Thursday, December 26, 2019
Picture the scene. You're out and about, in a foreign country, far from home, and your Airbnb host sends you an aggressive, threaten...
Picture the scene. You're out and about, in a foreign country, far from home, and your Airbnb host sends you an aggressive, threatening message. Your mind goes into overdrive, and flashes an array of negative thoughts and previously innocuous little details in front of your eyes, all of the quirks and weird goings-on that you'd just brushed off, the fact that you can't lock the doors of your private space from within... wait, WHAT? Fuck, fuck, fuck. I am not safe!
No, this is not the first paragraph of a predictable, badly written, ill-thought out action novel. This is what actually happened to me in Marrakech, and yes, it really was quite scary.
Before I talk about my experience though, I just want to make it clear that whilst I was safely holed up in a different riad, I Googled looking for advice, and pretty much all of the top results were articles or forums for hosts complaining about bad guests. And sure, I have no doubt that there are many bad guests out there, but there didn't seem to be anything at all for guests with bad hosts.
It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because Airbnb were not helpful in the immediate aftermath, gave me poor advice that would have left me even more vulnerable had I followed it, and there was no advice I could find online that would either help me through the situation, or at least given me some kind of reassurance.
So this one's for you. The consumer. To remind you that we can take on anyone, regardless of reputation or size. This post is about a guest, with a horrific host, a Superhost no less, who thought he could get away with dirty tricks against his guest. And he lost.
How did I get here?
Good fucking question.
I booked a trip to Marrakech for myself and my husband about two weeks in advance. Not the greatest idea maybe, but we had some annual leave we needed to take, and we didn't fancy spending it in Britain with boring Brexit and election news rumbling on in the background of everything. Anyway, hotels were looking a bit pricey and the riads I'd seen on Airbnb were looking a bit ropey, until I came across one particular riad, that looked like a cross between a palace and a museum. It looked quirky, yet clean, and the host was a Superhost. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a day after booking, our host, Fawzy, sent an email, very irate that we hadn't informed him of our arrival time. So I emailed back, giving the host the time of arrival, and he replied instantly, with a bizarre message, and I quote: "Unfortunately I see that you don't even dare to thank me for such a service, I hope I am not going to have any problems with you, since it is not too late, you can find somewhere else if you want." Ehhhh.
In retrospect, that probably should have set some alarm bells ringing, but honestly, we're just staying in a private apartment, we won't even be interacting with the host much. Apart from the drive from the airport to the raid of course. And my oh my, that was a ride. The guy was driving very erratically, way too fast, up on the kerbs, beeping at pedestrians, late braking, all of it. He was also still pretty angry about me not replying to his email immediately, and would not stop talking about it the whole journey. I've travelled around a bit though, and experienced some pretty rough driving, so I put this down to a cultural thing at first. Until a few days later when I was next in a car, and it was pretty serene in comparison.
Oh, and of course, he invited us to dinner. Truth be told, I didn't really want to eat with this guy, but since he seemed to be irrationally annoyed over nothing, I figured it was probably best just to go with it. I'd much rather do my own thing, go wherever I like, eat where and what I choose, but just to show the guy there's no hard feelings. So of course, I mentioned that I'm vegetarian, and he says "It's ok! I can make vegetables too!"
Except that of course, when he said he can make vegetables too, what he really meant is, I will be making a beef tagine, and there will be vegetables amongst said beef. Again, I thought that could be down to a cultural thing - I've experienced similar in Spain and Tokyo - so I didn't make a thing about it. Now, I realise that not everyone will have had a tagine before, but just imagine a big beef stew. And then imagine picking out bits of carrot, onion and potato from that. So naturally, I didn't eat any of it. Another alarm bell perhaps, this guy is awkward, to say the least.
Particularly as during the whole dinner he was very strongly hinting at his expertise as a tour guide, showing us photos of his previous guests on various tours that he's taken them on. I mean, the people looked happy, but this really isn't my idea of a holiday, and the guy had a natural unpleasantness, a supreme ego and a ragged driving style that I just didn't want to be around. So I made it pretty clear that I'm not looking for tours. Another alarm bell, perhaps. Airbnb really need to look in to this kind of thing though, because it creates such an atmosphere, when the host is pretty obviously relying on supplementary tours to boost his income.
