She had to book last-minute accommodation at a hotel and search for a new apartment. Ms Cho and her husband made a police report and contacted their bank, but have not been able to retrieve any money.

The Singapore Police Force confirmed a report has been lodged.

Both the fraudulent listing and the user have been removed from Airbnb, whose spokesman told The Straits Times: "Fake or misrepresented listings have no place in our community. Our team is constantly working hard to strengthen our defences and stay ahead of fraudsters.

"We recently introduced new security tools to help tackle fake listings and educate our community about staying safe online."

Airbnb displays messages that warn its users not to go off the platform, and the site has several features against scammers. But Ms Cho and her husband said they did not see any of the warnings.

They are not the first to be scammed like this. Airbnb users in the United States and Britain have been similarly fooled by fraudsters who communicated over e-mail and provided links to sites that looked just like the original.

The Consumers Association of Singapore's executive director Loy York Jiun said: "We strongly encourage Airbnb to take more prominent measures to remind consumers to communicate with hosts and transact only through the Airbnb platform in order to safeguard their payments.

However, he added: "Consumers also have the responsibility to remain vigilant when engaging in online transactions. They should consider using payment methods with pre-payment protection."

Lawyer Nicolas Tang said: "Airbnb has a duty to protect consumers worldwide, and it can do so by placing warnings in strategic locations and making them prominent, such as putting them in red, or in a pop-up box."

He added: "I used Airbnb before and didn't see such warnings."

Ms Cho has found a new apartment that is about a 10-minute walk from the school, though she could secure it for only four months, and is paying €3,255 monthly. This is on top of an agent fee of €1,500 - what she had wanted to avoid by using Airbnb.

She said she will not use Airbnb again. For now, she wants to focus on her course. "I want to either have my own cafe or work in a hotel first to learn management," she said. "I can't linger too much on a past I can't help or change."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2017, with the headline 'Woman loses $52k to Airbnb fraudsters'. Print Edition | Subscribe