How Airbnb bandits operate
30th December 2018

How Airbnb bandits rent out properties to prostitutes, drug dealers and party animals next door to YOU: Homes trashed, council houses turned into cash cows and neighbours left without a wink of sleep thanks to unscrupulous app users

  • Homes let through Airbnb are being turned into ‘pop-up’ brothels, MoS reveals 
  • Estimated 120,000 flats and houses in UK are unlawfully sub-let through the site 
  • Tenants can make a fortune with some charging three times their rent

Property rental site Airbnb is blighting thousands of lives in Britain’s towns and cities, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found.

Homes let through the US-based online service are, increasingly, being turned into ‘pop-up’ brothels and used for huge parties, likened by police to unlicensed raves.

It is now estimated that more than 120,000 flats and houses in the UK are unlawfully sub-let through the site, and others like it, often without the owners knowing.

Tenants can make a fortune, with some charging three times what they pay in rent.

In one shocking example, reporters exposed a London-based Italian woman who funds a jet-set lifestyle renting out 12 properties through Airbnb – none of which she appears to own.

Property rental site Airbnb is blighting thousands of lives in Britain’s towns and cities, a Mail on Sunday investigation has found

Across the country residents spoke of how anti-social behaviour and a constant flow of anonymous visitors had degraded their quality of life and the character of communities.

All-night parties have caused ‘misery’ in one area of East London, for instance, while in Edinburgh the online service has been branded ‘a plague’.

And 90 residents of an exclusive apartment block in Cardiff Bay joined forces to demand that the council ban Airbnb after enduring a series of disorderly parties.

Airbnb transformed the tourism industry when it was set up in 2008 to allow homeowners to let spare rooms or entire properties for short periods. Hosts advertise their property with pictures, guests pay them per night and the website takes a fee from both.

But we discovered that the system is being abused and exploited on a major scale.

Last night, MPs demanded action to prevent illegal sub-letting and said Airbnb owners should be licensed. Only hosts with licences would then be allowed to advertise properties on the site.

Similar schemes have been adopted in New York, Barcelona, Berlin and San Francisco to combat the problem.

Airbnb insist anti-social behaviour is extremely rare and say the vast majority of guests act respectfully. But our investigation found:

  • Airbnb was warned about a woman operating a sub-letting scam, but allowed her to continue raking in thousands;
  • Prostitutes use Airbnb properties because they are more discreet than hotels and brothels;
  • A social housing flat in an area with a chronic shortage of accommodation was sub-let 119 times in just three years;
  • More than 100 apartments in an upmarket block in Central London are thought to have been unlawfully let, causing misery for residents.

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Westminster North MP Karen Buck said: ‘Airbnb is not what it was originally conceived for – there has been a massive shift in the model.

‘It is no longer used by people who rent out their homes while on holiday. People are letting all the year round.

‘There are areas where people tell me that they are now living in a branch of the hospitality industry, not a residential area.

‘People use it for brothels and parties, and local communities are suffering all the turmoil that brings: lack of security, noise, nuisance, parties, rubbish.

‘Properties that could provide homes for people are being removed from the rental stock because much more money can be made from short-term lets.’

The Mail on Sunday discovered Italian-born Natali Rossi, 37, advertising expensive properties in Central London through Airbnb without the permission of owners.

When the owner of a £1.5 million Soho apartment she sub-let found out, he repeatedly wrote to the site – but Airbnb claimed there was nothing it could do. Rossi had posed as a £120,000-a-year cancer specialist and falsified references to rent the £800-a-week flat. After signing the tenancy agreement, she immediately began sub-letting it for £600-a-night. Soon there were reports of drug-fuelled parties, which got so bad that a neighbour was forced to move out.

In October, Rossi was arrested at the flat and cautioned after admitting fraud by false representation. Afterwards, to the fury of the owner, she continued sub-letting the property, with Airbnb seemingly powerless to stop her.

