Buyers in Airbnb arbitrage enterprise allege they have been defrauded

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Daryn Carr isn’t any stranger to facet hustles. After his mother died from Covid in 2020, he used funds from her pension to repay some payments and purchase a automobile. With the remaining cash, he invested in crypto and began an ATM enterprise. 

Sooner or later in 2022, whereas scrolling by way of Instagram, he came across one other alternative. Carr discovered a man named Anthony Agyeman, who was selling a kind of arbitrage on Airbnb that concerned taking listings from lodge reserving and short-term rental websites and relisting them on Airbnb at the next value, retaining the revenue. 

Agyeman claimed in advertising supplies that his enterprise, Palms-Free Automation, had “5-year exclusivity contracts” with 1000’s of property house owners that gave it permission to relist their properties at the next value.

Getting concerned with Palms-Free Automation, or HFA, required a cost of between $20,000 and $30,000 to successfully personal a chunk of Airbnb listings. Agyeman described it as a “minimal to no threat” path to further earnings with a assured return in three to 6 months of funding, “then pure revenue after.”   

HFA has no affiliation with Airbnb however discovered a method to earn a living on {the marketplace} utilizing a follow that Airbnb explicitly prohibits. Agyeman was following related ways that he’d used on Amazon and Shopify, the place he promoted the chance for traders to passively personal digital storefronts. 

The tech corporations that personal these marketplaces all say they use a mix of synthetic intelligence and automation together with handbook critiques to observe vendor and buyer exercise for fraud and different misbehavior, however they have been ill-equipped to take care of the quantity of complaints stemming from varied types of scams.

The Federal Commerce Fee and the Division of Justice have cracked down on corporations much like HFA, accusing them of promoting their merchandise with false guarantees of revenue and success and allegedly promoting “automated” software program that did not work. HFA and Agyeman have not been charged by the Justice Division, FTC or any legislation enforcement company. 

Airbnb informed CNBC it was unaware of any contact from regulators relating to HFA.

For a clearer image of HFA’s inside workings, CNBC spoke with traders in a lawsuit filed in opposition to the corporate in February 2023, in addition to six former HFA staff, an Airbnb buyer who unwittingly stayed at an HFA-listed property, and a property proprietor who mentioned his listings have been uploaded to Airbnb by HFA with out permission. CNBC has granted anonymity to those that requested it as a result of they weren’t licensed to talk publicly on HFA’s operations, or feared retribution from the corporate.

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, Inc., speaks throughout an interview with CNBC on the ground of the New York Inventory Trade in New York Metropolis, Might 10, 2023.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Carr, who lives in New York, wired HFA $1,000 by way of his crypto debit card on the urging of a salesman and borrowed an extra $18,490 to pay for HFA’s entry-level package deal. In whole, Carr paid HFA $19,497, in keeping with the lawsuit, which Carr filed together with 11 different traders. The plaintiffs alleged that HFA falsely claimed it had relationships with the properties, and that HFA’s providers violated Airbnb’s phrases of service. The case continues to be continuing. 

Carr informed CNBC that his funding with HFA disappeared, leaving him in debt and dealing a customer support job to make ends meet. He claims he received scammed and suspects that a lot of his cash went towards subsidizing Agyeman’s way of life.

“I could not imagine that I misplaced $20,000 into skinny air,” Carr mentioned. 

Thomas Hunker, an legal professional for Agyeman and HFA, denied that buyer cash had been used for something besides the enterprise. 

“We have now all the time honored our fiduciary obligations with respect to allocation of firm cash in the perfect curiosity of the corporate,” Hunker mentioned in a written response to CNBC.

‘It is confirmed and it really works’

HFA admitted to clients that it was “repeatedly encountering issues with” Airbnb “as a result of fixed modifications they’ve made to their phrases and providers,” in keeping with the lawsuit. 