But yeah, I'm not gonna interact with him anymore on this trip, so it will be fine. Unless of course, there's some biblical rainfall in Marrakech, and I have to dash home to dry myself off. And then the host literally invites himself in to the private apartment and opens the fucking door to the bedroom whilst I'm drying myself off. My husband shooed him away, and he stomped his way angrily (why though?!) back to his part of the riad.
Anyway, I've got plans for the rest of the trip, so I'm not even gonna be in this strange man's riad very much anyway, so the chances of interaction will be low. That is, until the AC was accidentally left on for an hour, and I got the message that prompted this post.
What the actual fu..?
Me and the OH were sat in a cafe in Gueliz sipping some Moroccan mint tea, or Thé a la Menthe if you're slightly more sophisticated, when I received the message, and it was a complete shock to the system. False accusation after false accusation, including, of all the random things imaginable, that we're racists! I have absolutely no clue what planet this guy was on, but it was not earth.
We had a good read through, accusation by accusation, trying to work out on where on earth the guy was pulling all this stuff from - I didn't eat his dinner; the canopy to the terrace was left open; the room was left in a mess; we were consistently rude to him; we are ungrateful, we snuck in to his private space like "spies"; we're racist etc etc. All false.
We took a taxi from the cafe back to the Riad, and decided immediately that we cannot stay in this guy's place, particularly after it kind of struck us that we can't lock the door to his section of the riad, and we can't even lock THE BEDROOM DOOR. Oh, and of course, that weird thing in the bathroom that looked half like a light, and half like a camera. I'd spotted CCTV outside that wasn't mentioned in the listing, and had no idea what this weird contraption was, so I covered it up with a sock, just incase.
But I mean, we hadn't put all of this together and realised how fucking insane it all was until that very moment, almost in synchronised horror, and then all of a sudden, that crashing realisation dawned upon both of us, that this guy is unhinged, and we can't even lock him out.
But what about that message?
His angry rant of a message absolutely deserves a whole section to itself. I mean, fuck me, I've never read anything like it. I've been down some paranoid, right-wing, racist twitter holes of late, but this was proper tinfoil hat stuff. His first accusation is that we'd only decided to stay at his place to 'punish' and 'humiliate' him. I literally cannot get my head around that - why would I travel to a foreign country to punish and humiliate someone I don't even know? I'm here to experience and enjoy Morocco, I literally had zero interest in the host.
Next up, he was upset that we went out for a walk before the dinner he invited to, and then arrived early 'like spies in my private area'. I mean what am I supposed to do, sit around in a room waiting for two hours whilst somebody cooks dinner? And what kind of host can't cope with guests arriving a couple of minutes early, and spying, really?! The courtyard was specifically listed as being fully accessible to guests. Dude, do you even remember what you listed?
By now, we started to realise he was clutching at straws for reasons to report us to Airbnb. And if that wasn't enough to convince us, he was also angry that we mentioned we booked the place because of the number of good reviews he'd had, as opposed to the lovely words of his previous guests. WHAT.
Then there was a brief, and bizarre, mention about racism, how we are only acting this way because he is Moroccan - not really sure what 'this way' is though to be fair, before he then goes on to mention that we are only staying at his 'most magnificent' riad, to 'profit off' him. No mate, we're staying at your riad, because it looked magnificent. Also, not sure how a paying guest can profit off of a host - but I know that a host with tour van can very easily profit off of tourists. It was pretty clear by now that he was enraged because we'd booked last minute, hadn't given him enough time to sell himself and sell his tours, and thus he wasn't going to 'profit off' of us.
When I'd read and re-read the message, just to actually take it all in and understand what was happening, for the first time on my travels, pretty much ever, it actually hit me: I'm in a foreign country, neither of us are fluent in French or Arabic, this is not our home, we're not from here, and we felt quite vulnerable. Up to that point, I'd loved Morocco, had a great time, met some truly warm, welcoming people, but this one guy was doing all he could to ruin it.
So the natural thing to do, was to find somewhere else to stay, quickly, which we did, get back to the apartment, pack our bags, check out, and get the fuck out of there. We were actually afraid that he'd barge in on us whilst packing and cause a scene, so we were literally flinging everything into our suitcase. After packing, we took photos of the place, as we had a feeling the host would try to con us in some way or form, and knocked on his external, street-facing door. No answer. Had to leave the keys inside, and close the front door behind us. We got out of there, into a hotel-slash-riad elsewhere, through booking.com and we were safe.
