Congress Questions Airbnb Over Scam Host Allegations, Compliance With Local Laws

Two men walk past a new apartment building on Mission Street Tuesday, June 2, 2015, in San Francisco.

Two men walk past a new apartment building on Mission Street Tuesday, June 2, 2015, in San Francisco. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

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Six members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to Airbnb to request a briefing to address concerns about the company’s ability to vet rentals.

Members of Congress are pressing Airbnb to provide information about how the company vets home-sharing hosts and addresses deceptive listings.

In a letter sent last week to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, six Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives asked the company to attend a briefing to address concerns over fraudulent listings and the proliferation of limited liability corporations on the home-sharing platform.

“We write to express our concern following numerous media reports detailing instances of ‘hosts’ abusing the Airbnb platform to list short-term rentals out of compliance with local law, as well as Airbnb’s own policies,” the letter states.

Cities across the country have struggled to address concerns about Airbnb rentals, from house parties gone bad to violation of local laws restricting short-term rentals. New York City filed a lawsuit earlier this year against a real estate brokerage firm alleged to have used a web of LLCs and fake identities on Airbnb to illegally rent out more than 130 apartments in 35 buildings—collecting nearly $21 million in profit between 2015 to 2018.

Airbnb announced a series of initiatives this month meant to address some recent criticisms. After five people were killed at an Orinda, California party on Halloween hosted at an Airbnb rental, the company banned “party houses” and said it would begin reviewing reservations flagged as high risk. 

The company said it would also begin a verification process to review the accuracy and quality standards of all 7 million listings by December 2020. The verifications will check the accuracy of each rental unit’s address, photos, listing details, as well as the cleanliness, safety and amenities offered. Lawmakers asked Airbnb to explain how the company intends to see through its promise to conduct a comprehensive review of all properties rented through the platform and to vet all “hosts.”

In the letter, sent November 21, lawmakers also asked whether real estate companies and LLCs would be categorized as “hosts,” and if government identification would be required from all hosts and guests who use the platform. It states that Airbnb appears to have “failed to authenticate host identities in a way that would prevent bad actors from continuing to rent through your platform under false identities after being banned.”

Last month, Vice News reported on a series of Airbnb hosts who appeared to be engaged in a scheme to dupe consumers through shoddy rentals.  

Airbnb spokeswoman Molly Weedn declined to comment on the letter, instead referring questions to the Travel Technology Association.

Steve Shur, president of the association, said he doesn’t believe there is a need for this level of review by Congress, adding that the text of the letter raised suspicions that the investigation was spurred on Airbnb’s rivals in the hotel industry.

“The letter itself is clearly drafted from hotel industry talking points,” he said.

The signatories of the letter include Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey; Barbara Lee of California; Robin Kelly of Illinois; G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina; Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri; and Yvette Clarke of New York.

The letter was “based on our own concerns” about Airbnb’s effects on the housing market and some of its overall business practices, said Courtney Cochran, deputy chief of staff for Watson Coleman. She said a briefing has not yet been scheduled.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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