The 'new' Airbnb: Too little, too late?

The popular travel site is trying to beef up its security after one member's nightmare experience went viral. But it's still too easy to game.

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Anyone who’s followed the Airbnb saga earlier this summer is familiar with the story of EJ, a San Francisco woman who lent out her apartment via the short-term rental site and came home to find her place completely trashed, her identity stolen, and her life turned upside down.

Her blog posts – including some detailing Airbnb’s less than exemplary response to her plight, and its apparent attempts to keep EJ from going public with her story -  ignited a storm of bad publicity for the service and incited some changes in how Airbnb does business. In fact, yesterday Airbnb issued a new terms of use agreement, which now incorporates a $50,000 insurance policy against renters trashing your place.

I have a particular interest in this story, because I list a rental property on Airbnb and have booked people via the service. From personal experience I can tell you it is both extremely efficient and more than a little Big Brotherish.

Once you list your property (for free), Airbnb takes care of everything – it handles the reservation request, takes payment from renters, takes a security deposit if you require one, distributes your rental agreement and policies to the renter, disburses payment to you after they’ve checked in, and returns their security deposit (assuming there are no issues). And, of course, Airbnb collects from 3 to 12 percent of the total transaction from both the renter and the rentee for this service.

When someone wants to book your place, Airbnb sends you an email; you have 24 hours to accept or decline the reservation, or face penalties like having your property dropped lower on its list. There’s even a countdown clock like the one on the TV show “24” to goad you into responding more quickly.

Wait, did I say Airbnb takes care of everything? That’s not entirely true. What Airbnb doesn’t take care of is verifying that renters are who they claim to be. In fact, the new terms are explicit on this:

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