Whilst we were in our new riad, we decided to take a look through all of his previous reviews, hunting for the negative ones. Maybe it was us, maybe we actually did something wrong? But then we managed to find those negative ones, three of them in total, and two of them described a very similar situation. What was most telling though, was the host's responses, quite clearly apoplectic with rage, tirades of abuse, accusations and insults. Was I really reading this? How are Airbnb allowing this?
One reviewer gave him 3/5, because the listing said two bedrooms, when it was actually one, split in half by a curtain. The host did not like this at all. Oh no. She got similar treatment to the actual negative reviewers, she was allegedly a drunk that came home late at night, didn't appreciate the beautiful music of birdsong at 4am(?), took drugs, and because she'd left good reviews for 'much lesser services and ugly riads in Essaouira and Casablanca owned by whites', she must be racist too. I felt a lot more relieved to be out of there now, that was for sure.
All over then? Not quite...
Oh no. Our Superhost hadn't quite finished with us yet. No, no. We sent him a message, saying that we'd left, as we felt unsafe in his property, and we'd left the keys safely in his property. He replied by saying that we'd ransacked the place as a "final revenge", because, and I quote again "You only came to my place to punish and humiliate me, and this is your obviously your revenge to ransack my place."
Luckily I'd taken those photos, which show how I literally left the place as I found it, and I sent them to Airbnb, with a request for a refund, given the totally unsafe position I'd been put in by our slightly unhinged host. He of course responded, with a claim for triple the amount I had requested, for "injecting water in to the engine of his TV". I'm not really sure what that actually meant, but he wanted 700 euros for the privilege.
In all of his communication with us, he was clearly attempting to taunt and intimidate us, with the hope that I'd just drop it. He even mentioned at one point: "Go with your angry Fawzy story, but Airbnb know I've had 200 5 star reviews, with intense positivity, they know how to distinguish liars. Don't you worry about that."
Airbnb themselves were actually pretty useless for the first 48 hours, you know, the critical time period where you feel unsafe and need help the most. Their Moroccan phone line seemed to be permanently closed, they never responded when I raised a security and privacy issue on their website, and their dispute resolution team didn't seem to understand the situation at all, and kept requesting documentation to prove our side of the story.
They were very unresponsive, and deeply unhelpful initially, failing to understand the gravity of the situation, and palming us off at any opportunity. Despite having access to our communication, and hearing us explain the situation to them fully, they insisted that I should not have left, should not have cancelled the reservation, and should have let them mediate for us whilst I stay with this mad man.
In fact, in order to get them to take me seriously, I had to take it to Twitter, I had to explicitly mention that the apartment was not secure and that he'd walked in to the private area and the bedroom. As soon as they saw that message, they called within an hour. Without that, I don't think they'd have shown any interest at all.
I rang my dad just to let him know what had happened, and he advised me to take it the Tourist Police, and the British Embassy. He also reminded me that I worked for a consumer watchdog, and asked me what would I do if I came across a case like this? I didn't take it to the police in the end, as I was now aware of the host's talent for dramatisation and manipulation - no doubt he'd fire back at us with some other false accusations, I did email the embassy, as it was already closed for the weekend.
At that point, I began collating evidence, including scouring through all of our photos, no mean feat, to find any photos of the CCTV cameras and the locks. Airbnb's dispute team would frequently mention documentation and evidence, so I figured I ought to give them something to go with.
In the end, we were compensated by Airbnb for the two nights we had to spend elsewhere, refunded in full (including the cleaning and service fees), the 700 euro claim was ruled in our favour, the host mysteriously disappeared from their listings, his messages were removed from my inbox and I am unable to leave a review.
I am very fortunate, in that I've travelled quite a bit, experienced many different cultures, and generally know what to do in a tight situation and I know what a host shouldn't do. We may have let our guard slip in letting it get to this point, but I genuinely did worry about what might have happened had it been a solo female traveller, or a couple of inexperienced travellers at this guy's mercy.
On reflection, our host Fawzy, is a tour guide. The vast majority of his good reviews were from tourists who had used his tour services, and basically spent their entire holiday with him. It appears that he literally holds their hand for them whilst in Morocco, takes them around at inflated prices and stops off at his friends' shops or restaurants and takes commission on any sales. I am a very different traveller in that respect, I did not take any tours with him, go to his mates' shops or really spend much time with him at all, and I think that made him angry - he couldn't make any money out of us, and he was very driven by money.
What if this happens to me?
