Inside an Airbnb bait-and-switch

Whistler property was at centre of alleged rental scam

By
Pique Newsmagazine
March 8, 2020





airbnb
Photo iStock

Sarah was relieved to move with her family to their new home in Brio. After living next to one of those typical Whistler flophouses packed to the rafters with seasonal renters, she was eager to get away from the loud late-night parties and piles of trash left outside. Little did she know then just how much of a nightmare her neighbours would eventually turn out to be.

"It was wrecking our home life," said Sarah, whose name Pique has agreed to change. "They were listing it [on Airbnb] as a four-bedroom house and they would have upwards of 12, sometimes 15, 20 people using it as a party house every weekend."

Sarah wasn't alone in her frustrations.

Since the spring of 2017, dozens of complaints have poured into the municipal bylaw department about the property, not just for the noise and mess, but because the rotating cast of people streaming through the house every weekend seemed to indicate it was being rented illegally on Airbnb. The property owner, initially unaware of the rental scam, was ultimately fined multiple times, totalling $2,500.

As it turned out, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Tourist hubs across the globe have had to wrestle with the proliferation of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb — and Whistler is no exception. Years into its own affordable housing shortage, local legislators have had to tighten regulations on illegal nightly rentals. That, of course, has not stopped the practice from running rampant. Currently, hundreds of dwellings in the resort are listed on Airbnb, despite only a handful of neighbourhoods being zoned for it.

Through conversations with the property owner, neighbours, nightly renters, and dozens of pages of bylaw documents and photographs obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Pique offers a rare look inside one of these illegal nightly rentals, as well as the "bait-and-switch" scam one of the property's tenants used to allegedly con one woman out of more than $3,000.

Barriers to enforcement

Over the span of just a few months in the spring and summer of 2017, Whistler's Bylaw Services collected reams of evidence against the Panorama Ridge property, including screenshots of the alleged Airbnb listing and numerous photos showing the home's driveway jammed with cars, garbage and cigarette butts littering the grass, a black bear on the deck rummaging through discarded food, and even a naked man firing up an outdoor grill.

A screenshot of the purported Airbnb listing from that period advertised the residential-zoned property as "The Family ModLodge," available for $900 a night.

"Luxurious, bright and modern cabin with all the comforts of home," read the listing, which was posted by an Airbnb user with the profile name "Shawn." When contacted by Pique, the Vancouver-based homeowner, Shawn Pozer, denied ever renting the property illegally.

"That was not me," he said, adding that it was his tenants who listed the home on Airbnb without his knowledge.

"I thought I had long-term renters in there before," he added. "We've maintained that we've tried to follow the bylaws to a T from Day 1, and we have long-term renters in there now."

Although the home was on the RMOW's radar, initially at least, bylaw officers' hands were tied, despite the clear evidence it was being advertised on Airbnb.

Until a new tourist accommodation bylaw was adopted in July 2017, there was no policy against advertising nightly rentals in a residential zone. Once the new regulation went into effect, the RMOW no longer needed proof that rental activity was taking place, and could enforce against "illegal marketing" of a property.

In an Aug. 1, 2017 email to one of the neighbours who had filed a complaint, a bylaw officer said the listing had been deactivated and they expected "no future nightly rentals from this residence."

That could not have been further from the truth.

Ghost listing

On March 29, 2018, a Brio resident emailed Bylaw Services to urge them to reopen the file on the property, believing it was once again being rented illegally.

"The renting has been going on for the past few months. This week's current renters today confirmed they are renting the property," the neighbour wrote. The responding bylaw officer replied that the home had been brought into compliance the previous summer and allegations of illegal nightly rentals since then had been determined to be unfounded.

Things appeared to cool off over the following year, and neighbours were heartened to learn that a local couple, Liyna Boucher and her partner, had moved into the property in the spring of 2019.

But all was not as it seemed. "When we met the couple, who we thought was a couple, we were really excited because the owners... said they had rented it for a year to a family. We thought, 'Great, a family in a family neighbourhood,'" Sarah said. "Then we learned they weren't a family. That was just a front, and they were doing the same thing... renting it on Airbnb."

