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  • Greg Collier 3:48 am on July 31, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Learning tough lessons: Use caution, protect yourself when putting your home in online marketplace 

    I can’t say it enough: the online marketplace can be a scary place, folks. And as much as you would like to put your faith in your fellow man, that’s not always possible. As private citizens, we need to take the steps to ensure our own safety and to avoid situations that potentially put us in harm’s way.

    Case in point: There’s a very sad and unfortunate story gaining traction on the Internet about a woman whose San Francisco apartment was ranscaked, robbed and vandalized by the strangers that she rented it to through a property-rental site called Airbnb. The site teams people who want to rent their homes or portions of it to strangers who may be in their hometowns – maybe vacationing, maybe hopping in for the night for a next-day business meeting or just a lost soul trying to find himself on a (cheap) journey around the world.

    For anyone who’s ever owned and rented out a ski cabin or beach house, these sort of deals are nothing new. But those folks know how to protect themselves – they collect deposits, they set rules and guidelines and they put it all in a legal, written agreement. Sure, they take a risk that a rowdy group of frat boys on Spring Break could destroy their property. But they protect themselves through insurance and legal options.

    I’m not here to bash AirBnB’s business model. But I will point out that it – as well as its customers – are exposing themselves to some unnecessary risks, including bad publicity. The site manages all aspects of the rental, including collecting the payment upfront and distributing it to the property owners within 24 hours of the renter’s check-in.

    Here’s where it gets squeamish: the only forms of communication between landlord and tenant ahead of time is through a messaging system on the Airbnb site. Once the two parties reach an agreement, then the site releases information like email addresses and phone numbers. And while the site encourages people to communicate with each other via the messaging system, it strongly advises them to not communicate offline or to meet face-to-face until the reservation has been finalized.

    Why on Earth would anyone ever agree to such a thing?

    As the founder of Geebo, I have gone to great lengths – everything shy of screaming from rooftops – for people to use caution when dealing with strangers in an online marketplace. While most folks out there are decent human beings who mean no harm and are only looking for a “good deal,” there are some who will use the opportunity to victimize another person. It’s sad – but it happens all the time.

    Earlier this year, Geebo partnered with a company called WeGoLook, which dispatches real people to physically inspect something that a person is considering buying through an online marketplace – a vintage car, perhaps, or maybe a rare collectible. The idea is that an independent person inspects the authenticity of the item in a safe environment – protecting the buyer not only from being scammed by a phony item but also from being robbed (or worse) when they meet to conduct the final transaction.

    What’s ironic is that folks laughed when we explained that WeGoLook’s services could also be used in the personals ads that are on other sites. (Geebo has chosen to not host personals ads.) Sure, maybe it’s unconventional to dispatch an independent third party to meet and interview a potential date – to make sure that the person on the other end of the potential encounter matches the descriptions and photos that have been exchanged. But, we’re talking about minimizing risk here, folks. What if that athletic, well-groomed, sensitive man in the photo turns out to be a frumpy unshaven couch potato with some body odor challenges and a violent temper?

    When you’re trusting people with your only real safe haven – your home – you can’t be careful enough. Sure, the vacation home might have some kitchen appliances or a TV that a renter could destroy. But your own home is likely to contain valuables far greater than a $39 coffee maker.

    I realize it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover – but you can tell a lot about a person just in sitting down and chatting with them face-to-face for a few minutes. Some people are great actors and can fool even the best of us. But at least you can say that you took all the necessary steps to protect yourself in the event that things don’t work out.

    I feel for the woman in San Francisco. To read her blog posts (here and here), she has been victimized beyond lost treasures and a trashed home. Her personal sense of security is gone. Her trust in others has been compromised. She hints that she’ll be moving soon.

    The online marketplace can be a dangerous and scary place, folks. Please be careful out there.

  • Greg Collier 6:44 am on July 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply  

    Pay Attention, America: Argentina bans sex ads in classifieds, takes stand against human trafficking 

    There’s a perception among some of my counterparts in the online classifieds business that adult-oriented classified ads allow consenting adults to find each other on the Internet for the sake of engaging in adult activities.

    But let’s be honest about the situation – this has become far more than just a forum for consenting adults. It’s become a human trafficking snake pit, a place where innocent women – and certainly young girls, too – are being offered as sexual favors for cash. It’s a disgrace that this sort of behavior can occur in a modern-day, civilized society – but it does, without government intervention.

