Airbnb & your Personal Safety.

After receiving an invitation to a friend’s wedding in Irvine, California, I got right to work searching for the perfect place to stay with my husband and our two dogs for our upcoming weekend trip.

Traveling with dogs adds an extra layer of complexity to trip planning, even if they’re well behaved, as many locations don’t want to take a chance. Luckily, Airbnb has plenty of pet-friendly units. Although I had one horrible stay in an Airbnb rented beach house, chock full of black mold, I have since done my due diligence to hopefully ensure that I will never repeat a nightmarish trip like that.

I searched Airbnb for an unshared one bedroom, pet-friendly apartment with an Airbnb verified super host with plenty of five-star ratings.

And Bingo! Just like that, I found a unit that checked all of my boxes at a reasonable price.

The apartment is at The Park at Irvine Spectrum, a luxurious planned community, complete with saltwater pools, Starbucks, gyms, a safe gated community, a shopping mall, and a community dog park, just steps from the apartment.

spec2

What could possibly go wrong?

Fast-forward a few weeks, and it’s check-in time.

I get in touch with the host, who messages me that he will be in his white BMW, blinkers on, next to the dog park. Once we locate him, we are to follow him into the parking garage and then up to the apartment.

I’m surprised when I don’t see our host Allen, but he is busy and has sent his friend to help us out.

My husband parks and takes the dogs across the street to the dog park after the long drive. I follow Allen’s friend, who instructs me on using the electronic key fob to get through the security gates and who then escorts me to the apartment.

When we arrive at the door, I’m confused, as the address does not match the one given to me by Airbnb upon paying for my reservation. I ask why the apartment number differs from the one I received from Airbnb, and he tells me it is for guest safety.

Something about what he says isn’t making complete sense, but I’m exhausted from the long drive, and he is from Iran, so English is not his first language. I figure something must have gotten lost in translation and let it pass, as I’d hate to be rude.

He shows me around the spacious, tastefully decorated apartment. Everything seems in order. His phone is constantly beeping and ringing with texts and calls. He explains that he is in a rush to check in several other guests, and on his way out the door, tells me that the locals are picky, so if anyone asks where I live, when using the gym, pools, or dog park, to say that I’m visiting my cousin.

I have no time to react to what he’s just said as he shuts the door. I’m starting to get a bad feeling, but I want to get things settled before my husband returns with the dogs.

Moments later, I quickly realize that I let Allen’s friend go too soon, as I find several issues with the unit, including missing amenities, cleaning issues, and safety concerns. To top it off, the bedroom and its walk-in closet have no working electricity.

I shoot him a text and try to troubleshoot the lighting issue. He replies that he’ll return within the hour.

By the time he reappears, I’ve written a long list of problems and figured out that a fuse blew in the bedroom, as the bedside lamps work when plugged in elsewhere in the unit.

As we search to find the fuse box, I tell him there is no soap of any type in the entire apartment.  He explains that Airbnb advised their hosts to remove all soap from their units due to a lawsuit involving a woman who went bald after washing her hair with a cleaning solution. He asks me if I have seen the news story.

Funny – I guess I missed that one.

I discuss multiple problems and point out two light fixtures requiring multiple bulbs, in the bath and kitchen that have live sockets when turned on, due to missing lightbulbs. I surmise that the fuse blew when a guest, wanting light in the bedroom, replaced a dead lightbulb in the bedside lamp with a bulb taken from one of these other fixtures that had bulbs with wattage ratings that were too high.

He discusses the electrical problems with Allen by phone. He finally hangs up and tells me maintenance will be arriving soon, and I must hide my dogs and their toys before they show up.

What? This apartment is supposed to be pet-friendly!

As the list of red flags grows, it begins to sink in that this is not a good situation. My husband, who has only been back with the dogs for a half-hour, shoots me a death stare.

My anxiety is swiftly rising, and my livid husband disappears again into the night with our now banished dogs. Just before I blow a fuse of my own, Allen’s friend finally locates the fuse panel behind the door of the dark bedroom.

After a few clicks to reset the fuses, the lights finally turn on. Allen’s friend cancels maintenance, and I text my husband that he can bring the dogs back. He shows me a picture of his dog in an attempt to forge a connection with me in any way he can. This guy is slick. I doubt he even owns a dog.