Westminster North MP Karen Buck said: ‘Airbnb is not what it was originally conceived for – there has been a massive shift in the model’

She told an undercover MoS reporter, who rented a room in another flat she rents in Maida Vale, West London – one of 12 properties she lists on the site – that she earns a fortune and boasted of overcharging super-rich Arabs. The sub-letting problem is most severe in Central London where Westminster council is investigating 1,383 questionable short-term lets. Our research found that a one-bedroom flat in the area will rent for £495-a-week on an ordinary tenancy, but £1,561-a-week on a nightly basis.

In one apartment block, Park West near Hyde Park, the council believes 106 of the 530 flats are being used illegally. Westminster said it has received reports of sex workers occupying the apartments. Others are frequently used by overseas medical ‘tourists’ to recuperate after operations.

The block is in the constituency of MP Mark Field, who said: ‘Concerns around security, safety, increases in crime and the loss of a sense of local community are recurring themes in my postbag from constituents.

‘The frequent, in some cases constant, turnover of guests leaves residents not knowing their neighbours, uncertain as to who is in the building and what they are using the properties for.’

In East London, residents described how their lives have been made a misery by all-night drug-fuelled parties in a four-bedroom house listed on Airbnb.

Neighbour Abigail Darling, 47, said of one party: ‘It was very intimidating. The atmosphere was such that I really didn’t fancy asking them to turn the music down and my kids were petrified of me going outside.

‘I’ve checked the booking websites and it seems the place is booked out for New Year’s Eve, which fills me with dread already.’

This house, in Victoria Park, Hackney, was let by one of many agencies specifically set up to capitalise on the Airbnb boom. Often they have dozens of properties on their books and manage everything from key exchange to bedding provision on behalf of owners.

Residents in Edinburgh city centre’s historic Grassmarket district say Airbnb has become synonymous with anti-social behaviour.

Nick Cumming who lives in a studio flat there, said: ‘We have 20 flats in this building and eight are on Airbnb. It’s a plague and it changes the city centre. It wasn’t like that when I moved here 12 years ago. Now it’s just constant noise.’

Airbnb users often share their experiences of city centre apartments online. One guest said he rented a room in an apartment in Central London only to find the other two bedrooms being used by prostitutes.

Councils in Liverpool, Oxford, Brighton and Edinburgh have all looked at ways of curtailing Airbnb activity in their cities with no success. Laura Robertson-Collins, a Liverpool councillor, said her once-peaceful area is now often ‘shattered by noise, mess, and parking from visitors who have no respect for community’.

She added: ‘There have been some terrible examples of parties that are near riots here due to Airbnb-type renting.’

In London, hosts are restricted to renting out their homes for a maximum of 90 days a year, but the rule is difficult to enforce.

Data from research website Inside Airbnb claims that 8,775 properties in London may be breaching the 90 day-limit.

Our investigation turned up one home in London that had been reviewed 119 times in the past year, which suggests it has been rented for more than 90 days during that time.

Lawyer Giles Peaker, who specialises in evicting sub-letting tenants, said Airbnb is turning a blind eye to the problem.

‘The trouble is, the way Airbnb is being used is not how it was envisaged – it used to be about letting out a spare room over the weekend. Now whole properties are being let out all year round.

‘Airbnb doesn’t even share its data with councils, so how are councils expected to enforce the 90-day limit?

‘Large, noisy groups, people traipsing in and out at all hours, constant noise of wheelie bags – a lot of the time these are expensive blocks. The system should be licensed. This would mean the council could crack down on anyone renting without permission.’

This newspaper found one letting company, Veeve, with 1,086 properties on its site.

At first glance, the listings looked like they had been set up by individuals. But guests have left reviews complaining they were not aware that the properties were actually being let by a company.

A spokesman for Veeve said: ‘We have pushed for Airbnb to enable property managers to advertise their brand names and logos on their listings, and this is something they are starting to roll out now.

‘Historically this has caused some confusion for guests on their platform.’

According to data from the Residential Landlords Association (RLA), seven per cent of its members have had properties unlawfully sub-let on websites such as Airbnb.

That suggests as many as 122,500 properties are being sub-let. It is not known how many of these are advertised on sites such as Airbnb, but experts say it has become the ‘destination of choice’ for listing short-term lets.