Plaintiffs within the swimsuit in opposition to Agyeman and different defendants are asking for not less than $624,000 in damages from their misplaced investments. In the meantime, the defendants proceed to promote and promote merchandise to potential traders beneath a brand new firm referred to as Wealthway. They’re deploying a workforce that goals to generate greater than $3.5 million in month-to-month gross sales, Wessel Botes, a former gross sales worker who left the corporate in November, informed CNBC. 

Hunker mentioned in an electronic mail to CNBC that HFA identifies properties to record from third-party web sites utilized by motels and different property house owners to “enhance bookings.” That offers HFA “oblique permission” by way of these third-party websites to relist rooms on Airbnb, he mentioned, including that the bottom value of the reserving goes again to the property proprietor.

Nevertheless, Airbnb has banned the follow in its phrases of service and group coverage since not less than 2021. 

“Utilizing a third occasion to ebook a lodge or third occasion lodging and itemizing it on Airbnb at an inflated price isn’t allowed,” the coverage says.  

Airbnb informed CNBC that enterprise practices equivalent to Agyeman’s aren’t permitted. The corporate mentioned it continues to enhance methods that establish and take away pretend or deceptive listings, including that it had blocked greater than 216,000 suspicious listings as of September.

Hunker mentioned HFA does not have traders, however fairly has purchasers who pay a “flat price” for an arbitrage service. But, HFA says on its LinkedIn web page that it helps “Airbnb traders add 300+ properties to their account with out having to buy the properties.”

Earlier than connecting CNBC together with his legal professional, Agyeman mentioned in an interview that he wasn’t concerned within the day-to-day operations at HFA and he denied any monetary improprieties. 

Airbnb informed CNBC it had no enterprise relationship with Agyeman and had taken motion to curtail his operations. The corporate mentioned a number of accounts linked to Agyeman and HFA had been eliminated.

The chance for property house owners to earn a living is key to Airbnb’s enterprise mannequin. The corporate says that, since its founding in 2007, hosts have made greater than $180 billion. En path to upending the lodge business, Airbnb’s market cap has swelled to nearly $95 billion, making it greater than any lodge chain.

Airbnb acknowledged in its annual report that “perpetrators of fraud” use “complicated and consistently evolving” ways on the positioning and that “fraudsters have created pretend visitor accounts, pretend host accounts, or each, to perpetrate monetary fraud.”

Watch CNBC's full interview with Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky

Agyeman, who began HFA with co-founder Megan Shears, claims to have created proprietary software program that may totally automate the arbitrage course of by trawling the web for properties to relist at a markup. HFA’s staff would deal with reserving properties and deal with visitor inquiries and complaints.

Agyeman, 27, lives in Texas, as does Shears, 26, in keeping with public data. Their social media posts present luxurious trip spots subsequent to screenshots of Airbnb bookings purportedly price 1000’s of {dollars}. A number of traders mentioned in court docket filings that they first realized about Agyeman and Shears by way of Instagram.

“It is confirmed and it really works and also you get increased returns than the inventory market,” one HFA promotional video mentioned. 

Buyers within the lawsuit say in any other case. And a few clients who used the service to ebook journey say they misplaced cash and have been left scrambling for a spot to remain.  

In February 2022, a buyer named Kathy booked a beachside Airbnb on Florida’s Sanibel Island for a five-night spring break trip together with her household. Kathy, who spoke given that CNBC not use her final identify, paid $4,600 upfront for what she thought was a “incredible” poolside one-bedroom condo. CNBC recognized Kathy as an HFA buyer as a result of her identify and telephone quantity have been posted on HFA’s Instagram account. 

Days glided by with out phrase from her host. Kathy, who lives in Texas, repeatedly reached out to Airbnb, however was informed she’d have to interact immediately with the host to cancel her reserving.

Kathy regarded up the property’s deal with on Google Maps. Reasonably than a tropical condo constructing, she noticed what seemed to be a vacant lot. “Please refund my cash,” she recalled telling the host. 

