airbnb listings
 

Caught red-handed: Airbnb, TripVillas, and the curious case of a rogue spammer

On July 26, an owner of a holiday home received an unusual message through the “contact the owner” feature of TripVillas, an Asian vacation rentals service — where he had listed his property.

The message read:

Saw your property on here. Was wondering if you ever heard of Airbnb.

You can post your property on airbnb.com/newhost and enter code TWJJRM and youll [sic] get a $50 USD listing bonus.

Would be a great way to diversify the sites that you post your vacation property on.

Enjoy

The owner complained to TripVillas. It turns out he wasn’t the only person targeted.

A single spammer attempted to send 302 messages through the service’s system, according to Roshan D’Silva, the Singapore-based CEO of the site. After the first few went through, spam software held the rest for manual review.

The spammer (“John”) used a generic e-mail address, not a company email address, and did not identify himself (or herself) as an employee or contractor of Airbnb.

airbnb spam

Airbnb: Spammer or victim?

This was worrying. D’Silva wondered if Airbnb, an accommodation rental start-up based in San Francisco, was sending unsolicited messages touting its marketplace to the owners of vacation rentals.

The spammer was patient. To contact 302 users, he or she had to click on the “contact the host” link for each individual listing. All of the owners he attempted to contact were in Taiwan and Japan, a small slice of the 12,000 properties listed on TripVilla.

D’Silva first thought that maybe this was a rogue operator. Perhaps the promo code wasn’t valid, and the message was a ploy to farm information from people.

But he used the promo code himself, and it worked: $50 was credited to his account as a new owner and would be received after a first booking was completed.

D’Silva interpreted this to mean that the promotion was legitimate and that Airbnb is “paying owners to list.” He attempted to contact the company via its official Twitter and Facebook accounts, but didn’t receive a response. He couldn’t find an e-mail address on the company’s website for fielding complaints.

airbnb listings

Airbnb responds

Tnooz received this response from Airbnb by e-mail today:

This was a case of an Airbnb user abusing our “Refer a Friend” program (www.airbnb.com/referrals) to send out mass emails.

Our “Refer a Friend” program makes it easy for our users to share Airbnb with their friends or family (these sort of referral programs are fairly common among web companies).

We don’t condone this sort of abuse of it, and we’ve shut down the referral code and the offending user’s account. I’ve reached out to the folks at TripVillas to apologize for the inconvenience.

The company gave no indication of how widespread the abuse of this promotional code by the individual was. Tnooz contacted the spammer, too, but didn’t receive a comment.

airbnb refer a friend

TripVilla’s response

D’Silva says:

The “Refer a Friend” program does not give out a coupon code.

It allows Airbnb users to send out emails through the Airbnb platform and Facebook and does not allow them a code that they can use while messaging via other websites or put into their own email program.

I’m chalking down their response to being in a hurry to brush off something that is obviously not high priority for them.

I believe that such tactics are interesting to note and probably interesting to read about.

Tnooz confirms that a member doesn’t receive a six-character code via the Refer a Friend program in any way we could find among current offers.

A broader problem?

A quick Internet search on the now-defunct promotion code TWJJRM found 30 links touting how you could go to airbnb.com/newhost, enter the code, and (if you’re a member) receive $50 in credit.

Some websites, such as ireferyou.co.uk and RefAround, encourage existing members of Airbnb to solicit random strangers in the hopes that they can receive credit. It’s a way to game Airbnb’s legitimate program.

Between December 2012 and now, multiple people have posted the same promo code with the same encouragement to send out unsolicited messages to increase the chance of receiving promotional credit from Airbnb.

We found other codes online. For example, WN8FAE and DW3EPS, which both tested as valid on this reporter’s Airbnb account when he entered them this morning.

It’s unclear how many of these promo codes are floating out on the Internet, but it seems like at most a half-dozen currently. Airbnb’s response to Tnooz’s query didn’t show any interest in this as a potential problem.

A Tnooz search for appearances of the spammer’s e-mail address across the Internet showed the footprints of someone who has been interested in coupon codes and online marketing for quite some time, and who is associated with a New York City address.

Though there was nothing conclusive about what we found, it is quite possible that the rogue spammer was trying to take advantage of a get-quick-rich scheme that he or she found in an online forum.

airbnb promo code

Spam in the back cupboard

Since it was launched in 2008, Airbnb has enabled several million people to find places to stay. But it has also had its a couple of minor scandals. In 2011, Airbnb confirmed that its salespeople made unsolicited approaches to property owners on the classified listings service Craigslist.

The company admitted that was not a best practice, and put a series of checks in place, such as a requirement that new property listers must go through a “verification dashboard” and confirm key details, such as their address.

