Locked out of Airbnb

Could Airbnb really ban an account for no good reason?

I still can’t believe the reason Airbnb banned Jannick Vielleuse.

As far as I can tell, she did absolutely nothing wrong. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time — specifically, she logged into a wireless router at the wrong moment.

And now she’ll never rent from Airbnb again. At least that’s what she thinks.
Before I tell you more about her case, a few important disclosures. Airbnb shared information about her case that was “off the record,” so I can’t get too detailed. Also, her case is political. It involves a person convicted of his involvement in an event in Washington, D.C. last year. And we try to stay out of politics on this site.

But I have to tell you, this is one of the strangest and most disturbing cases I’ve ever mediated. It goes way beyond Airbnb banning a single person, and it’s about far more than politics. It exposes how Airbnb monitors your activities for risky behavior and proactively limits your ability to use the platform, often without explanation or justification.

This case completely rewrites my advice for would-be renters. And I believe it’s a sign of things to come. So even if you’re not renting from Airbnb, you’ll want to pay attention to this story.

Airbnb has a tortured relationship with its problem guests. As we’ve seen in story after story, it is fond of telling them they’re banned from Airbnb without giving them a reason. Check out How did I end up banned from Airbnb?, which is one of many dozens of similar cases we’ve received over the years.

Airbnb’s MO is: Ban the customer and send a form letter. Case closed.

How she got banned by Airbnb

Vielleuse’s banning was devoid of drama. She tried to log into her Airbnb account recently, but the system wouldn’t let her in. An error message said Airbnb had disabled her account.

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Vielleuse emailed Airbnb to ask for clarification. It sent a vague response:

Thanks for reaching out. I’m Jeff with Airbnb.

We’ve determined that your account is affiliated with someone not permitted to be on Airbnb. The types of affiliations we consider to make this determination include things like your location and the email address associated with your Airbnb account.

As a result, we have removed your account from Airbnb and you will be unable to use the platform in the future.

To protect the privacy of the Airbnb community, we can not provide details about this user’s account eligibility.

We appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Regards,

Jeff

OK, so Jeff with no last name says it wasn’t her, but someone close to her. Guilty by association.

Vielleuse wasn’t happy with that answer. After all, she’d been a good Airbnb customer since 2015 and had nothing but positive host reviews. Also, who could she possibly be associated with?

It was such a bizarre explanation that she came up with her own theory. Maybe her location triggered a fraud alert. She had moved from Canada to the United States a few years ago and had changed her phone number. She decided to become a permanent resident in 2021. Maybe Airbnb didn’t like the constant moving?

But in the end, she couldn’t explain it.

“I have no clue what they are referring to,” she told me.

But there is an explanation.

Can Airbnb just ban someone just like that?

Can Airbnb arbitrarily remove someone from its platform? Without getting into a complicated discussion about the legalities of refusing someone service, the answer is yes.

It reserves the right to disable your account in its terms of service, which no one reads.

13.2 Termination. You may terminate this agreement at any time by sending us an email or by deleting your account. Airbnb may terminate this agreement and your account for any reason by giving you 30 days’ notice via email or using any other contact information you have provided for your account. Airbnb may also terminate this agreement immediately and without notice and stop providing access to the Airbnb Platform if you breach these Terms, you violate our Additional Legal Terms, or Policies, you violate applicable laws, or we reasonably believe termination is necessary to protect Airbnb, its Members, or third parties. If your account has been inactive for more than two years, we may terminate your account without prior notice.

Read that last part carefully. It’s not just you violating Airbnb’s terms that can get you kicked off the platform. If Airbnb believes “termination is necessary to protect Airbnb, its Members, or third parties,” you can also get banned.

So that explains the guilt by association. If you have a friend who stays with you in an Airbnb and later is convicted of a crime, you might have to answer for it.

How interesting. So what happened to Vielleuse?

Airbnb called — and they sorta swore me to secrecy

I contacted Airbnb about Vielleuse’s case. A few hours later, I received a strange voicemail from my company contact saying he wanted to talk about the case “off the record.”

In journalism, that means none of the information I get can be used in a published story. (So, for the record, all the information I’m about to reveal was verified from other sources.)

My Airbnb contact told me that it had evidence that someone associated with Vielleuse had been convicted of criminal activity. (It repeated this assertion in an email to her.)

I can’t tell you exactly what that criminal activity was. But I can reveal how Airbnb connected Vielleuse with the person in question. Apparently, they had both logged onto the same wireless router, thus establishing that they were in the same place at the same time. Airbnb monitors logins.

I asked my Airbnb contact if they had any evidence that Vielleuse was involved in any illegal activity. He said it did not.

We got into an interesting discussion about privacy. Do customers know that Airbnb is logging their location and IP addresses? If so, where is that disclosed? Are they aware that simply being associated with a criminal can get their account suspended?

My Airbnb contact seemed to understand my concerns. But he said these steps are necessary to protect Airbnb’s customers. No, not the guests staying in Airbnb rentals — the hosts. Would you want a criminal staying in your home? Would you want someone associated with a criminal staying in your home? That’s a valid point. If I’m a felon, but my girlfriend isn’t, I could ask her to rent a home. And then I might trash my next Airbnb or worse.

Could your friends get you banned from Airbnb?