    Finally, a government has taken efforts to squash this open forum by passing a law that bans sex ads in newspapers. Last week, Argentina’s President signed a law that bans sex ads from newspapers in that country. Recognizing the hypocrisy of these publications, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said: ,

    Newspapers can’t print headlines demanding that we fight human trafficking, while their back pages present ads that humiliate women.

    For years, I have been saying something very similar and, most recently, called on other online classifieds site operators to join me in removing “personals” ads from their publications. To date, none has joined me.

    The new law in Argentina is indicative of what happens when entities fail to self-regulate and protect their consumers – the government steps in. But what other choice was there? These ads were leading to countless murders, rapes, robberies, and scams, all of which fall on to local police and court systems, a drain on local resources.

    Here’s the thing: This isn’t just happening in “some other country.” This is just as much a problem for the U.S. as it is any other country. America prides itself on being a global leader in, well, just about everything. Washington should be paying close attention to the government intervention in Argentina. There are headlines in cities across America about people who are murdered, raped, robbed and scammed via online classifieds sites, notably Craigslist. Heck, there’s even a movie called “The Craigslist Killer.”

    I can’t tell you why, exactly, these other site owners won’t join me in my efforts to rid the Internet of marketplaces where innocent people can be preyed upon and victimized. I always thought it was a business decision. But, a recent article in the Village Voice, a well-known New York City tabloid, tells another story. The newspaper also owns Backpage.com, an online classifieds site that continues to post personals ads.

    The article is really more of an assault on a CNN reporter who has been working to raise awareness of the human trafficking problem in this country. But what’s more disturbing is that the author uses the First Amendment to the Constitution to defend the placement of these ads on the Backpage site. In the article, the Village Voice writes:

    Backpage.com is not a newspaper. It’s an Internet bulletin board where people can place ads for anything from rental apartments to bicycles to lawnmowers. And, yes, it’s a place where adults can post notices so that other adults can contact them. What happens when two adults find each other through Backpage.com? I couldn’t tell you. The whole point of Backpage.com is that we aren’t involved after two consenting adults find each other through the community bulletin board, which exists solely so that people can freely express themselves—sometimes in ways that make other people uncomfortable. We’re First Amendment extremists that way. Always have been.

    Is that what this is? The First Amendment? Certainly, if it is, that makes it tougherfor the U.S. government to take a stand the way the Argentina government did. Lawyers and judges would have to get involved to argue about whether these ads are protected under the First Amendment. It could get expensive and take a lot of time.

    In fairness, I will note that Backpage, according to the Village Voice piece, says that 123 employees screen about 20,000 ads everyday, “making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user…” The article says that it cooperates with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when suspicious ads are red-flagged and that its reports have actually helped to find runaways. In fact, in what appears to be a pat on the back, the article notes that the screening process resulted in 230 reports to law enforcement last month.

    That’s quite a load on local law enforcement. Imagine how many reports Backpage might have made if it didn’t allow these sorts of ads to begin with.

    Still, I maintain that this is a fight that’s worth fighting. Human trafficking is a black-eye on today’s modern society and the fact that we, as a civilized nation, turn a blind eye when it comes to the open marketplace for these sort of human transactions is – at the very least – shameful.

    I look forward to the day that the U.S. government takes a stand to protect innocent victims of human trafficking. More importantly, I’m hopeful that my counterparts in this industry will regulate themselves first and recognize that, collectively, we can bring human trafficking efforts to a crawl instead of providing them an express lane.

    Related reading:

    Huffington Post: Child Sex Trafficking: Setting the Record Straight
    My challenge to Craigslist: Keep criminals off your site
    Craigslist removes some adult categories: Hold your applause

    • Lauren Taylor 9:14 am on July 18, 2011 Permalink

      Great article, Greg. We echo your sentiments! Keep the pressure on.

    • Christian Astorga 1:52 pm on August 31, 2011 Permalink

      Awesome article Greg! You certainly hit the nail on the head with this post! It stands to reason now that most companies sell their moral bases (if they ever had any to begin with) for the right price. Yes, it is true that Backpage does offer a bit of work to local police officials, but honestly, wouldn’t it be better to eliminate that section and do away with the problem from the root? I’d rather live as a police officer who doesn’t have to deal with human trafficking because the problem doesn’t exist due to a communal effort nation-wide. That Backpage submitting suspicious ads to the authorities is just a way for them to cover their butts before the public. They are trying to prevent “The Backpage Killer” from ever screening. To me it appears they are compromising. Dangerous game for all players…

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