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.
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.
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.
“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. 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.
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.