An exasperated Pozer confirmed the couple moved in in May 2019, and he later learned they had listed the home on Airbnb on weekends without his knowledge, even employing a common rental scam known as "ghost listing," which involved the tenant advertising a different, more luxurious home only for a guest to arrive and discover it was not what they paid for.

According to one email sent to Bylaw Services in July 2019, a woman said her daughter-in-law booked the Brio property only to realize upon arrival that it "looked nothing like the pictures posted on Air B&B [sic] and the address was different than the one she had been told." The email also claimed that an individual, whose name is blacked out in the bylaw records, told the woman's daughter-in-law that "she was waiting for changes to zoning in order to rent the home and that in the meantime, she requested that we tell the neighbours that we were friends staying with her" in order to avoid undue attention from authorities.

This aligns with a notice posted inside the property, a photograph of which was included in Bylaw Service's evidence, urging guests to "respect the premises and your neighbours," and to specifically watch out for a particular neighbour "of primary concern." The notice also informed guests that any bylaw fines incurred during their stay would be their responsibility to cover and would result in an additional $1,000 charge per night.

Rebecca, whose name Pique has agreed to change, was another one of the unfortunate few who thought she was booking a spacious, modern cabin for her family's trip to Whistler last summer only to find it was not as advertised.

"I booked a place on Airbnb, this beautiful 4,000-square-foot log cabin," she said when reached by phone. "We showed up and it was that [place] on Panorama Ridge. We were like, 'Is this the right place?'"

Rebecca's ordeal started months before arriving in the resort. On first contacting the Airbnb "host," Boucher — one of the tenants at the Panorama Ridge home — Rebecca was told the house had already been rented. Boucher then allegedly offered a discounted rate if Rebecca wanted to re-book at a future date. When Rebecca contacted Boucher two months later, it was suggested that to "save some money, we can do [a deal] on the side," outside of Airbnb.

Rebecca gave her credit card details to Boucher, who, according to a screenshot obtained by Pique, charged her $3,079.70. The charge was listed under "I.E. Natural Spa Care Whistler BC." A LinkedIn profile listed to Boucher names her as the director of spa operations at inspirEarth Natural Spa Care, based in Whistler.

Furious to find the place she thought she booked bore no resemblance to the home in Brio, Rebecca posted about the apparent scam to the popular Whistler Summer Facebook group.

In a screenshot of a text from the same number Pique reached Boucher at, she told Rebecca the whole thing could be chalked up to "a sincere accident." Boucher goes on to write that she was trying to arrange a refund, but the money was "not immediately available" because of the unexpected expense of Rebecca "choosing to be dissatisfied with the home and leave." Boucher also claimed that the cleaning costs — for a property that was never actually occupied — came out to almost $1,000.

Boucher then complained of Rebecca's "public online harassment, degradation of character and hate speech against me," and claimed she would refund the balance if Rebecca removed the Facebook post and agreed not to pursue the issue further. She still has yet to get the money back.

Pozer, the property's owner, said it was only through the five fines he was issued over the course of a nine-week span last summer that he learned the property was being rented again illegally on a nightly basis.

He evicted the couple last fall.

Explaining why it took so long to evict the tenants after receiving multiple fines, Pozer said it was because "the bylaw people are incredibly incommunicative and very slow in letting you know what's going on, [they] hid behind the Freedom of Information Act and would not release any details of what was going on... I had no information on which to terminate the lease, even though I was asking them."

Asked for clarity, a municipal spokesperson emailed that: "A property owner would not receive details about who made the complaint or certain specific details of the investigation. That is information they would need to submit a [Freedom of Information request] for. If they choose to go through the Bylaw adjudication process, they would receive an evidence package from the RMOW as part of the adjudication process."

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the property owner to ensure that their tenants are complying with all the applicable local bylaws, something that provincial adjudicator Tajda Mitha with the Residential Tenancy Branch agreed with in an October ruling over Pozer's dispute of an earlier bylaw fine. Mitha was "satisfied that there is compelling and convincing evidence" to show that the property was being operated illegally as a tourist accommodation business. In his dispute, Pozer said that the lessees had agreed in writing to cover the cost of the fines. To that, Mitha wrote that Pozer is responsible for any "unauthorized activities" on the property, but that he might have a claim for indemnity against his lessees. When reached by phone in December, Boucher confirmed she had rented from Pozer, but wouldn't explicitly say whether she listed the property illegally on Airbnb.