Determined to verify she had a spot to remain, Kathy booked a room at a resort in Fort Myers, greater than 40 miles from Sanibel Island. Finally, after days of back-and-forth messages, Airbnb refunded about half her cash.

It ended up being “an excellent costly trip,” Kathy mentioned. “I’ll by no means use it once more,” she mentioned of Airbnb.

‘Proprietary relationships’

For Agyeman and Shears, Airbnb was simply one among their stomping grounds. They’d an Amazon and Shopify automation enterprise, a trucking enterprise, and a line of vegan gummies. Agyeman additionally helped run a YouTube channel centered partially on swapping ideas for working a profitable enterprise. 

The duo broke into the arbitrage enterprise in 2020. In keeping with the lawsuit, Agyeman and Shears claimed in advertising materials that they’d greater than 200,000 properties and had “proprietary relationships with Airbnb and Vrbo,” Expedia’s trip rental web site.

Agyeman relied on freelancers who would take information from different journey reserving websites to make use of on their Airbnb and Vrbo listings, in keeping with former staff and inside paperwork. An inside coaching video seen by CNBC instructed copywriters on the way to recycle the unique listings’ particulars for Airbnb or Vrbo.

“PLEASE ANYWHERE IN THE LISTING DO NOT MENTION THAT THIS IS A HOTEL OR THE HOTEL NAMES OF THE HOTEL OR RESORTS,” a coaching doc mentioned.

HFA mentioned its software program algorithmically adjusted the worth of a property in response to modifications on the unique itemizing. Agyeman mentioned on social media that his staff have been “the one ones tapped into Airbnb & Vrbo Arbitrage Automation.” 

One spreadsheet listed 68 totally different purchasers as Airbnb traders. Going not less than way back to July 2022, HFA attracted 120-plus traders who collectively paid near $3 million for “automated” Airbnb, Shopify, or Amazon companies, in keeping with inside cost monitoring and monetary data reviewed by CNBC.

Carr, who was listed as a property host, mentioned that when it got here to his expertise with HFA, there was chaos on each side of {the marketplace}. On one event, he mentioned, he was contacted by the proprietor of a lodge who discovered one among its rooms on Airbnb. One other time, a girl messaged him 30 to 40 occasions when she could not discover her reserving.

“Persons are going to the motels saying I received an Airbnb, and so they’re like, ‘What are you speaking about?'” Carr mentioned.

Carr and different HFA traders informed CNBC their frustrations have been dismissed or met with authorized threats. However in a letter to traders cited within the lawsuit, HFA conceded that its Airbnb enterprise had been disappointing. 

“Resulting from Airbnb fixed modifications we imagine this program will take for much longer than anticipated that can assist you our consumer attain your objectives,” HFA wrote.

Nonetheless, HFA declined to refund traders’ funds, as an alternative providing them an Amazon or Shopify storefront, in keeping with the letter and the lawsuit. Hunker mentioned this was contemplated by the events’ agreements.

Getting properties listed on Airbnb concerned some finagling, as a result of the corporate requires hosts to show possession. To get round Airbnb’s guidelines, HFA instructed its traders to record their very own houses, a former worker and two traders informed CNBC. Hunker denies that HFA gave these directions. As soon as validated as a property proprietor, traders may then add extra listings that HFA would pull from different web sites.

Damaging critiques flowed in from sad would-be vacationers, outraged traders and a enterprise proprietor who’d found his property had been listed with out consent.

An HFA investor informed CNBC that one itemizing obtained a remark from a visitor who mentioned he paid $800 for a motel room that value lower than half that quantity and described it as a “whole rip-off.”

“Host doesn’t personal the property,” the reviewer mentioned, in keeping with a screenshot of the message seen by CNBC. “It’s a commonplace motel room, no frills.”

