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How my scathing Airbnb review was deleted – and then reinstated

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

In the middle of last month, some normality returned to my life. I flew to Cape Town to do a talk – the first time I had caught a plane since December 2019. I had booked myself a small apartment in the city centre through Airbnb and arrived there after the conference at around 4pm.

Where was my ID, demanded the aggressive security guards at the building.

One picked up an Android smartphone lying on the desk and opened it without putting in a PIN code or any other security pass.

In front of me – and several other people – he scrolled through 20 or 30 photographs of people’s identity documents in WhatsApp.

No, I don’t have it, the security guard said.

I never sent it, I replied. The Airbnb host had sent me a message that day saying I still had to send my ID document via WhatsApp.

“I won’t,” I replied. “What you’re asking me to do is now illegal in terms of the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (Popia).” I also told this to the guards and to a person who called and identified herself as acting for the host, Yacoob Carr.

I pointed out to her that this requirement was not specified in the listing. If it had been been, I would never have booked the apartment. The actual text on the listing reads: “IDs are required.” I’ve never had to present my ID to book into an Airbnb before, but what else could “required” mean? I told the woman I was happy to leave, but I wanted to be refunded in full.

She called back to tell me: “It’s okay, you can cancel.” But, as I said to her, that would mean I would be penalised and have to forfeit 50% of my booking fee. It was now 6pm on a Friday night. She stopped being helpful and did not pick up when I called back.

So, I wrote a complaint on Airbnb’s website. Realising I would be penalised if I left without resolving this, I called them. It took a half hour for the helpful call centre agent to resolve the iniquitous attempt by the host to punish me with a 50% cancellation fee for asking for something illegal to be done.

Let’s recap. I just had an utterly terrible customer experience – which included being asked to compromise my personal information, something that is now illegal. The host tried to get me to forfeit half of my fee without me staying there, and I had to get Airbnb to intervene to get my money back.

Airbnb is a service that offers accommodation (primarily), but failed to provide the service I had booked – and failed to know or act against a patent Popia infringement.

Any reasonable person, I imagine, would like to know if their hosts are abusing their guests, and – one would also imagine – prevent something illegal from happening. Additionally, an offending company could be fined as much as 10% of its turnover and its directors could go to jail.

Did Airbnb respond like a good corporate citizen? “We wanted to let you know your review for reservation HMXWFF3XH2 about Yacoob Carr goes against our Review Policy, so we’ve removed it.

“The review didn’t have enough relevant information to help the Airbnb community make informed booking decisions.

“We understand how important a trustworthy, reliable review system is, that’s why our Review Policy is designed to ensure that Hosts and guests receive fair, relevant and accurate reviews.”

Airbnb can claim my review lacked specific information – however, this is nothing but a platitude to censor inconveniently honest reviews about bad service.

I used to think Airbnb was a clever business that helped people make extra money. Now, I think it is as cut-throat as any other established corporate, turning to censorship when it doesn’t like the honest and factual reviews left by legitimately aggrieved users.

Being asked to compromise one’s personal information is illegal under Popia, Airbnb. Is that enough detail for you?

Two weeks after this column was written, I tried twice to tell Airbnb this matter wasn’t resolved and tweeted my frustration about its review process. Suddenly, I got another email that, “after assessing this further, we’ve concluded the review complies with our standards. We believe it’s in our community’s best interests to put it back up, and the review has been reinstated.”

Airbnb added: “Thank you for making us aware about this specific host requesting copies of IDs ahead of check-in. Please know that we’ve already taken appropriate steps to address this issue directly with the host.

“Should any host ask for any copies of identification documents directly from you in future, and it wasn’t disclosed … before booking, please reach out to us as soon as you can.” DM168

Right of Reply: Yacoob Carr responds

When is an article in the public interest? And when is it meant to defame and injure, without just cause?

The scathing review that Toby Shapshack mentions is nothing more than an article by an individual who failed to comply with very clear and important rules, which were ALL communicated upfront. Unfortunately, Shapshak chose not to abide by the clear requests to provide a copy of his ID – which is a requirement for ALL guests and does not breach POPIA. The rule exists for the benefit and protection of all the occupants of the building. 

Shapshak’s supposed right to privacy is not more important than the safety and security of the multitude of persons residing in the building. Surely he can appreciate that all occupants have the right to be aware of who is residing in the building – just like any other Airbnb or Hotel premises.

All POPIA requirements were communicated upfront and are a requirement for admission – they still are, for all residents, guests or occupants.

Shapshak’s attempts to shift the blame onto me personally demonstrate an inability to understand and appreciate concerns about the safety and security of others.

With respect, the intention of the article is merely to defame – the contents are not true or by any stretch of the imagination correct. It is not worth the “paper” it is written on. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 12

    • …and when you check in to a hotel you are always required to present your passport (when traveling out of SA) am not sure what the requirement is for SA citizens in SA as I haven’t done that much.
      – But if I was an Air B&B owner I would want some form of ID in case there was any issue or recourse afterwards

  • Great article! We recently had a similar experience at Verimark in Clearwater Mall. The staff member kindly offered us a “senior citizen” discount, which we were most appreciative of. But then she asked for an ID to confirm age – still ok under the circumstances – but then she took a copy of it, without asking permission. We asked what that was for, and where it was going to be kept. She said she needed to keep it for audit purposes, but it would be safe in the (unlocked) drawer behind the counter! We said that was unacceptable and as you indicated, a POPIA violation. She said that was the policy she had to abide by. We then indicated that we would not be availing of the discount, as there was no way this was legal, nor could she or her colleague guarantee the security of my identity document information. She and her colleague were most surprised but we were not going to leave a printed copy of my ID document lying around for anyone to access.
    There are still many companies out there that have no clue about POPIA.

  • This raises an interesting point. It is fairly common today when entering a security area, whether it be an industrial or commercial complex or one of the many secure housing estates in this country for the guard on duty to ask for your drivers licence or ID and to capture the details either as a photo or the barcode.
    I believe this is also illegal under the POPI act, and whilst Mr Bender below believes it’s a triviality, it is a real threat to decent honest people’s integrity and confidential information.
    Just this week we received a call from an individual telling us our domestic assistant had been killed in a motor accident the night before and this was her brother asking us to send him airtime on his phone to make funeral arrangements!
    We were shocked but I am fortunately aware of what people can do for a dime, so to speak, and managed to prevent the scam from taking place. My wife was hysterical and unconsolable until we could establish the veracity of the call.
    The fact is someone had accessed personal information.
    Thanks Toby for highlighting the practice of nonchalantly accessing people’s personal details.

  • Just wondering how one is to know who is who if one can’t ask for and get a genuine and correct form of ID. I would certainly not let a stranger into my house without a real ID in my possession. This POPIA makes things very difficult especially in a country where just about everyone is a crook…or potential crook!…..

  • I get the point relative to the specifics of the incident. My understanding is that there is no problem checking identification and establishing credentials and recording such for a stated purpose, but that the information cannot be disclosed to others without the persons permission. Most Hotels want a copy of ID, passport (some want to keep the latter) and an imprint of a credit card.

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