I tell him that my husband is beyond furious, and that I expect a partial refund for the 3 hours of problems we’ve endured.

He promises to bring me soap and other supplies the next day and will ask Allen about the refund. He makes me promise to leave a positive review if I get any money back. He then leans in for an awkward, unwanted hug and tells me that he is only twenty, and to have a heart.

Sure. Whatever. Just get out. Get back into your fancy new BMW in all of your overpriced clothing and go back to your ‘How to Swindle People Any Way You Can’ class that you cut, to show me into Allen’s illegal unit.

These people are making loads of money and not in a way that strikes me as legal.

I’m not surprised when I hear nothing back, no supplies are delivered as promised, and I receive no partial refund over the weekend.

But we’ve got a wedding to attend, and I don’t feel safe complaining about disreputable people while staying under their roof. And where else could we go at this late hour with two dogs? As unhappy as we are at this place, we are stuck.

Luckily, we have a great time at the wedding, and before we know it, it’s time to head home.  Checkout time is at noon.

Before leaving, I call Spectrum’s leasing office. The woman on the line affirms my suspicions that there is something sketchy going on. Residents may only rent one unit, and subletting apartments through Airbnb is strictly prohibited. I give her the address provided by Airbnb, as well as the address where I’ve been staying.

Before leaving, I do my usual ‘end of vacation sweep,’ checking all drawers, closets, and underneath the furniture to make sure we leave nothing behind. During my sweep, I happen to find a bill for renter’s insurance. The address matches the apartment that I’m in, but the name on the invoice is not Allen’s. The letterhead on the invoice is that of a place called Irvine Company.

I take photos of the bill, the light sockets with missing bulbs (that could kill anyone who doesn’t know better than to touch them), and of the apartment before leaving.

IMG_6803

Once on the road, I had hoped to be able to relax again finally. Unfortunately, now that I feel safe, my ability to think logically and rationally slowly starts to return, but only for a few moments. As I come to grips with how dangerous that situation was, I am a soon a nervous mess all over again.

What if I had shown up alone? I gave our itinerary to friends and family, with the address of where we were staying, but if anything had happened, no one would have known where we ended up!

Any unknown person could have taken me into a unit number that was different than the one given out by Airbnb.

Then it hits me: This is precisely what happened.

Luckily, my husband was with me, and I didn’t end up a grim statistic of someone who was drugged, raped, killed, or put into a shipping container and sold into a sex trafficking ring.

As the miles go by, I understand more and more that we unwittingly stayed in a dangerous situation, that blatantly disregarded rules of both Spectrum Apartments and Airbnb.

I draft a note to “Allen” and forward it through Airbnb’s resolution program, asking for a complete refund.

But my mind still won’t rest. There’s something more to this situation that doesn’t feel right.

I’m no longer worried about myself.  My husband and I are okay. But, I can’t stop thinking about the safety of others, and what might happen to them if I don’t get to the bottom of this and set this situation straight to the best of my ability. And these unsafe situations are beginning to feel a lot like the nightmares that Uber and Lyft have been dealing with, but worse.

I look up Irvine on Airbnb again. I find countless of verified, super hosts on Airbnb doing the same exact thing as Allen, who has 9 listings (all through Irvine Company Apartment Communities) at both the Irvine Spectrum and the Newport Fashion Valley locations, as of October 19, 2019. But the others are easy to track down. Like 大牛Amanda, or Xander.

I followed the chain of Airbnb super hosts who all list multiple, similar units. Although the addresses are missing, the photos, descriptions of amenities and reviews confirm their locations to be at one or more of the125+ communities managed by Irvine Company Apartment Communities, all up and down the coast of California. Many reviews mention sketchy check-in procedures and guests feeling as if they were in a place they shouldn’t be.

It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots and figure out that Irvine Company Apartment Communities is owned by Irvine Company, which is owned by one man: Donald Bren.