David Smith, policy director at RLA, said: ‘Airbnb is not doing anywhere near enough to stop problems associated with its business, such as damage to properties and noisy neighbours. In other countries the company has been forced to regulate its site – with measures such as limits on the numbers of properties and forcing them to share data with the council – but we have none of that in the UK.

‘Perversely, there are tax incentives available if you put your property on the site that aren’t available as a standard buy-to-let landlord.’

An Airbnb spokesman said: ‘These claims are utterly false and use inaccurate data to make misleading assumptions about hosts on Airbnb.

‘Airbnb is the only platform to help hosts follow the rules in London and has long been the industry leader in developing clear homesharing rules.

‘We have worked with over 500 governments around the world to help families share their homes and ensure hosting grows responsibly and sustainably.

‘The vast majority of entire homes in London on Airbnb (96 per cent) are shared for 90 nights or fewer, and those that go over include traditional B&Bs, hotels, and those that have permission to rent for longer.

‘The typical host is making £2,600 per year by sharing their home for fewer than four nights per month, meanwhile over 40,000 listings on other platforms go uncapped.’

how Airbnb works… and how scammers exploit it 

Fraud: One of Natali Rossi’s Airbnb listings for a flat she was sub-letting

Homeowners who are away or who have a holiday home, register on Airbnb to let out all or some of their property for a few days at a time.

‘Hosts’ post details, pictures and the nightly price. ‘Guests’ create a profile to book. Airbnb takes a fee from both parties.

Airbnb doesn’t check property ownership so scammers rent from a landlord then sub-let on Airbnb, posing as the owner.

Scammers turn a blind eye to parties, prostitution and drugs in the property. The owner finds out only when neighbours complain. 

Italian party girl cautioned for illegally sub-letting a £1.5million Soho townhouse on Airbnb was allowed to keep advertising on the app 

A glamorous Italian party girl caught unlawfully sub-letting on Airbnb was allowed to continue advertising properties on the site.

Natali Rossi, 37, was arrested and cautioned for fraud after she failed to tell the owner of a £1.5 million Soho flat that she was earning thousands of pounds a month by letting it out to guests through Airbnb – some of whom are alleged to have held drug-fuelled parties. The owner informed the website but Rossi was allowed to continue letting out 12 properties through the site.

An undercover Mail on Sunday reporter was able to rent a room in a three-bedroom apartment she advertised in Maida Vale, London. It later transpired she was not the owner.

Earned thousands: Natalie Rossi in an Instagram pose. During a meeting to hand over keys, Rossi bragged she was earning three times as much money from wealthy Saudi guests at her properties in Knightsbridge

During a meeting to hand over keys, Rossi bragged she was earning three times as much money from wealthy Saudi guests at her properties in Knightsbridge.

She said: ‘I get very good deals. The flats are super expensive – you ask triple the price. It’s a very, very high demand.

‘Clients are Arabs. They are the richest, they pay as much as they can. They all use Airbnb. It’s a good platform for sure. It’s the only one – they [Airbnb] killed all the others.’

Rossi, from Sassuolo in Modena, went on to make racist comments, claiming she would refuse bookings from black and Asian people. She said: ‘I decline. You don’t have to provide reasons. Decline. Finished. Of course you can’t tell Airbnb you declined because of blacks, they will ban me for life. I just say the flat is busy or anything.’

Ms Rossi, who had 142 reviews on the site, said she had owned the £625,000 Maida Vale flat for five years but we tracked down the real owner, branding expert Marcel Knobil. He had been on holiday in Argentina and, through a property management company, said: ‘I thought the property was being rented by an Italian doctor called Natali Rossi. I’m obviously concerned about this and have asked the letting agent to deal with it.’

Natali Rossi at the Maida Vale flat, above. Ms Rossi, who had 142 reviews on the site, said she had owned the £625,000 Maida Vale flat for five years

The flat Rossi had previously rented in Soho in May had been obtained through a letting agency. She falsified her references, claiming she was an NHS doctor earning £120,000 a year working at the Cancer Institute at University College London Hospitals.

