Woman shares story of Airbnb scam, others share tips for using the site

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A lot more people are using websites like Airbnb to go on vacation and save money, but you need to keep an eye out for scammers, too.

Among the pages and pages of listings on Airbnb, there was one for a "Brand New Luxury Executive Penthouse" in Denver, hosted by Kimberly. Only the kind-looking host who said she "has an amazing place for you guys to enjoy," had no idea.

"It’s definitely not mine. It was the first I’ve ever seen of it," Kim Wilson said.

The posting had Wilson's photo on it, one that was publicly available online, but it wasn't her penthouse. A friend sent it to her, and she quickly realized she was being impersonated.

"To see my name and my face attached to something that was just so untrue was definitely jarring," Wilson said.

The fake profile was even "verified," a process on Airbnb that can be as easy as setting up an email account and linking it to the site.

So, CBS4's Jill Glavan sat down with as close to Airbnb experts as you can get: a young couple and a real estate agent, who all rent out a space on the website.

"Most everyone we know, it seems like, has used it at some point or another," host Ryan Utnage said.

Utnage and Natalie Mathias used Airbnb on a visit to St. Louis last summer, and had such a good experience that they decided to start renting out Mathias' empty condo in Bloomington.

"When we came back it kind of just hit us that we had an extra space and we should probably just rent it out," Utnage said.

The couple said that in their experience, the site is easy to use and safe. They suggest you read the reviews, which can be a way to spot a legitimate property.

"Peer reviews (are) everything at this point. It’s the most credible source now, is somebody who’s actually stayed there," Utnage said.

John Creamer, a real estate agent in Indianapolis, decided to rent out the small efficiency apartment in a building he owns, starting back in May. Again, it was a good experience that led him to become a host.

"I had stayed in an Airbnb three years ago in Washington D.C. ... We’ve been pretty successful. I would say three out of four weekends are used up and typically one week a month," Creamer said.

For everyone who uses the site, money is exchanged through Airbnb, and not by hand. That's the easiest way to avoid a scam: the company says you should never exchange money outside of their secure site.

"Like anything else it’s always, buyer beware," Wilson said.

She took action, and found the easiest way to contact Airbnb to be through their "Airbnb Help" Twitter account, where they answer dozens of messages an hour.

Within a day, the listing and fake profile were down. Wilson said she is more cautious now, and wants people to pay attention, because her case clearly shows that scammers are out there and they could turn your relaxing vacation upside down.

"I guess I may be a little more skeptical than I was before," Wilson said.

A spokesperson provided this statement about Wilson's ordeal:

"We deactivated this account when we were notified of the problem, then removed the profile when we determined the user violated our policies. There have been over 100 million guest arrivals on Airbnb and negative experiences are extremely rare. We work very hard to help hosts and guests have the ability to make the most informed decisions they can. The safety of the Airbnb community is the single most important thing we work on every day."

The company also provided some links to helpful information so you don't get scammed:

We provide information on our website on how to identify if an email is from Airbnb.

We will never ask you to pay through your email. If you receive a personal email from anyone (including an automated@airbnb.com or any other username@airbnb.com email address) asking you to pay or accept payment off-site, immediately report it to safety@airbnb.com and end communication with the sender.

Helpful links:

I'm a guest. What are some safety tips I can follow?

Why you should only pay and communicate through the platform

What if someone asks to arrange payment through email or off the Airbnb website?

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