Donald Leroy Bren (born May 11, 1932) is an American businessman who is chairman and sole owner of the Irvine Company, a US real estate investment company.[8] Bren’s net worth is approximately $16.3 billion, making him number 30 on the 2018 Forbes 400 list.” (Taken from Wikipedia)

After arriving home, I make a few calls and dig a bit deeper. It turns out that Irvine Company Apartment Communities would like people to think that they are trying to put a stop to this massive, unsafe scam, but what are they doing to stop it? As far as I could tell, nothing.

Just imagine signing an expensive lease to live in luxury within a secure, gated community. Then imagine seeing maid carts go from room to room each day in the hallways, new neighbors moving in and out each day in the elevators with their suitcases, crowded dog parks, gyms, and pools full of tourists who are in vacation mode 24-7. And then think about the safety issues of never knowing who your neighbors are, as you get new ones each day.

If I were a legitimate Spectrum resident, I’d be furious, and I’d want out of my lease as quickly as possible. Consider parents who pay extra for safe, gated communities, so they don’t have to worry while their children are attending UC Irvine or other California colleges or universities. The safety issues are enough to turn any parent’s stomach.

The manager who I spoke to at Irvine Company Apartment Communities sounded as if he was reading from a script when I asked him what he was doing to put a stop to this. Was he working with Airbnb to stop this? Were insiders renting the Airbnb units themselves to determine which apartments are involved?

His answer? “Well, those would be logical ways to figure things out now, wouldn’t they?” He chuckled and then admitted that they have never tried any of these methods.

I also asked if the neighbors had been made aware of these ongoing safety issues through a mailing or any other method? Nope. Wouldn’t want to scare the residents, right?

I’m guessing that as long as the occupancy rates remain as high as possible, with cash flowing in, that managers are happy to look the other way, and this won’t be stopping anytime soon.

And what about Airbnb?

I ask for the “Verified” identification and address of my “Super host,” and they won’t give it to me. Can’t give it to me. That would break their privacy rules.

Airbnb also knows that Irvine Company Apartment Communities does not allow Airbnb rentals and that hosts are giving false addresses to get around the rules, but as far as I know, have done nothing to stop it.

Even people who are safety conscious could quickly be taken, hurt, or killed, but neither company seems to be taking actions to stop any of this. It would create bad press.

I asked Airbnb what people should do, and they told me if I feel unsafe to call the police. I call Spectrum back, and they told me the same thing.

But, I’m worried about others who this is happening to as well as the legitimate residents who are paying astronomical rents to live in safe, secure, gated communities that aren’t safe.  What about them? And what about developments in other states that might be doing the very same thing? How can anyone ensure their safety at Airbnb or where they operate?

The whole thing leaves me feeling sick.

And, no. I still have not been refunded for my hellish apartment stay in paradise.

~LHK

Note: it seems that the word has gotten out.  My host has dropped from 12 to 9 listings, and others are changing the wording on their Airbnb sites.  This will make it harder to spot these scammers, so use extra care when booking.

What is one thing that a child said to you that you never expected a child to say? (My answer to a Quora question)

IMG_0800

My son was two and I was pregnant with my second child. We had ended up co-sleeping with our son (family bed), and expected to (and did) co-sleep with our second and third child as thy came into the world. While I was pregnant with my second child, I sold the crib that had only been used for portions of two nights to a very confused looking pregnant woman. I wanted it out of storage. My son had never seen used, except to store unfolded laundry and cloth diapers.

We went to a friend’s home for a play date. She had a little boy who was the same age as my son. She also had an infant daughter. When we arrived, my son wanted to see the new baby and my friend told him that she was just waking up from a nap and that he could follow her to see the baby.

Continue reading

Somebody Knows Where Some of This Came From.

 

Yosemite

Somebody Knows Where Some of This Came From.

Ah, a dream lurking in the clouds.
How nice.
White on white.
I can not tell one from the other sometimes, but the contrast is divine.

You are my chosen side of a blank piece of paper.
One side always holds more appeal than the other,
Anyone who has ever looked off into the distance can tell you this much.

I let my eyes run across you
Until you fade in and out of view before me.
You distract with your abstract and hold my attention. Continue reading

This Love.

image

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven via poetry by Friedrich Schiller

This Love.

This love, torturing me. Moving my tender heart ceaselessly with its exquisitely painful, yet beautiful song.

