As the warm afterglow of your holiday spending spree morphs into the harsh reality of bloated credit card balances, daunting minimum payments, and depressed credit scores, and the pressure of Valentine's Day and April 15 creates a burning sensation in the pit of your stomach, you may well find yourself looking around for viable ways to make a few extra dollars. Maybe you've even thought about renting out your home on a short-term basis using Airbnb.
In the past five years, more than 550,000 people have turned to Airbnb to rent out all or a portion of their homes to 10 million users. Seems like a painless way to reduce debt, boost income and maybe even do something fun at the same time, right?
Not to be a buzz-kill, allow me to assume my Shiva God of Death persona for just a moment and remind you of the risks inherent in the decision to open your home (indeed your life) to a complete stranger. And unfortunately, there are plenty of horror stories from which to choose.
Despite Airbnb's well-publicized Host Guarantee, which covers damage to certain types of items within a property up to $1 million, the company doesn't protect credit cards, checks or any other financial instruments a criminally-minded guest might find – much less the kind of documents that have no inherent value on their own but in the wrong hands could be important pieces to the puzzle that allows an identity thief to convince others that he or she is you. (Nor do they cover jewelry, fine art, furs, automobiles, watercraft, underground mines, dams and – not kidding – standing timber.)
In the most widely-publicized case of Airbnb theft, a guest who booked "EJ's" apartment broke into a closet, gained access to important documents, made copies of her birth certificate and Social Security card, lifted her passport and grabbed at least one credit card. Valuables were stolen as well. She rightly acknowledged that the incident exposed her to identity theft.
While EJ's preparations were reasonable (few of us, except the most paranoid, expect a paying houseguest to break down doors), her predicament highlights a larger issue. We all keep a great deal of personally identifying information in our homes because we feel the need to keep it close at hand. Unfortunately, we tend to lose sight of the fact that it can put us at serious risk of identity theft. The more privacy- and security-conscious among us might lock it away in a closet marked "private" before we throw on the guest sheets. But how many of those closets contain safes? How much information can an unsupervised guest copy, or slip into a suitcase, if we forget to stop our mail? And what about those credit cards we leave at home to avoid temptation or reduce the risk of theft while we're on the road – are we sure they won't be discovered?
Identity thieves don't need to be sophisticated computer experts -- like those who silently made off with 40 million debit and credit card accounts from Target customers -- to make our lives hell. Our personal information is often widely available -- whether it's in the paperwork that litters our desks, a less-than-secure database or on a hacker site for a small fee – and not hard to exploit in these halcyon days of instant credit approvals.
A sticky-fingered houseguest might not only pilfer prescriptions, but could refill them with relative ease. They could discover Explanation of Benefits letters revealing medical insurance data like policy numbers, names of doctors and treatment information that will enable them to commit medical identity theft and contaminate our files, literally putting our health in jeopardy.
So what can you do to protect yourself as an Airbnb host?
|Don't Rely on the Host Guarantee|
Credit cards and financial instruments aren't the only items not covered by their much-trumpeted insurance policy for hosts. Before you decide to list your property on the site:
|Invest in Off-Site Protected Storage|
It might sound antiquated, but safe-deposit boxes aren't just filled with diamonds for movie thieves to pilfer. Most local banks offer them for free or a small fee (depending on what kind of account you have) and, in reality, you shouldn't have to use your Social Security card or birth certificate so often that it needs to be in your house. For larger items like artwork, furs, firearms or collectibles (which aren't covered against loss by Airbnb) or the rest of your financial files, look into a secured, climate-controlled storage space and a really good lock.
If this all sounds inconvenient and expensive compared to what you could realistically earn as a host, consider whether you should host at all (and what it would cost to replace your valuables).
|Do Your Due Diligence on Your Guests|
Due diligence is a pre-condition if you wish to qualify for the Host Guarantee. You are required to communicate with your guests and review their profiles in-depth (at a minimum) in order to qualify for any damage or theft reimbursement. But also take the time to Google the guests, listen to your gut and arrange for the key exchange face-to-face if you don't intend to be in the house at the same time. Back away if anything seems remotely weird.
|Stop Your Mail (or Get a P.O. Box)|
If you, or a trusted friend or neighbor, won't be there to pick up your mail and you don't own a locking mailbox, don't trust that your guest won't touch it. It takes only a few minutes to ask the Post Office to hold your mail while you're away, and it's not a pricey investment to start using a P.O. Box, if you plan to Airbnb a lot. Either option will keep your mail – and your financial documents and personally identifying information – safe from an ill-intentioned guest.
|Better Shred Than Dead|
Even if you have a shredder, the best of us tend to let the to-be-shredded pile grow as we get busy. Before you hand over your keys, make sure that anything that isn't locked away in a remote location is slashed into little tiny pieces (and that those morsels of confetti are deposited into an appropriate trash receptacle).
If you're worried that your personal information has been compromised because of a scheming houseguest -- or for any other reason -- remember, you can check your credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Make sure your reports are accurate and that you recognize all the accounts. If they contain either inaccurate or incomplete information, contact the three major national credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) immediately and start the dispute resolution processes. To monitor your credit more regularly, you can use Credit.com's free Credit Report Card for a breakdown, updated monthly, of the information in your credit report along with free credit scores.
Sound like a lot of work for a couple hundred bucks here and there, yes? It is and it should be. Still, it's a heck of a lot less work and expense than piecing your life back together again after your identity has been compromised. Remember, in the time it takes you to count your Airbnb rent, a thief can snatch enough personal information to turn your world upside down.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.