Deaths at Airbnb rentals put spotlight on safety and security

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Since debuting in 2008, vacation rental website Airbnb has grown to five million listings in 191 countries. It is in more than 81,000 cities.

Over the years, Airbnb has provided travelers with alternatives to hotel rooms, for the most part without incident.

But in recent weeks, a couple of deaths have raised questions about the safety of Airbnb rentals.

Last week, a security guard at a villa in Costa Rica was arrested for the murder of a Florida woman who traveled there to celebrate her 36th birthday. Carla Stefaniak’s body was found in the woods near her Airbnb rental with a blunt force wound to her head. Bismarck Espinosa Martinez, 32, has been arrested for the attack.

Last month, a New Orleans couple died from carbon monoxide poisoning in an Airbnb rental in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Authorities have said that Edward Winders and Barbara Moller apparently inhaled gas emitted by a faulty heater in their rental.

A family of four from Iowa died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning while vacationing in Tulum, Mexico in March, though their rental was not through Airbnb.

Could Airbnb have done anything to prevent these deaths?

In the case of the carbon monoxide poisoning, Airbnb says that it requires its hosts to follow the laws of the city, state, and country in which it is located. It won’t list properties unless hosts agree to do this. .

Mexico does not require smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in every household. 

Airbnb distributes free smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to hosts who request them. The company also runs safety workshops with local fire and emergency services to advise hosts on keeping their homes safe.

All listings in the Airbnb Plus program, which gives those rentals higher visibility, are required to have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in any location. Employees check to make sure they have complied.  

“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy, and our thoughts are with Ed and Barbara’s families, loved ones and friends,” Airbnb said in a written statement regarding the Mexico carbon monoxide deaths. “We have reached out to their children to extend our full support to help them through this difficult time.”

Airbnb says that it advises guests when booking to carefully read the listing description, amenities, and reviews to find out about the home’s safety features. Rentals that have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are noted. Potential guests can also ask questions of their hosts on Airbnb’s messaging system.

Anthony Roman, a risk management expert who runs his own firm Roman & Associates, recommends that travelers carry portable carbon monoxide detectors.

“There is a moral responsibility on the part of the website. There is a also a personal responsibility that should be observed by the traveler and renter,” Roman says. “There is a responsibility that should be met by landlord and renter and website.”

Jordan Arnold, a former prosecutor in Manhattan and an executive managing director at security company K2 Intelligence, says that Airbnb is not breaking any laws but could consider changing some of its rules.

“It seems to me that requiring a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector is not unreasonable,” he says. “These are not expensive investments.”

In the case of the Costa Rica murder, the rental was in Villa le Mas, a compound with seven apartments.

Traditional hotel companies have also had criminal acts happen, including Marriott International, with a serial rapist of hotel housekeepers being identified this year.

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Airbnb reached out to the families of Carla Stefaniak, Edward Winders and Barbara Moller to assist in the investigations and has since removed the listings from its site.

Airbnb says its Trust and Safety department has offices in various cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Dublin and Singapore. It includes 24/7 response agents, data scientists, product managers, crisis managers, and victim-advocacy specialists, along with privacy, cybersecurity, insurance, and fraud experts, among others.

The team conducts risk scoring of each Airbnb reservation. It screens all hosts and guests against regulatory, terrorist, and sanctions watch lists.

Couple vacationing at Mexico Airbnb dead from carbon monoxide

For U.S. residents, Airbnb runs background checks to see if there are prior felony convictions, sex offender registrations, and significant misdemeanors.

All Airbnb users have a profile page with relevant information about themselves. Hosts and guests have to provide a full name, date of birth, phone number, email address, and payment information. Hosts can require guests to provide Airbnb with a government ID before booking. The hosts have to provide the same. There is a messaging system on the site to allow questions to be asked between the host and guest.

All guests and hosts can publicly review each other. And there are customer service employees available   to address issues.  

Even so, Roman says there is no way to fully predict what may go wrong in an Airbnb, hotel or bed and breakfast.

“Even if the algorithm is very thorough in checking multiple sources and cross referencing those sources, it is still insufficient to be completely predictive of the risk,” he says.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association has lobbied to have Airbnb follow the same taxation and regulatory rules that they do. Many states have responded by looking into writing new regulations.

But so far, many have struggled to figure out how to regulate Airbnb. New York, San Francisco and Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. have taken steps to limit the number of days homes that can be rented out and how many guests are allowed, in response to residents’ complaints that vacation rentals can be disruptive.

Arnold says Airbnb or any other online travel agencies can do background checks and assess risks but it’s difficult to prevent all attacks.

“Airbnb or Marriott–no host can 100 percent eliminate risk for a guest,” he says. “The only person to blame for this incident is the man charged with homicide. It’s not the fault of the victim or Airbnb.”

Roman recommends that travelers check reviews, not just on Airbnb but on other online travel agency sites such as TripAdvisor. He also recommends that they check public crime statistics for the destination.

And they should trust their instincts, he says.

“If you feel isolated or feel uncomfortable, you should remove yourself from that environment.” he says. “In other words, don’t take chances.”

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