Reshma Vasanwala and Jim Santi Owen say they thought they were renting out their Oakland home to an older man from Chicago. He turned out to be a 19-year-old from Berkeley who, once he got his hands on the keys, threw a wild New Year's Eve party.
The couple, who had been out of town, returned to a filthy house littered with alcohol bottles, and thousands of dollars worth of damage. There was even blood on a wall.
As bad as it was, it could have been worse.
What if someone who was intoxicated had left and become involved in a fatal DUI?
Airbnb is not responsible for any third-party claim arising from damages or injuries off the property.
However, Airbnb's "$1 million host guarantee" does provide limited property damage protection for landlords and a second policy covers personal liability claims on the actual premises, such as a guest slipping on a rug and breaking an arm.
The policy does not cover "intentional acts where liability isn't the result of an accident," according to the company's website. Because a number of homeowner policies won't cover damages caused by renters, that could leave the homeowner liable for anything Airbnb's policies don't cover, although the company says its policies are more than sufficient..
Millions of people around the world use Airbnb. The company has become wildly profitable, in large part because there are many repeat users. I have friends who use Airbnb whenever they travel because the accommodations are cheaper than a hotel and you get a more homelike atmosphere. There are repeat hosts who rent out spare rooms in their homes to supplement their income. Others offer apartments, condos and entire houses.
The flip side is that Airbnb rentals -- especially those in which the landlord is not on site -- are attractive to people who are up to no good and want to avoid the scrutiny and security of a hotel. It could be someone looking for a spot to throw a raucous party for hundreds of teenagers, or people engaged in more nefarious criminal activity.
The Oakland couple's story is a cautionary tale about the dark side of Airbnb, highlighting the potential risks for landlords.
Some people have blamed the victims for their misfortune. What did they expect, renting their place out for New Year's Eve -- a night when people are known to get wild and crazy? How could they not have known that the renter was not who he claimed to be online? Didn't they meet him when he showed up? Or did they simply leave the keys in a lockbox? If so, shame on them. And so on.
I tried talking to Vasanwala and Owen to find out how the renter had tricked them. Owen said they were "overwhelmed" and not granting any more interviews at this time. The 19-year-old was arrested by the police for suspected vandalism, but he hasn't yet been charged by the District Attorney. The couple has said they intend to sue him for damages.
Airbnb issued a statement saying it had "reached out to the host to work with them under our $1 million host guarantee" and had banned the guest from the rental site.
Airbnb officials would not say how many damage complaints the company received from hosts in 2015. A spokesman would only say that there were two reports out of 1 million New Year's Eve guests. Suffice it to say, landlords aren't expecting to hire contractors to repair thousands of dollars in damages when the Airbnb site promises "Peace of Mind, Guaranteed."
The company doesn't place renters in properties -- the screening is left entirely up to the owner. Airbnb offers tools, including an identity-verification system in which a person's driver's license or passport is connected to his Airbnb profile. There are online reviews to help hosts and guests filter out bad apples.
The company promotes what it calls an additional optional level of verification for hosts. It requires prospective renters to link their Airbnb profile to a social media profile such as LinkedIn or Facebook.
Yet Edward Hasbrouck, a San Francisco-based travel adviser and writer, says these measures only give Airbnb users a false sense of reassurance. People can Photoshop ID documents and create fake social media profiles. They can even hijack other people's profiles.
Hasbrouck says the Oakland fiasco should be a "wake-up call" for Airbnb hosts.
"The upside is finite and the downside is high risk," he says.
I doubt you'll get any disagreement from Vasanwala and Owen there.