This experience has definitely been a learning one for me, as I made a few mis-steps along the way, probably got a bit complacent since Morocco is a relatively safe place to go to, and whilst there, the people I met were incredibly friendly and welcoming. So a few tips around Airbnb, some may seem obvious, but perhaps worth reminding:
- If your host sends you strange, unusual or bizarre messages before you've even arrived, look elsewhere. It's really not worth the hassle of staying with a host who doesn't really want you to stay there.
- Always read the bad reviews, especially if they're a superhost. Part of our complacency was rooted in the fact that our host had 200 reviews at an average of 4.88. That's pretty miraculous, but amongst all those good, I found some really horrific ones, and some disturbing replies from the host. Shame I didn't see these until after I found out he was a nutcase.
- And while we're on reviews, actually read them. What are they saying? When I read the reviews afterwards, I noticed a trend - all the guests spent a lot of time with this guy. That's great for them, but that's not what I wanted at all.
- If you do get bad vibes from the host, don't be afraid to just get out of there. Sure, it may cost you a bit of extra cash initially, but your safety is absolutely worth it. Plus, you can put in a claim to Airbnb if you leave early.
- If you do leave early, where possible, make sure the host has checked over the place before you leave, so that you don't get any nasty surprises later on.
- And do not cancel your reservation, even if you have left early, as this makes it difficult to claim refunds later.
- Take photos as evidence. Something broken? Take a picture. Something not quite right? Take a picture.
- Your apartment, or room, is meant to be private. If you cannot lock it from the inside, and prevent the host from entering whenever they please, take photos as evidence and leave immediately. It is absolutely not ok for you to have a lack of privacy and security like this, and Airbnb do not take kindly to hosts who breach the privacy of guests.
- If there is CCTV anywhere on the premises, either inside or pointing at the entrance, and this is not mentioned in the listing leave immediately. CCTV should always be disclosed in the listing. If it is not, there's a huge trust issue - how do you know there are no CCTV cameras in the bedroom, bathroom, etc? Again, it's really not worth the risk. Take photos of the CCTV cameras, and share these with Airbnb.
- Tourist Police - remember, if you're in a country that relies on tourism as major part of its economy, crimes against tourists are bad for that country's reputation, and thus the tourist police will most likely be on your side. If you're being harassed or conned, go to them if you can!
- Embassies - if you genuinely fear for your safety whilst abroad, contact your embassy in that country. They can provide you with all sorts of assistance.
- Communication with the host. Keep it unemotional and cordial - it is very easy to fight fire with fire, but Airbnb have access to all of your messages. If you reply in kind, it's not going to help your situation at all, so reply as if it was a work email. As tempted as you may be, you're never gonna tell that colleague you dislike to fuck off, so don't do it on Airbnb either.
- Complaints. I cannot stress this enough, but it's important to complain properly. As horrific as your situation may be, businesses and customer service reps struggle to comprehend the emotion of a situation. So first, you have to explain in very specific detail, exactly what happened, and why you think that is not acceptable. Then you can say how it made you feel, because now they understand the situation, they can picture themselves in that situation too. If you are emotional from the outset, it's very hard for the person dealing with your complaint to understand what happened, and then they won't be able to ask the right questions.
As I said, some of these may sound really obvious, but when you're abroad, having a whale of a time, these things kind of slip out of your consciousness, and you may not even realise that something isn't right. Don't let a bad host ruin your hard-earned time away though - you're on holiday to have fun, not be looking over your shoulder constantly.
Airbnb's decision making process is pretty opaque, so I'm not really sure why I won the case against the host, but I suspect it is because he had CCTV cameras that were not disclosed, I couldn't lock the apartment or bedroom in a way to stop the host gaining access, and he actually did enter without permission. I didn't take photos to use as evidence, I was more bothered about cleanliness, but I got lucky in that the lock situation and CCTV just so happened to be in the background of other photos I'd taken.
So, just remember, always do your research fully, and you absolutely do not have to tolerate bad behaviour by a host. Even if they have outrageously good reviews, it does not meant you are on your own. This guy tried to intimidate me and assert some kind of authority over me, with his superhost status. No. A bad host is a bad host, it doesn't matter how many good reviews they've had, they can still turn out to be bastards, and you can still win. Oh, and it turns out the host has been removed from Airbnb for 'violating their terms of service'.
If you've got any questions about my experience, or if you've had one of your own, or if you're even going through something like this right now, feel free to get in touch via comments or email, and I'll help you wherever I can.