On a sizzling September day in Las Vegas in 2022, one other visitor confirmed up at an MGM lodge solely to find there was no reservation by way of Airbnb. Neither the visitor nor Airbnb may get in contact with the listed host for hours. Carr, the HFA investor host on report for the property, offered CNBC with screenshots of the messages.

“I had my household double parked on the Vegas strip for 3 hours losing gasoline whereas I used to be working backwards and forwards between the three MGMs in 103 diploma climate being informed every time after ready in line that there was no reservation in my identify,” the visitor wrote.

Finally MGM discovered the room had been booked by way of Expedia, which is the place HFA turned after receiving the reservation request on Airbnb.

An Expedia spokesperson declined to remark.

Collin Ballard was shocked in Might 2022, when he noticed pictures from his Dallas hostel marketed on Airbnb. Most alarming was the worth: $1,760 an evening vs. his beginning nightly price of $40.

Collin Ballard discovered a room from his Dallas hostel listed on Airbnb with out his permission.

Collin Ballard

Ballard wrote to the host, telling him he was the proprietor and asking him to take away the itemizing.

“I simply figured it was somebody scamming,” Ballard mentioned in an interview, including that he knew nothing about Airbnb arbitrage. 

Ballard mentioned no one ever responded to his message, however the itemizing was finally taken down.

Positive aspects by no means materialized

Airbnb in the end eliminated most if not all of HFA’s listings over the course of a number of months in 2022, in keeping with the lawsuit, although staff and traders informed CNBC they weren’t positive why.

A number of traders informed CNBC that they encountered verification issues as a result of it was inconceivable to show they owned their listings. HFA responded by forging payments or different paperwork with the stolen listings’ deal with, in keeping with traders, the lawsuit, an HFA coaching video, and a former worker.

If the allegations are true, HFA was sidestepping a key security characteristic. False data could make it tough for Airbnb to reply in an emergency or a state of affairs that requires the involvement of its security workforce.

Airbnb informed CNBC that it was rolling out a extra strong verification course of within the U.S. and elsewhere starting as early as 2024.

Hunker denied allegations that HFA forges paperwork, and mentioned Airbnb does not require the lister to be the property proprietor.

By the top of final 12 months, HFA’s traders realized that their promised positive aspects weren’t materializing. Dozens unsuccessfully pressed for refunds of their deposits, in keeping with a former worker, an inside HFA doc, and the investor lawsuit.

A month after HFA’s then-counsel wrote to 2 dozen traders in January 2023 declining to supply refunds, traders filed their lawsuit, with 22 plaintiffs saying they obtained fewer than 5 bookings every, together with 16 who mentioned they’d no bookings in any respect. 

Hunker mentioned HFA may current data displaying its purchasers profited from the corporate’s providers on the situation that CNBC signal a nondisclosure settlement. CNBC declined.

Agyeman continues selling his companies on social media. In his Instagram bio, he features a new personal fairness enterprise referred to as OKU Capital. Agyeman is its solely member, in keeping with Florida state filings and the agency’s LinkedIn profile.

Agyeman’s Wealthway advertises “totally managed,” “automated” trip rental companies with “minimal to no threat.” It is much like HFA, all the way down to the branding on its web site.

On its web site, Wealthway has a video showing to point out a gathering between Agyeman and an Airbnb government named David Levine, whose LinkedIn profile says he is Airbnb’s head of API and enterprise partnerships for North America.

“What you guys have been doing at Wealthway is unimaginable and also you guys have been following our companion pointers,” Levine says within the recording. 

In November, Botes, the previous HFA salesman, turned suspicious of the clip and despatched it to Levine in a LinkedIn message.

“That video seems to have been taken out of context and altered,” Levine replied, in keeping with screenshots of the messages seen by CNBC. “Neither I, nor Airbnb, have any affiliation with Wealth Methods Trip Leases.”

Airbnb mentioned it believes the clip is inauthentic. Levine did not reply to CNBC’s LinkedIn message. Hunker did not reply to a query concerning the video’s authenticity.

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