WENDY KNOWLER | Airbnb scammers, fraudulent Telkom listings and checking orders against the contract

Consumer watch-outs of the week

26 July 2023 - 12:34
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If you have an issue of any kind with your Airbnb, report it immediately. File photo.
If you have an issue of any kind with your Airbnb, report it immediately. File photo.
Image: Charles Platiau/Reuters

In this weekly segment of bite-sized chunks of useful information, consumer journalist Wendy Knowler summarises news you can use:

Problem with your Airbnb? Report it quickly

Imagine booking and paying for accommodation via Airbnb only to be told by the host on check-in day the property is no longer available.

That’s what happened to long-distance runner Eddie Sibanda when he arrived at a Pietermaritzburg BnB on the eve of the Comrades Marathon this year.

“The owner told me it was fully booked and she took her property off the Airbnb platform more than a year before,” he said.

“However, it still appears on the platform under someone else's name, so this guy collects money for the place, which is not available, and Airbnb does not take responsibility.”

Sibanda said he contacted Airbnb, “but they will not hear me, saying I should have reported it within 72 hours”.

I asked Airbnb how scammers managed to hijack a property on the platform and what could or should Sibanda have done to avoid paying money to a fraudster?

Responding, Airbnb’s London-based media liaison team said the company had “zero tolerance” for “fake content” on its site.

“Our community support team has issued a full refund to the guest as well as providing additional support.”

Sibanda told me he’d also been given a R1,000 Airbnb voucher valid for a year.

“I’m thankful and I trust this incident will prompt Airbnb to conduct a review of its security measures and address vulnerabilities this scam has been exploiting,” he said.

Such cases are relatively rare, Airbnb said. “We have strict policies and measures to protect guests. As part of our AirCover we ask guests to contact us and the host within 72 hours of discovering an issue so we can provide timely support.”

Sibanda informed Airbnb about his experience 16 days after his scheduled check-in, the company said.

“Airbnb controls payments and we do not release a host’s payout for a booking until 24-hours after a guest has checked into a listing, so there’s recourse in case something isn’t as expected on arrival.

“This measure is also a significant deterrent for anyone seeking to engage in fraudulent activity.”

As to how the fraudsters managed to work the scam, Airbnb said: “We have teams dedicated to proactively identifying fraud on the platform and on the back end. Our systems help prevent bad actors from using Airbnb and automatically blocks fake listings.”

If you have an issue of any kind with your Airbnb, report it immediately.

It’s the scam that won’t go away

Thousands of small business owners across the country, from medical practices and service stations to guest houses, couriers and home improvement companies, have fallen victim to the “sign the form to confirm your Telkom directory listing” scam in the past eight years or so.

If you have a listing as a small business in a Telkom directory you’re a target, and that’s how the scammers get your number.

You’ll receive a call from someone passing themselves off as a Telkom directory representative asking for your company’s e-mail address. Then they e-mail you a form asking you to confirm your business contact details.

In Leanie’s case, the large print indicated the listing was for the “Johannesburg Telephone Directory” and a “free Telkom 1023 entry”.

But the small, make that minuscule, print had her agreeing to pay R14,500 upfront and noting she was aware that “I am being charged for my advertising on the Telecom 1023 website and not for the Telkom 1023 free entry”.

“I feel quite embarrassed as I’ve always said I will never fall for a scam, being a suspicious of everything type of person,” she told me.

The timing of the scammer’s approach caught her off guard. She’d recently bought a guttering company and was trying to transfer the business’ Telkom number from the previous owner to herself.

She signed the form in May and has been “handed over” to debt collectors “Ubungane Legal Collection” and has been told her “debt” has increased to R15,780.

“Should the debt remain unpaid we intend to institute legal proceedings against your company without further notice,” the debt collectors told her.

The Council of Debt Collectors has confirmed “Ubungane” has not registered a call centre operator.

“Please ignore their threats, block their numbers and spam their e-mails.”

That’s the council’s advice. And most importantly, do not pay, no matter how dire the threats become. The scammers’ threats are totally empty.

It’s because so many people pay in a bid to make the harassment stop that this awful scam is very much alive. They know most people avoid reading the small print.

Never mind what the salesperson says, check the contract

Salespeople know customers respond to what they are told and few think to check the legal documentation they are asked to sign to seal the deal matches the verbal claims.

It’s not uncommon for car salespeople to tell a customer a car is a 2021 model, for example, when the paperwork reveals it to be a 2020 model. The customer signs without checking, only to discover the discrepancy later. Of course they have no proof of the salesperson’s false claim.

In Daniel’s case, the product was a fridge.

“I went to a shop to buy a 305l fridge, but a 263l fridge was delivered instead.

“The paperwork states the fridge as a 263l, but we didn't see that until the fridge was delivered,” he said.

There is a significant material difference between the two fridges. With the capacity of the fridge matching the description of the product on the invoice, there’s no proof any mis-selling took place.

The lesson: only what’s captured in the contract counts, so make sure to scrutinise the contract to ensure the details match what the salesperson told you.

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via e-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.

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