This love, a chorus of sirens so hauntingly lovely upon approach, I must lower the sails to listen, even as their bittersweet requiem will surely kill my yearning soul with pleasure.

This love, a lilting, candlelit nocturne to who-knows-where we will be led next.

This love, softer than a cloud caressing herself until a new arrangement is made, a single movement at a time.

This love, resembling a score of waves lead by the moon as the sea, herself, laps blissfully against my skin.

This love, an ever teasing, solo mirage in this vast, heartbreakingly beautiful pastoral of Painted Desert sands.

This love, a choir of shifting stars and seas and sands in which I would willingly surrender to drown in.

This love, that itches so intensely that composure becomes impossible to feign. Continue reading

Don’t Blink.

image

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle

Yesterday, I was driving home from an appointment. On the curb, where I turn into my street, a father with his two-year-old sat where the olive trees grow. The sun was high over head at noontime and the light filtered through the leaves, leaving shiny patches on their smooth tanned faces.

Peals of laughter rang out from both father and his son, who was at the moment, having a ball playing with a plastic bottle cap. He held it up and played with as if it was a prized possession. There is magic in toys of this sort that can entertain for hours.

Both father and son were having the time of their lives. Chatting it up and laughing up a storm. So full of energy, that if they had done an impromptu rain dance a cloud would have surely appeared.

I rounded the corner, and slowed to a snail’s pace in case the boy decided to dart from where he was sitting, as young children often do.

I started feeling the wave of a blush fall over me as I realized I had entered and was enjoying their intimate moment when I wasn’t an invited guest to the party. I offered a little wave out of my embarrassment right as I passed them. The little boy waved back to me in the same way that my children used to when they were little. He waved his tiny hand, holding tightly onto the bottle cap. My heart turned into a puddle in my chest.

On autopilot, I parked the car in front of our house and got out to go inside. But, as my car door shut, the duo pulled me back to them like a magnet. Instead of walking to the door, my feet took me down the block toward where they sat. Continue reading

Let Your Heart Fly & Your Soul Roar.

image

We have all been shaken by life events. Some more so than others, but no one’s life is a constant party. We have all been hurt and this pain may have stopped or delayed us from living out our passions to the fullest.

I strongly believe that finding our passion and carrying it out to the best of our abilities has a healing effect on each and every one of us.

My writing has always made my heart sing. I started as soon as I could hold a pencil. Although there were some dark years, I still wrote when I could, but more recently my passion has taken flight.

I may not be as polished or as eloquent as others, but writing is my release and my joy. I am happy and unashamed to share my words with the world today. This has opened my soul up in so many ways, and I can’t say how grateful that I am for this blessing.

I urge everyone to look within the depths of your own being and start living what calls to your own heart and soul. It is never too late and it may not be perfect (this was a fear of my own), but listening to your calling and living out your own authentic truth will set you free. Continue reading

Overwhelmed Due to Paralyzing Emotions or PTSD?

image

“Even though you may want to move forward in your life, you may have one foot on the brakes. In order to be free, we must learn how to let go. Release the hurt. Release the fear. Refuse to entertain your old pain. The energy it takes to hang onto the past is holding you back from a new life. What is it you would let go of today?” ~ Mary Manin Morrissey

 

I think many of us have experienced situations in which we were so petrified of what might happen that we literally could not move, let alone breathe properly.

One of the first times I can remember this happening to me was when I was about three years old.

I was in my bedroom late at night and I actually saw ghosts of soldiers marching up and down the hallway outside of my cracked open bedroom door. I still swear to this day that they were real.

I was wide awake and concentrated on making myself as small as I could and breathing as shallow as was feasible, lest they see me and find me. I found myself overwhelmed with fear and not knowing how to solve this problem.

I wanted nothing more badly than to run down the hall to my parent’s bedroom to be comforted, but it was the same long hallway that the gun toting, marching soldiers were occupying. And I had a strong intuitive feeling they did not want to be bothered or be seen by me. And I certainly did not want to get close to them.

image

So there I lay—afraid to even make the small movement of closing my eyes. I was engulfed in the crushing terror of being without a good solution to my problem.

The soldiers showed up on more than one occasion, but I never told my parents, lest the brigade would find me out and become angry with me for telling anyone.

