Screening Problematic Guests on Airbnb: Less Obvious Guest Red Flags

Arguably the darkest underbelly of the vacation rental industry, and a particular soft spot on platforms like Airbnb, is the experience of having a bad guest. The parade of horribles that come along with hosting a problematic reservation are well beyond what a lay person NOT in this industry can imagine. 

Sure, there are the straightforward things like: 

  • Extra cleaning fees for a really dirty listing.
  • Having to pay for potential property damage (maybe there’s insurance).
  • Guests conducting illegal activities (drugs, prostitution…it all has happened). 

BUT unfortunately it gets so much worse, the things people DON’T usually consider are incidental damages like:

  • Intangible damages that aren’t covered by most vacation rental insurance – like the lost revenue from the week of having to wait to make repairs to a wall that had a hole punched through it.
  • Angry neighbors having to deal with parties, and adding another “strike” to how long they are willing to play ball with you before becoming your enemy.
  • Legal fees and lost rent associated with having to evict a guest who won’t leave (not to mention if it’s during Covid and there is a moratorium on evictions in some cities…)

These lists go on and on and while the benefits of renting on Airbnb GREATLY outweigh the potential for these types of harm, minimizing the risk – especially in metropolitan areas – is always a good idea. The following guidelines are geared specifically towards Airbnb hosting (most other platforms or direct bookings can be easier to control). On Airbnb, leaving your property on “instabook” is lucrative and necessary to increase bookings – but can also inherently lead to riskier bookings. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but here are some red flags to watch out for:

Red Flags:

  • An Issue with the Reservation: 
    • It’s for one night. This is obvious, even Airbnb started cracking down on this.
    • They mention a “party” or “birthday” without more. Usually people who are having birthday parties or other events want to clear them with you first (as they should) – but presumptuous messages assuming they can do whatever they want at your home are warning signs of possible disrespect…
    • They’re from  your own city / their phone number is local. In a pandemic, this might make a bit more sense but in general, locals booking a rental may be doing it to do something they shouldn’t be doing in their own home.
    • The guest’s name seems fake, for example I’ve had “Justin Time” or “Georgio Armani”
    • There aren’t very many verifications on the account. Even new Airbnb accounts have a number of ways to verify them, by either connecting them to your e-mail, phone number, Facebook, LinkedIn and so many more. In this day and age you should be expecting to see that connectivity light up easily and a LOT of green checkmarks next to an account.
  • An Issue with a Review: 
    • A bad review from a host – these can be obvious, but also require reading. Sometimes hosts reviews will include things towards the end like “didn’t follow my house rules” or “didn’t respond to my messages” or “better suited to a hotel” which can be indicators of something bigger going on.
    • A bad review from a guest – if the person who books your unit is also an airbnb host, that doesn’t automatically make them trustworthy. Sometimes reading reviews from other guests who have stayed at THEIR place can tell you a lot about who is coming.
    • There is one review and it’s really new – click THROUGH to see who left the review for that person. I’ve seen people get fake reviews in order to make their accounts seem legit.
    • No reviews – this isn’t always a problem, but it SHOULD ring a bell if someone with NO REVIEWS starts off without asking any questions. Instabooking / using Airbnb is not intuitive and someone doing it for the first time USUALLY has questions. NO questions about your place or how instabooking works, that might be a fake account!
  • An Issue with the Message:
    • Asking a friend to check in for them is not ok. This might mean the account was hacked and someone is pretending to be the actual guest who booked. (You also don’t need to allow someone else to check in under Airbnb’s policy)
    • Messaging is haphazard or aggressive.“hye im on my way ovr now how cna i get inside right now.” This isn’t always a strong indicator but may show someone who doesn’t care enough about writing an actual message out or someone who feels entitled to your space “right now” because they “paid for it”.
    • Phone number they are asking you to call does not match the phone number on their profile – why?

What can I do if I’m seeing red flags? Don’t panic, here are some ideas:

  • Ask Questions:
    • Ask the obvious stuff and get to know who is staying there: Can you tell me a bit more about your trip? Who are you travelling with and what are you in town for? Have you used Airbnb before? Even asking nonsense questions can really help clear things up – you’ll be able to feel their tone and also get a sense for who you are dealing with. It’s hard to tell from just the first few messages sometimes.
    • Ask for their ID or social media. They aren’t required to give it to you (Airbnb’s policy) and it’s possible you might not be allowed to ask for it (oops!) but having it may give you peace of mind in case something else happens. 
    • You also might consider running a background check yourself (Airbnb is not super transparent about what they allow to “pass” their own background check – for example, you might care if they have a history of eviction lawsuits against them). Background checks also come back instantly nowadays online.
    • Ask them to add more verifications to their account on Airbnb – have them connect their other social media or verifications to Airbnb. At least if things go sour, SOMEONE knows who this is.
  • Wait Longer:
    • If a problematic quest books, give it some time. Talk to them using the questions above, stall and tell them the unit is being prepared for them. Even if it’s AFTER check in time, Airbnb will usually allow you to have a few hours to check someone in, it’s only reasonable given an “instant booking”. 
    • Airbnb’s Trust and Safety department / fraud department is good but not great. Oftentimes new accounts or problematic bookings take awhile for Airbnb to “flag”. You DO NOT want to get into the situation where you’ve allowed a guest to check in right away and THEN Airbnb sends a message saying they can’t “support the reservation”.
    • Hospitality, reviews and being a good host should be a DISTANT afterthought to focusing on keeping bad guests out of your property. It’s better to be safe than sorry, when the sorry (as noted above) can be catastrophic.
  • Cancel:
    • Airbnb gives you some freebie cancellations every year in the event you feel “unsafe” with the reservation. These warning signs can be used as good information to back up your claim to an Airbnb representative.
    • Even if you don’t have a free cancellation, weigh the ACTUAL harm you might incur. Another few months of not being a “super host” is certainly worth not having your house trashed or having your neighbor sue you.
  • Go In Person:
    • If you’re automating your check-ins usually, don’t send the check in information and GO YOURSELF (maybe with a friend) to assess the situation. Obviously if you are actually fearful of a real danger, don’t do this. But if you’re just worried about a bachelor party or that the person isn’t who they say they are – go meet them or have someone meet them. People may feel some guilt for doing something bad in your unit if they feel a connection to the person who is there or who checked them in. If you ask in person for someone to keep the noise down, it’s harder for them to ignore you. Moreover, if they FEEL that if something bad happens you are close enough to come by and stop a party – they might not party as hard (or they might heed the warning message you send about it).
  • Stay Vigilant:
    • Send a few extra messages to the guest here and there to ask how their stay is going and see what kinds of responses you get.
    • Drive by the property and see if anything noticeably bad is going on (i.e. there are 10 cars in the driveway).
    • Monitor your cameras and noise devices. They aren’t just there to look back at after the fact – monitor them proactively to make sure things are all clear.

Again, this is not a comprehensive list, but hopefully it gives some helpful tips for things to look out for. Safe hosting!

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