Woman sues Airbnb over hidden surveillance cam found in rental

All the window blinds were drawn. The front door was closed.

Edith Schumacher and her partner, Kevin Stockton, had booked the Airbnb rental in California for a month, and they were doing what people do behind closed doors when they’re on vacation and can reasonably presume that other people aren’t hiding in the closet, drooling.

In Schumacher’s case, that includes sleeping naked.

All was well for the first few days.

Then, on the third day, Stockton noted a light coming from a shelf in the living room.

According to a complaint Schumacher filed last Monday (14 December) in the Northern District of California, that light was coming from a remote-controlled camera hidden between candles.

Schumacher, who’s from Germany, is now suing Airbnb, claiming that the surveillance camera allowed her hosts to spy on her as she walked naked from the bedroom to the bathroom.

The suit says that the hosts, Fariah Hassim and Jamil Jiva, also would have been able to use the spy camera to eavesdrop on their guests’ private conversations in the living room, including the intimate, private subjects of their financials and the nature of their relationship.

Beyond that, Schumacher’s lawyers say that their client has been left “deeply humiliated and angry,” as well as concerned that someone might post naked photos of her online.

Schumacher believed that “with the front door closed and the window blinds drawn throughout the property, she was protected and free from prying eyes,” her lawyers wrote. “This natural presumption proved to be incorrect.”

An Airbnb rep told The Recorder that “of course” the company expects hosts to obey the law and to respect guests’ privacy.

It also warns hosts to “fully disclose” whatever surveillance cameras might be tucked away, the company told Fusion:

Airbnb warns hosts to fully disclose whether there are security cameras or other surveillance equipment at or around the listing and to get consent where required.

That’s not good enough, Schumacher’s suit contends.

Her complaint says that because Airbnb was in control of the leasing process, it had a duty to exercise reasonable care in order to avoid causing personal injury to Schumacher.

The complaint says that Airbnb fails to conduct meaningful background checks or verify the personal details of people who lease their homes on the site, thereby failing to protect the guests’ privacy rights.

From the complaint:

Little to no effort is undertaken by Airbnb by way of a vetting process with respect to these hosts to ensure the safety and welfare of the third parties renting properties through Airbnb.

The Recorder reports that Schumacher is suing Airbnb for negligence and is suing Hassim and Jiva for violating her privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress.

We’ve noted in the past that there are a plethora of ways to get scammed when you’re trying to reserve a short-term rental through Airbnb.

All a crook needs to put up a fake listing, for example, are fake photos, a fake profile, a fake address and a real phone number.

It’s also possible for scammers to hijack a current, legitimate account, possibly through bulk purchase of breached logins, and to put up fake listings under the name of an unsuspecting user.

What’s more, plenty of people have been scammed by going along with fraudsters who talk them into taking communication and/or payment off the site.

It’s not just guests who get scammed, mind you: hosts are also potential targets.

One such ploy is for guests to submit complaints about conditions they falsely claim are objectionable.

Variations of one such story comes from a site called airbnbHELL that collects uncensored stories from hosts and guests.

Similar anecdotes come from two hosts who lost 50% of their earnings after guests submitted a photo of a mouse seen in the rentals: a photo that one of the hosts found, through an image search, had been submitted to another site a year earlier.

Note that the stories on airbnbHELL haven’t been confirmed.

Regardless, what’s disturbing is that they are plausible: Airbnb does reimburse guests who stay in deplorable rentals.

Airbnb has many safeguards to keep both guests and hosts safe and to keep transactions secure, including a bevy of “Trust & Safety” pages.

There are ways to avoid getting ripped off on Airbnb from a cyber perspective, but hidden surveillance cameras are a whole other kettle of fish.

Even if Schumacher and Stockton’s hosts were using the hidden surveillance camera merely to make sure their home and possessions weren’t trashed, with no intention of nefariously capturing nude images or intercepting private information about their guests, the setup of a hidden surveillance camera, the presence of which was allegedly undisclosed, was still an egregious breach of privacy.

Even if the hosts hadn’t planned to sell or post naked images, that doesn’t mean that an intruder couldn’t hack the webcam and do it in their stead.

As we know from all the stories of hacked baby monitors and other webcams, it’s all too common for intruders to break through the security of a password-protected webcam and to take it over.

Last year we wrote about one website that was streaming the live feeds of hundreds of thousands of internet-enabled cameras that were secured with a default, out-of-the-box password.

Besides feeds from baby monitors in nurseries around the world, the site allows strangers to spy on people via security webcams delivering live feeds from bedrooms, other rooms in residential homes, offices, shops, restaurants, bars, swimming pools and gymnasiums.

Given the ubiquity of default webcam passwords that never get changed, that list could easily include Airbnb rentals.

In fact, changing the default password on baby monitors and webcams is so important, it’s number 5 on our list of Advent Tips.

Be careful in your holiday travels.

Wherever you wind up staying the night, be it an Airbnb rental, a hotel, or somewhere else, keep an eye out for glowing lights after you flip off the switch.

After all, the light source might not be Rudolph’s nose.

Image of hidden camera courtesy of Shutterstock.com