Banning users because of their online activity doesn’t seem to be an uncommon practice at Airbnb. I just received another question from one of our readers. I won’t name him for reasons that will be obvious in a moment.

Airbnb banned him. Initially, he told me he didn’t know why. But then I read the notification he received.

We wanted to let you know that your Airbnb account has been deactivated.

This means you can no longer use Airbnb to make any future reservations or create a listing.

This happened because your account was flagged during one of our standard security reviews. It turned out that information in your account was linked to activity that goes against our Terms of Service—specifically, it was linked to online ads for adult services, which can include escort activity and commercial pornography.

After your account was flagged, our agents investigated further, weighing the evidence and following an established step-by-step process. The final decision was then made to deactivate your account.

I asked the reader if he’d done any of that, and he said he hadn’t. He suspects that it’s someone he knows and that Airbnb connected the two of them.

Is Airbnb watching you?

I’ve been getting more cases like this recently. The only other time I remember this happening on this scale was when Americans applied for the federal Global Entry program. It requires a background check. If that check turns up a friend or relative convicted of a crime, guess what? No Global Entry for you.

It’s clear that Airbnb is watching you.

I have to wonder how far they will take this. Is that enough to make Airbnb ban my account if I click on a political website or open a Tor browser? If a friend or family member is in some kind of trouble and I happen to invite them over to my rental, will that lead to my account being deactivated?

What if I click on Vrbo to find a better rate? Is that a terminating offense?

And what if other companies start doing this? My mind is racing with the alarming possibilities.

Could Airbnb ban your account?

So yes, Airbnb could ban your account for someone else’s actions.

Here’s how to avoid an Airbnb ban:

1. Mind your tabs and apps. Airbnb is watching your every move online. But you don’t have to let the company track your every move. But you can avoid this. On Android OS, go to Settings> All Apps> Airbnb and check permissions. Select “no permissions” which will ensure Airbnb doesn’t see your location. If you access Airbnb from a desktop, use an incognito or private mode or be sure that you disable your browser’s ability to send information about your location to websites. (On Chrome, go to Settings> Site Setting> Permissions to ensure you’re not sharing any unnecessary information with Airbnb.)

2. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN encrypts your data and hides your location. About half of Americans use a VPN, but they sometimes turn it off to get a faster internet connection or just because they forget. A VPN might have protected a user like Vielleuse because it would have scrambled her identity and location, foiling detection by Airbnb. I have to emphasize that it might have worked. For safety, I would have used it along with strategy #1.

3. If you have a friend or relative with a questionable reputation, don’t let them log in from your rental. If you’re staying at a rental and invite Uncle Billy the jailbird over for a weekend parole visit, please don’t let him log in to the wireless router. I may have already mentioned this, but Airbnb is watching you. And if they see inmate Billy logging into the Airbnb hotspot, the alarm bells will be going off. Uncle Billy can stay off the Internet for the weekend and enjoy his freedom, can’t he?

What does this mean for the rest of us?

As I’ve already said, this goes far beyond Airbnb. If you’re booking travel anywhere for any reason, you have to watch your back. Other companies may not be as sophisticated as Airbnb when it comes to connecting you to other users. But they will catch up.

Imagine the following scenarios:

You’re married to someone who books an “illegal” airline ticket. Say your sweetie decides to save a little money on your next Caribbean vacation by booking a hidden city or back-to-back ticket. If an airline tied your IP address to your significant other, it could potentially suspend your ability to book tickets, too. Maybe this sounds like something George Orwell would have invented. But the technology to do this already exists.

Your best friend is a travel hacker. What if you have a good friend who likes to play around with loyalty programs? He visits all those hacker blogs and enjoys buying gift cards, and is totally into manufactured spending. If you don’t know what that is, consider yourself lucky. But suppose the loyalty programs go after him (yeah, it’s usually a guy) and then decide to nail you because of your association. Keep your VPN on, my friends.

One of your kids trashed a rental. If you have adult children who had a less-than-ideal rental and didn’t leave it the way they found it, they may find themselves on the dreaded Do Not Rent list. But if you’re associated with their account, guess what? You might get on the list, too. Although I haven’t seen that happen yet, it’s not entirely inconceivable that it could happen. Car rental companies really don’t like anyone trashing their cars. And I suspect they don’t like their friends, either.

I’m deeply troubled by this next-level cyberstalking. I understand why Airbnb is doing it, and it’s certainly their right and their obligation to protect their customers. But I think it’s also your right — and obligation — to protect your privacy. Your friends and family are your business, not your vacation rental platforms.

How this Airbnb banning case ended

I asked Airbnb to review Vielleuse’s case. “Upon further review, we were able to reinstate her account,” a representative told me. “We hope to earn her future business.”

Now what?

I’m interested in your thoughts on monitoring customers and their associations. Do you think this is the right way for Airbnb to protect its customers (by which I mean its hosts)? Or is this a step too far? What does it mean for the future of your consumer purchases? Scroll down to leave a comment.


About the art

Artist Dustin Elliott was inspired by prison movies such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile for his latest digital work. “I imagined innocent Airbnb guests who were wrongfully imprisoned by a ruthless warden,” he says. “No judge, no jury — and no idea what kind of crime they’d committed.” He notes that the guard’s resemblance to Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky is completely unintentional.

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