Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, Gregory Offner was looking for ways to help from his home in Philadelphia. He scrolled through Twitter and saw people posting receipts of Airbnbs they had booked in Ukraine, to get money directly into Ukrainian bank accounts. Offner was inspired. He chose an apartment in Kharkiv, a city in the northeast that has been hit particularly hard, and booked four nights, for a total of $214. He left a note explaining that he wouldn’t actually be coming to stay—this was humanitarian aid.
The host replied the next day. “Thank you very much for your kind support, it means a lot to us now,” he wrote, adding that he would donate the money to the Ukrainian army. But Offner’s payment never arrived. The next day, Airbnb canceled and refunded the booking. “I got an email saying the person hosting or using the Airbnb account in Ukraine was ‘no longer able to receive money’ from Airbnb,” Offner says. “Like, what does that even mean?”
It meant—though the platform never communicated this to Offner directly—that Airbnb suspected the host wasn’t legitimate. “We identified a handful of hosts who did not support this effort in the spirit intended,” says Ben Breit, the global trust communications lead at Airbnb. After donation bookings started coming in, some hosts created “ghost listings” for apartments in Ukraine that didn’t exist. In some cases, they may not live in Ukraine at all. That runs afoul of Airbnb’s policy on fake listings, even if those listings were meant to fundraise. After Offner booked his stay, his Airbnb host directed him to several such listings in Kyiv that he said could use some help from benefactors like Offner. The listings were all created this month.
By now, people have booked more than 434,000 nights in cities like Kyiv, Odessa, and Lviv to show solidarity with Ukranians. These bookings have amassed more than $15 million in aid, according to Airbnb. (The company, which normally takes about 20 percent of each booking, waived its fees in Ukraine.) But in the rush to get money to Ukrainians from abroad, some “guests” have had their bookings canceled without much explanation, leaving them confused and uneasy about using Airbnb for such contributions.
In mid-March, Airbnb stopped allowing new hosts to create listings in Ukraine altogether, an effort to minimize scams that also prevents actual Ukrainians from receiving funds through the platform. The company has also said that it is “closely evaluating” all listing activity in Ukraine and has put measures in place to detect fraud. Besides donating directly to Ukrainian Airbnb hosts, Breit pointed out that people could also donate to Airbnb.org, which had committed to providing free, short-term housing for 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine.
The enforcement effort and accompanying lack of transparency have caused confusion. Kevin Coyne booked seven different Airbnbs in Ukraine earlier this month when he heard about the donation effort. For each one, he sent along a personal note; most of the hosts wrote back to express gratitude. By the end of the week, Airbnb had canceled three of his reservations. The company wrote only that the hosts were “no longer able to receive money.” Connor Martin booked a five-night stay in Kyiv; the company refunded his money on the last day he’d booked. He says he was upset by Airbnb’s poor messaging about why his gesture of goodwill had been rejected. “Horrendous move by them,” he says.
Sybil Knox booked two Airbnbs in Ukraine—a loft in the center of Kyiv, and a modern one-bedroom with a jacuzzi—both of which were canceled by the company. She didn’t receive any explanation about why and says neither host seemed to have any red flags: Both were “identity verified” by Airbnbs, and they had joined the platform in 2013 and 2019, respectively. One of the apartments she booked had 125 reviews, with a 4.92 star rating; the other had 33 reviews and a 4.67 rating. When WIRED explained Airbnb’s policy against hosts who created new listings in the midst of the crisis, Knox had mixed feelings. She said bad actors could certainly take advantage of well-intentioned people in a crisis, and she wanted to know that her money was going to a real Ukrainian citizen. On the other hand, “people in dire situations think of ways to be creative to funnel more money in for their cause,” she says. “This campaign was limited to those that were already Airbnb providers. Other people couldn’t get on board.”
Both guests and hosts who had bookings canceled say Airbnb’s policies around donation stays haven’t been clearly communicated. After Airbnb refunded Offner, the host messaged him on WhatsApp complaining that his account had been banned without explanation. “I’ve tried to contact the Airbnb support team and they weren’t able to provide any specific answer,” he wrote. “As a result of this blocking, all reservations were stopped and it’s no longer possible to receive donations through the Airbnb system.” Since the money never reached him, he asked Offner to send a payment directly using WayForPay, a sort of Ukrainian PayPal.
Offner says he doesn’t begrudge the host for using tactics like ghost listings to raise more funding, if that’s what happened. The point of booking his Airbnb, after all, was to give him money. “So long as it’s going to a real Ukrainian person, I think help is help,” he says. “It’s certainly walking a fine line when it comes to ethics, but I can’t say I fault the guy for getting creative.”
Meanwhile, other donations have been successfully funneled through Airbnb, only to reach property management companies that own Airbnbs in Ukraine, or hosts who don’t currently live in the country. Over the past two weeks, Aleksandra Baklanova has received bookings from 18 people for her apartment near Kontraktova Square, in the center of Kyiv. The apartment, which has stylish furniture and exposed-brick walls, goes for $142 a night, and Baklanova has received several thousand dollars from people who want to help her. Some of her “guests” have sent along messages wishing her well. “They mainly wrote that they hope I’m in a safe place,” she says.
Fortunately, Baklanova is in a safe place: When war broke out in Ukraine, she was on vacation in Mexico. She also primarily lives in England. Since Baklanova doesn’t need the donations for her own safety, she’s been using the money to support the women who clean her Kyiv Airbnb, who are in a “very difficult financial situation” and don’t have the benefit of charitable donations from abroad.
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