The owner began to receive complaints from neighbours about three-day parties and drug taking. He discovered his £800-a-week home was being advertised on Airbnb by Rossi for up to £600 a night.

In October, Rossi was arrested at the flat and cautioned after admitting fraud by false representation – falsifying documents to obtain the property.

The owner said that there was around £15,000 worth of damage and that he had written more than 30 emails to Airbnb but they had refused to help.

Since being questioned by The Mail on Sunday, Rossi has removed all of her Airbnb listings.

… and her boyfriend is at it too 

Student Essam’s profile, verified by Airbnb

Part of portfolio: The block of flats in Daventry Street

Letting agents often rent out Airbnb properties without the landlord knowing.

The Mail on Sunday rented a studio flat at a three-storey house in Daventry Street, Central London, for two nights from Essam Bakry, 25 – the boyfriend of party girl Natali Rossi (see above).

Mr Bakry, from Egypt, who is in the UK on a student visa, had 11 Airbnb listings at the time of our booking.

Our reporter had to collect the key to the property from the office of AGP Properties, a letting agent near Paddington station. There was no mention on the Airbnb listing that the property was being let by an agent. When we tracked down the owner of the home they told us they had no idea it was on the website.

After being confronted by the MoS, Mr Bakry removed all his listings from Airbnb. Alfred Greza, of AGP Properties, said: ‘Essam does not work for us. He has got his own business. The apartment is a long term rental.’

Mr Bakry and Ms Rossi leave positive reviews for each other’s properties, as if they do not know each other. One review by Ms Rossi said: ‘Thank you Essam for letting us discover this hidden gem.’

Why sex workers like me use Airbnb flats all over the country to meet our clients: Crackdown on brothels means prostitutes are exploiting the app to run their illicit trade 

Prostitutes are increasingly using Airbnb properties as ‘pop-up brothels’ because they are more discreet and secure than working out of hotels and brothels.

Sex worker Charlotte Rose told The Mail on Sunday that she and other prostitutes use the website because traditional brothels are being closed down by police.

She said: ‘I have stayed in Airbnbs all over the country for work. It’s perfect because I can check out the place before I book it. I prefer blocks of flats with a gated entrance with a video camera intercom.

Sex worker Charlotte Rose told The Mail on Sunday that she and other prostitutes use the website because traditional brothels are being closed down by police

‘It’s about my safety because I am vulnerable on my own. When I go to a new town that I’ve never been to before I always use Airbnb.’

Ms Rose, 36, who charges £160 an hour and won ‘Sex Worker of the Year’ at the Sexual Freedom Awards in 2013, said she turned to Airbnb around three years ago.

She said: ‘It’s ideal because you don’t have to pay a deposit or a month’s rent up front, you can just spend a few days somewhere and move on.

‘I don’t like the term pop-up brothel because that implies there is more than one girl working there, which is illegal.

‘I don’t see what I do as being any different from couples who book Airbnbs for a weekend of sex with swinging couples.

‘I think as long as the sex workers clean up and do not bother other people, they should be allowed to get on with it.’

Westminister council says it has received reports of sex workers using flats in one of its mansion blocks at Park West, near Hyde Park in Central London.

Vice rumours: Park West in Central London where prostitutes have moved in

Airbnb says it has a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards prostitution. But its website is full of complaints from customers and hosts who say flats and rooms have been abused by sex workers. One Canadian tourist visiting London told of a hellish ordeal staying in an Airbnb house with two sex workers who were visited by ‘approximately 10-15 guys per night’.

He wrote: ‘Men kept coming to them and the female was wearing a shower gown all night. So we couldn’t really have a proper sleep by these women and several male’s sexual talk and the smell of cigarettes.’

A woman from Gloucestershire, who had booked a ‘cosy flat in the heart of Soho’ through Airbnb, received an unwelcome 7.30am knock at the door from a man asking if it was a brothel. She said: ‘This worried us very much as we were just a bunch of young girls in London to watch the new Harry Potter play.’