Looking back, I might chalk this experience up to a child’s imagination, but I refuse to discount my feelings that were so very real at that time. Whatever it was that I saw through my eyes and/or my brain during those nights was genuine, and I would never want to dishonor my truth at any age.

Fast forward from age three into adulthood—I have had these petrified feelings many more times since then. And, I know many others have had them too.

For me, it feels like a cold white heat in my chest, with the inability to inhale a full breath. Many would call this incident a panic attack, but I’m choosing not to label my experiences at this time.

These mind-sets have settled upon me on many occasions throughout my 45 years—some for good reason (like the time I was shot at by my friend’s crazy neighbor or after my father’s suicide) and some for seemingly lesser reasons (such as when I have become weighed down and felt that I could not get out of bed to save my life). No matter what the reason, my body’s physical reaction has been similar, and I know many others who can relate. In my case, this is caused by delayed-onset PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

I have learned some tricks along the way to ease the pain of these frozen feelings: And yes, I have been to therapy (a lot) and have read many books on dealing with how to dig my way out of the holes that I feel stuck in and situations I feel threatened by.

Here is what I have learned: Continue reading

My Words of Love.

poemcatherine3

We all need to be heard…

I was contemplating this need after a conversation that I had with a dear friend. I had shared a poem with him and he explained that it caused deep feelings to well from the depths his heart. He was sad and told me that he felt like crying. This was the exact feeling that I had experienced upon reading the very same poem that I had sent to him.

The more that I thought about our exchange, the more I came to believe that I am at my most vulnerable with my writing when I am creating poetry. Somehow, this form of writing opens up the gates to my heart more than with any other type of writing is able to do.

I also feel that poems, when read or heard, dig a little deeper into our souls than any other form of written medium.

Further, I realized that when you have a very good friend, you can’t always hold back information that touches your own heart in an effort to spare their heart. We are on this earth to laugh and cry together.

The following poem was inspired by the above conversation with my friend. I was also inspired by another beautiful friend’s vision of how poetry (writing, reading, and sharing) frees our souls and touches all of us so deeply as every ‘Journey of the Heart’ inevitably does. Continue reading

Contemplating the Arts.

image

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love this quote. It speaks to what I believe deep inside my heart and soul. When I think of the light that shines through us, I think of myself, my children, and about all of the people I know and even those I don’t know or haven’t met yet.

When I apply this idea to the arts, magical light starts shining from within me. And I begin to think of others—how glorious would it be if more people let their light shine upon a painting, photo, song or poem?

I also think of our future—the children in this world. Will they grow to appreciate and let their light shine upon various types of art?

With so many of the arts being taken out of school curricula, my hope is that the next generation will learn either through self discovery or gentle guidance from their parents. And my true wish is that they will learn to do this mindfully.

When I was a child, art was something that I could escape to, and oh how wonderful it was! It made me feel every emotion I never knew I had.

image

I grew a deep love for the arts at an early age, as I enjoyed the many paintings that we had hanging on our walls, and I was profoundly mesmerized by the photography and art books in our home.

In particular, I spent hours studying a photography exhibit made into a book called, The Family of Man. This book showcased photos of various people from all the world over. I would stay blissfully fascinated for hours at a time looking through those photos. They chronicled people from birth to death—in war, happiness, fear, serenity and all that fell in between.

I studied those photos so much that I became those people in my mind, noticing every detail of their facial expressions, contact that they had with the land, objects or people among them. I was entranced, and I still often retreat to this cherished book. Continue reading

10 Ways to be Sensual without being Sexual.

image

“Sensual pleasures are like soap bubbles, sparkling, effervescent. The pleasures of intellect are calm, beautiful, sublime, ever enduring and climbing upward to the borders of the unseen world.” – John H. Aughey

I have been struggling with the possibly of writing about sex and I just can’t go there.

I have teen children and a husband who is a very private person, and whom I respect greatly. And, I am also very private about this part of my life as well.

So, I have decided to write about some of the expressions of love that make me feel really close to my husband (and even some that apply to friends and family), which have nothing at all to do with sex. And believe me when I say that I feel that these sensual experiences are what almost every woman (and possibly man) secretly or not-so secretly desire and need in a relationship much more than sex at times. Continue reading