New initiative encourages the Airbnbs of the industry to keep customers safe

online travelWe’re very nearly done talking about the Airbnb fiasco that simultaneously scared users away from the P2P rental site and enraged them over the company’s lack of customer service. But before we move on entirely, we’d like to make a plea for couchsurfing sites. Prior to everything we heard about EJ, we were pad-crashing and Airbnb-happy travelers, and the viral news made us nervous–for good reason.

And while the situation called Airbnb’s business into question, it also made us reassess what this site and others like it ask us to do, which is take some very serious and real risks. Now, we’re willing to bet that consumers on the fence about renting from strangers are now solidly off it and won’t be stepping near these types of travel accommodations anytime soon. To that end, we’d like to make an argument for the Airbnbs, HomeAways, Wimdus, Crashpads, and Roomoramas of the Internet before users eternally write them off.

Airbnb’s terms of service were, generally, identical to competitor sites’: Users accepted all responsibility for anything that happens to their property and Airbnb is exempt from liability–and rentees are not screened by the company. Which is why the now infamous “Ransackgate” was bound to happen. If  not to EJ, then to someone else.

Thankfully, instead of sugar coating the incident or simply buying its way out of this situation and returning to its M.O., Airbnb will change its terms of service and site structure to reflect a more serious attitude about safety. A 24-hour hotline has been instituted, as has an insurance policy of sorts, as well as improved security tips for renters.

But Airbnb isn’t the only one looking out for customers. In the wake of this scandal, rival service Roomorama has also decided to try and change this entire market as well. “As a relatively new industry, it is imperative that we implement and maintain certain security standards across the board,” says the site’s co-founder, Jia En Teo. She says there’s “bound to be industry backlash,” and that users who were wary before will swear off using sites like hers now. En Teo also explains that Roomorama does check ID, and asks for backup identification if their needs are satisfied. “This just makes some people have to jump through that many hoops,” she says, and can help keep out those with ill-intentions. Many of these sites have had rather lax security policies, but there do exist sites (Roomorama included) that don’t transfer your money unless you’re satisfied by the room you’ve booked or have around-the-clock staff to help. 

A precedent of users taking full responsibility to maintain their safety with these sites or not use them at all has been set, but given how new this market is, that can change. En Teo explains Roomorama is heading an industry-wide initiative to encourage its competitors to adopt alert systems for reporting suspicious behavior. And these reports will stick with individuals and be communicated between competitor services so legitimate users might be able to have even slightly more confidence in these sites’ Internet communities.

Ransackgate could easily make us swear off peer-rental Websites, or at least consider it. The risk has always been there, but realizing the isolation victims could be left in makes it all the more difficult to sign up. But there are a lot of benefits to these sites, so it’s an encouraging sign that they are responding to the destruction and robbery of one customer’s home with actual, concrete changes. Unfortunately, something terrible had to happen for the industry to decide and take steps to ensure user safety. But there’s a silver lining, and if anything users might be able to rest easier now.

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