One landlord from Bridgend in South Wales wrote on an Airbnb internet forum he had ‘already had a few escort bookings’ but had only found out after complaints about used condoms from neighbours.

Gavin Shuker, a Labour MP and chairman of a recent parliamentary inquiry into the issue, said Airbnb was also a ‘perfect platform’ for sex trafficking gangs.

He said: ‘We uncovered evidence that Airbnb is being used as part of a fundamentally exploitative model of moving girls around the country by using short-term lets. Airbnb is being exploited by organised crime.’

He added: ‘Once people know that a place has been used as a brothel you will get punters turning up for months afterwards knocking on the door.’

Key box: telltale sign scammers have moved in 

If you see a key safe box attached to the wall outside a front door, it is highly likely that one of the flats or rooms inside is being let out on Airbnb on a short-term basis.

Guests are given a code to punch into a number pad on these small safes, inside which they find the key for the property.

It means the landlord doesn’t even have to be there to let guests in. Visitors are then asked to replace the key in the box when they leave.

Most people who let out properties on Airbnb employ cleaners to ensure the property is kept in good condition for the next guest.

They can simply give the cleaner the code as well, so earning thousands of pounds without turning up to the property for months. 

Easy access: Mail on Sunday reporter collecting a key

How one council tenant turned her taxpayer home into a £60-per-night business by illegally sub-letting it on Airbnb

A housing association tenant illegally sub-let her home on Airbnb more than 100 times in an area with a chronic housing shortage.

One guest who stayed in the home of Fatoumata Dao in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, even left a review stating he had been awoken by a council investigator and warning that the home was on the website illegally.

Ms Dao, who called herself Shelia Quest and Shelia Drame on the site, rented out two bedrooms in her £550,000 flat for £30 a night each.

An undercover reporter for The Mail on Sunday booked the room and established it was owned by Notting Hill Genesis housing association.

Fatoumata Dao, who called herself Shelia Quest and Shelia Drame on the site, rented out two bedrooms in her £550,000 flat for £30 a night each

Under investigation: Shelia’s advert. An undercover reporter for The Mail on Sunday booked the room and established it was owned by Notting Hill Genesis housing association

The listing for the home, which had been reviewed 119 times, said: ‘This will feel like home as you step through the front door.’

In the borough – Hammersmith and Fulham – there are about 3,000 people on the council’s housing register and it can take up to ten years to be offered a place. When questioned by the MoS, Ms Dao said: ‘It’s not something I do quite often. I can’t really talk now.’

Afterwards she took her listing off Airbnb.

A Notting Hill Genesis spokesman said: ‘We are aware of the situation. This case is being investigated.

‘We take illegal sub-letting very seriously. When incidents come to light we investigate and take action where necessary. We would invite anyone who suspects our property is being sub-let through Airbnb or similar services to contact us.’

‘Communities need decent homes, not brothels and party pads’: MP KAREN BUCK says proper checks need to be put on the ‘sharing economy’ 

By Karen Buck, MP for Westminster North 

What is not to love about the shiny new, digital ‘sharing economy’ that Deliveroos dinner to your home, Ubers you to where you are going and Airbnbs you your exciting holiday accommodation – or even lets you make a few quid on the side renting your own place out?

Some argue that there are only upsides. But we are starting to recognise that there are downsides too, and that a better balance needs to be struck between all the different interests with a stake in the matter.

Airbnb is only the most familiar of many organisations offering short-let or holiday accommodation that are having a profound impact in towns and cities across the world, including the UK.

Of course, it’s great that people can easily rent their homes for a few weeks here and there – no one is against that. But in practice, the short-let accommodation sector goes way beyond that.

Airbnb is only the most familiar of many organisations offering short-let or holiday accommodation that are having a profound impact in towns and cities across the world, including the UK, writes Karen Buck

In my borough alone, 3,600 properties are let on Airbnb (doubling in two years) and 1,300 properties at any one time are being investigated for breaching the legal 90-day annual maximum for lettings. As landlords can make far more money this way than from offering a standard tenancy, more evidence is growing of lettings made by people or companies with multiple properties.

