Booking a weekend away? You might want to double check exactly who your booking is going through, especially if you're using Airbnb, which has found itself in the middle of a rather involved fraudulent scheme.
The scam is more organized than your common garden varietal online fraud, and actually has its own dedicated software subscription service so even lazy criminals can get in on the scamming.
The good news is that being aware of scams like this is half the battle, and we're going to give you some pointers on what to look for and what to avoid.
How Does the Airbnb Scam Work?
While scammers on Airbnb are not a new concept, this latest development, unearthed by Kaspersky, has upped the stakes from the traditional one-off fraudulent listing: This is mass deception on a huge and organized scale.
As ever with scams, it's a question of numbers. Try and defraud one person, and they probably won't bite. Try to defraud thousands, and if just one goes for it, well, there's your money. It's this scattergun approach that has been favored by email and telephone fraudsters for years. Now it appears it's the turn of the hospitality industry.
The bluff requires the fraudster to make and manage multiple entries on the Airbnb website at once, directing interested users to its own fake site, where the money is taken and contact stops dead. Managing all these listing is a lot of work, but luckily, this process has been streamlined by a dedicated subscription service for scammers. Yep, you read that right.
How the Fraudsters are Getting Organized
If you're looking to get into the online property scamming game, the hot new tool in your arsenal should be Land Lordz. Nope, not the latest Soundcloud rapper, but instead a software package which can, for a price, create and manage online properties (that you don't own), and collect the cash for you.
With the basic package costing $500 a month, this subscription service might seem on the expensive side, but when you consider that it allows you to manage over 500 fake offers and interact with 100 ‘guests' at once, you could soon be making your money back.
What the package does is lists ‘your properties' on Airbnb for you, along with legitimate looking images and fake reviews. The ruse then begins when the potential customer contacts the property owner for more details. At this point, the software will instantly send a link with more information to a site designed to ape Airbnb, fooling the user into thinking it's the real deal. The user is prompted to log in with their Airbnb details, which are harvested by the scammers, and if they pay for the property, so is their cash. After that, the fraudsters will disappear without even as much as a thank you.
While it appears that this latest scam is only happening to Airbnb, there's no reason why the software couldn't easily be adapted for similar sites, and the suspicion is that we could see this more frequently in the future.
How Can I Protect Myself from this Scam?
The scam might seem high tech and difficult to avoid, but at its core it's no more sophisticated than your everyday phishing link that you might get over email – it's just that this one works a little bit harder to gain your trust upfront.
As ever, it's vigilance that will save your from losing your cash. A little bit of pessimism goes a long way online, and it's important to stay within the ecosystem of the supplier you're using, and not get siphoned off to another site. Always insist on using the messaging system on the site itself, rather than private email, and if you are sent any links, proceed with caution. Check that the URL lines up with what you expect it to be, and if you're not certain, don't click. Should you happen to click on a suspect site masquerading as the real deal, a password manager could save the day, as it won't auto-fill your usual details.
Similarly, only make payments through the site itself, and don't be suckered into promises of discounts or special offers if you pay through different means. Doing this means you not only lose all the payment protections guaranteed by the original site, but also that you could be inviting a scammer to empty your bank account.
Though this is one of the more sophisticated scams out there, your money and your vacation will be safe if you stay skeptical and stay aware. As we've mentioned, knowing this scam exists is half the battle. Share the lowdown with your friends and family if you think they could benefit, or read more about known scams, privacy and security below.