"A lot of homes rented on Airbnb have dual purposes, providing long-term rental for Whistler residents and also helping offset the costs of high rent," she said before hanging up.

Playing catch-up

On Jan. 31, two longstanding issues for the City of Toronto — housing and gun violence — converged in a downtown condo, which doubled as a popular weekend party rental on Airbnb, when three young men were killed in a late-night shooting.

The tragedy prompted a quick response from Airbnb, which announced it would begin testing new regulations across Canada to ban local guests under the age of 25 from booking entire homes, an effort to curb so-called "ghost hotels."

This followed another shooting that killed five at an Orinda, Calif. Airbnb rental during a Halloween party.

After that mass shooting, as well as an extensive Vice Media investigation last fall that uncovered a U.S.-wide scam run by a prolific grifter (or grifters) exploiting the platform's loosely written rules and enforcement, Airbnb vowed to institute a series of major changes in an effort to regain users' trust. Chief amongst them is a year-long effort the company has committed to that would involve verifying each of the seven million properties listed on Airbnb, part of a dawning realization that "we have to take more responsibility for stuff on our platform," according to CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky, speaking at the DealBook conference in November.

Chesky suggested Airbnb would start asking more specific questions to guests upon checkout, putting the onus on renters to help verify what happens on the platform. While it remains to be seen exactly what it will look like, Airbnb told Vice that the worldwide verification will use a combination of "Agent reviews and algorithmic screening of the listing contents, pictures, etc., guest verifications of specific feature of a listing, in-person inspections, and virtual walk-throughs."

If a guest checks into a listing that doesn't meet Airbnb's accuracy standards, Chesky said, they will either be rebooked into a similar listing or receive a full refund.

Matt Hick, CEO of B.C.-based vacation rental service alluraDirect, which boasts more than 270 legitimate Whistler properties for rent, believes verifying the accuracy of a rental property would be easy enough — but he wants Airbnb to go a step further.

"I don't believe they're going to do it, but they could do it, which is verifying the zoning of the property and then verifying if it actually has a legitimate business licence in place," he explained.

"So you put the onus back on the company to verify that the business licence is legitimate and that the zoning is correct. We have enough information. As rental companies, we have the full address of the unit, we know who is saying they own the unit. We can check with the RMOW if [a property owner] has a licence in place. We already do this."

Following the Jan. 31 shooting in Toronto, Airbnb said it would also establish a 24/7 neighbourhood support hotline to connect residents with "rapid response agents" to deal with any concerns.

Hick said the effectiveness of such a hotline would depend on how it was set up.

"If the hotline is simply a phone number that phones someone in India or something, and their job is to figure out how to stop the party, really, what they're going to do is call the property host on file, and if they can get ahold of them, then great. Then they're just going to pass the buck to the owner," he said. "But if they can't get ahold of the owner, what's the next step? The next step would obviously be contacting security or police. How are they going to scale that? How are they going to know every security company in every location? It's logistically impossible."

The added challenge will come when owners have set up their rental property exclusively for the purpose of hosting parties.

"It's next to impossible when the property owners themselves know what's happening," Hick said. "When the properties are set up that way, with cheap furniture, a high damage deposit and they list it at a really high rate, they know what's happening. So how do you curb that?"

Asked how Airbnb's year-long verification process might impact Whistler, Mayor Jack Crompton said it was a step in the right direction. "It should mean less fraud, and a better overall guest experience," he said. "I don't expect Airbnb's verification will significantly change Whistler's enforcement strategy. If anything the adjustment creates greater alignment between Airbnb and Whistler's tourist accommodation."

The mayor also believes measures the RMOW has put in place to crack down on properties in neighbourhoods not zoned for nightly rentals is beginning to catch up with the technology.

"It's improving," he said. "A lot of the tools that were in place five years ago were built for a pre-digital era. Much of the work we're doing now is to modernize the tools we have to enforce existing bylaws. The bylaws themselves carry a lot of value when met with a modernized enforcement tool."

At press time, there were roughly 1,700 Whistler properties listed on Airbnb, and 1,000 or so on VRBO.

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