So why does it matter? Because residential neighbourhoods are turning into an extension of the hospitality industry without the necessary checks and support.

Complaints brought to me range from security and fire safety concerns to noise nuisance and rubbish dumping as visitors come and go every couple of days.

Leases and insurance policies can be invalidated. At worst, lettings for parties and pop-up brothels form part of the mix.

Most of the time, it is simply that permanent residents feel they are now living in a hotel.

Cash-strapped councils have to pay to deal with the problems and try to enforce the law.

I have introduced two Bills into Parliament to try to redress the balance, asking only that councils should be notified of an intention to offer a short let, so at least the councils can monitor where lettings are taking place and stand a chance of being able to prevent the illegal ones.

Next, I plan to set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Short Lets to create a forum to discuss these issues.

What we need to find is a better balance between those who want legitimately to enjoy the benefits of this part of the ‘sharing economy’ with those who are disadvantaged by it. Other countries and cities across the world have taken the lead on this.

For example, in Berlin, landlords need a permit from their council before they can list on Airbnb. They face fines of up to €100,000 for breaking the rules.

The strict restrictions are credited with freeing up 8,000 apartments to the residential property market. With our shortage in the UK, we could certainly do with something like that here.

The rise and rise of Airbnb is fundamentally changing the make-up of our communities, yet neither residents nor local representatives can exercise any control over the situation. Something must be done.

Innocent victims of the short-let cowboys: Owner has property trashed by 80-person party while a neighbour is kept up until 3am from all the noise

A web developer suffered thousands of pounds worth of damage to his two-bedroom flat when 80 people squeezed in for a raucous party.

Michael Blom, 40, had spent £80,000 refurbishing the flat in Hackney, East London, and rented it to a young man who had been ‘verified’ by Airbnb – which means a simple ID check.

While Michael was away on holiday he started getting text messages from his terrified neighbour who said the block was being flooded with young people.

‘The place had been trashed,’ said Michael Blom, ‘with vomit on the floor, a broken table, smashed glass and evidence of drug taking’

Michael said: ‘We were terrified, the messages got worse and worse. My neighbour told us how more and more young people kept arriving at the flat, how the music was thumping and the noise was getting louder.

‘My girlfriend and I felt awful about what our neighbours were going through. But there was nothing we could do. We asked our neighbour to call the police and at about 1.30am they turned up.

‘The police later told us that there had been around 80 people in the flat. They ordered everyone out.’

When the couple returned they were aghast at the state of the flat. Bottles and glasses were strewn all over, above, and it got worse. ‘The place had been trashed,’ Michael said, ‘with vomit on the floor, a broken table, smashed glass and evidence of drug taking.

‘My girlfriend spoke to a police officer who cleared the place. He told her he deals with this all the time. He said it is the “modern equivalent of a field rave.” ’

Nick Burns Cumming lives in a studio flat in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and says Airbnb has become a ‘plague’ in the area

Nick Burns Cumming lives in a studio flat in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and says Airbnb has become a ‘plague’ in the area.

Nick, right, said: ‘There are 20 flats in this building, eight on Airbnb. It’s a plague, and it changes the city centre. People just come and go for a weekend.

‘It’s just constant noise, especially with short lets.

‘When I moved in, everybody knew each other, it was great. I had a heart attack earlier this year and could have done with a neighbour around, but I didn’t know anybody.’

He said the worst period of the week was between Thursday and Tuesday.

Nick, 60, said: ‘At the weekend, a party ended at 7.30am. There were three girls from Liverpool in a one-bedroom flat. They were just up for a party. They don’t care.

‘Last year there were about eight or ten people in their 20s having a party in the stairwell, shooting up heroin, smoking dope.

‘There were needles on the staircase, it was a nightmare. I could hear them having sex on the stairs at 3am.

‘When it’s 6am and the music is still banging it’s hellish. I’ve been told to b***** off – well, that’s a polite way of putting it.

‘And it’s not just late-night music. It’s the clatter of these wheeled suitcases up and down the stairs. It just goes through you.

‘Our front door has been repaired six or seven times in the last year because of people constantly clattering it.’

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