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.