The company’s chief technology officer, Nathan Blecharczyk, is familiar with accusations of spamming. After founding an online marketing company while in high school, he was listed as one of Spamhaus’s “Register of Known Spam Operators,” a rollcall of online marketers who have been blacklisted by at least three internet service providers (ISPs).

We all do crazy things when we’re young and learning. And none of the behavior mentioned in this article was illegal, according to experts who have commented on similar cases elsewhere.

But there’s no freude like schadenfreude, and it seems like Airbnb is becoming — in a tiny way — a victim of its own success, by attracting Sirens of Spam, like this lady:

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Sean O'Neill

About the Writer :: Sean O'Neill

Sean O’Neill had roles as a reporter and editor-in-chief at Tnooz between July 2012 and January 2017.

 

Comments

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  1. Jonas

    As stated it’s obviously an affiliate that have bent the rules a bit. This happens to all internet companies with a refer a friend or affiliate program at some point?

     
  2. Chris Bayley

    There’s a chance that their old referral system used to give out voucher codes, or users can often glean it from the FB or “platform” links used that airbnb refer to. its usually pretty easy to find it in the URL or in the source. AirBnB is probably too big to worry about this sort of stuff now.

    Many (most?) successful online guys have experience in the dark arts of either spam, arbitrage or black hat SEO. that’s where u learn skills that are sometimes grouped under the fashionable umbrella of “growth hacking”. also “hacking” (i.e. old school, dodgy, underground hacking – NOT what falls into the trendy umbrella “hacking” of more recent nomenclature). this stuff also provides a useful side income that helps fund entrepreneurial pursuits.

    am sure they can all look themselves in the mirror and consider it part of their experience and growth.

     
    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Chris,
      Thanks. What you say about growth hacking rings true to me. Most successful online guys have a past in “growth hacking.”

      One small point here for other readers: I thought the URl might generate a six-character code, too, but the Refer a Friend program’s URLs generate much longer codes. This must have been from a different, earlier program.

       
  3. Andy Ryan

    Interesting case, and kudos for the proactive investigative journalism.

    To me, the initial ‘issue’ actually seems potentially far less harmful than Airbnb’s response does. They could have admitted that there are likely a few consumers out there who are trying to game the system and make a quick buck, OR could have admitted it was a ‘rogue marketer’ being a little overzealous in their attempts to sign up new properties… “we apologise, it won’t happen again”… case closed.

    But here it looks like the official Airbnb response contains an outright lie – which begs the question: are they trying to sweep a wider and nastier practice under the carpet? And which other rental platforms are being targeted in this way? Bootstrapped little startups can afford to be a little ‘creative’ in how they win their early customers, but a higher moral standard is to be expected from a 5-yr old company that’s raised $120 million.

    I hope you stay on the case and keep us in the loop Sean.

     
    • John Pope

      Exactly, Andy.

      Wish I’d have said it that well.

      I think I could learn a thing or two from your diplomacy skills.

      Are you available for any Diplomacy and Corporate Communications consulting?

      My therapist (girlfriend) concurs, and thinks it would be a good investment. 🙂

       
    • Sean O'Neill

      Sean O'Neill

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for your comment.

      In Airbnb’s defense, we only gave it one full working day to investigate and respond to this query, and so it’s answer may reflect a rush. Perhaps “refer a friend” was simply the wrong the name for the program being discussed.

      It did shut down the code that was being abused [I confirmed that.] It did say that it did not condone the abuse of its system. Everything I’ve seen suggests that this really was a case of an independent operator acting without ties to Airbnb, which is what the company says happened.

      Other promo codes that are out there may be abused. That’s a problem that faces many companies that use codes as a referral method. What are the best practices here? We’re all ears.

      Cheers,
      Sean

       
  4. John Pope

    I’m sure AirBnB had “nothing” to do with it! 😉 🙂 😉

    For more information on just how “ethical” AirBnB – the unequivocal supreme leader in the hospitality sharing economy – is, check out this Gawker story for some more “skinny” (info, 411, etc.) on Nathan Blecharczyk’s dubious history of spamming.

    http://gawker.com/5853754/the-seedy-spammy-past-of-airbnbs-co+founder

    Go figure, he learned his craft and trade H-A-A-W-V-A-R-D, too. The longstanding bastion of ethical behavior that it is also famous for the making of other recent Internet tycoons (re: Zuckerberg vs. Winklevoss twins).

    All of these recent “sharing economy” stories have to have some people connecting the dots, surely!

    If the are no rules, with the stakes (riches) as high as they are, and when considering the young age of many Internet entrepreneurs; is it any wonder why people lack the moral fiber to ethically, and in many instances legally, operate some of these multi-billion dollar companies?

    Money and power is unfortunately clouding too many people’s judgement these days.

    Alas, all over the world, too. Sigh 🙁

     
 
 

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