Airbnb knockoff Wimdu Refuses to Pay for Unwelcome Visitor

Wimdu was set up as a competitor to Airbnb, the site that lets people rent out their spare room to guests. But its reputation has taken a knock after it refused to pay for damages that a customer inflicted on someone's home.
Could your rented apartment go from this...

Yasmine Mahmoudieh doesn't know what exactly happened in her Berlin apartment on the night of November 29. What her landlord found the next morning, however, is enough to make a person shudder.

The carpet in the stairwell of the building was soaked through with alcohol and covered with cigarette butts and debris. There was dried vomit on the floor of her apartment. Her designer lamp, nearly as high as the ceiling, was cut open.

The only thing left of her sofa was a cushion. The rest of it had disappeared, along with the dresser, both of which barely fitted through the stairwell. In the garbage can, her landlord found bloodied sheets. Specks of blood were also on the beige couch in her living room.

"My apartment was destroyed," said Ms. Mahmoudieh.

The 54-year-old interior designer thought renting out her apartment on the website Wimdu was safe. After all, if something were to go wrong, the website promises to cover up to €500,000 ($540,000) in damages. Wimdu, however, has refused to pay for the destruction of Ms. Mahmoudieh's apartment, estimated in the tens of thousands of euros.

In the case of Wimdu, the promise to cover up to €500,000 is full of exceptions. Wimdu's policy doesn't cover theft or vandalism of any kind, and this isn't stated on its website. Erk Schaarschmidt, Brandenburg Consumer Association

In a message to Ms. Mahmoudieh, the company claimed "no actual or legal grounds exists whereby Wimdu is responsible for the reported damage in your apartment. The payment you have requested therefore cannot be made due to the lack of a legal basis."

Though still far behind Airbnb, Wimdu is one of the American giant's biggest competitors, with more than 300,000 private apartments and houses listed for short-term rents by private individuals, such as Ms. Mahmoudieh, on its website.

Wimdu is owned by the Samwer brothers, Germany's most famous - or perhaps infamous - Internet entrepreneurs. They have been harshly criticized for copying U.S. tech successes and then selling their knockoffs back to the original for huge profits.

One in seven German Internet users has booked accommodations on peer-to-peer platforms like Airbnb and its German knockoff Wimdu, according to a survey by Bitkom.

Ms. Mahmoudieh posted her apartment on both websites to increase her chances of receiving requests. It makes financial sense for her. Though she lives in Berlin, she spends a lot of time in London.

"Both portals give you the feeling that they would be there for you in a serious situation," she said.

On November 27, Ms. Mahmoudieh received a request through Wimdu. The guest said he lived in Munich and planned to spend a weekend in Berlin with his wife. After speaking with him on the phone, Ms. Mahmoudieh received a booking confirmation from Wimdu. The guest's name was given as Kevin Koslowski (changed by the editor) and a telephone number was also included.

Ms. Mahmoudieh tried to log back into Wimdu but the website was down. She wasn't able to access her account for the rest of the weekend. Wimdu later said "there were technical problems."

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Shortly before the key exchange, Mr. Koslowski called Ms. Mahmoudieh's landlord and said he wouldn't be able to make it on time, but a friend of his in Berlin could pick up the key. The landlord remembers a young man with a brown jacket. He didn't have an ID, only a health insurance card. The landlord made a note of his name.

Ms. Mahmoudieh's mother, who lives in Hamburg, telephoned Mr. Koslowski one more time. He forwarded a copy of his ID by email and said he was looking forward to the weekend. The next day it became clear what he really meant.

Shortly after 11 p.m., a neighbor called Ms. Mahmoudieh's mother. Ten cars were parked outside the apartment building. Around 30 vandals were in the process of destroying Ms. Mahmoudieh's apartment. Shocked, the mother called the Berlin police.

Ms. Mahmoudieh also tried calling Mr. Koslowski, but she couldn't reach him. And she couldn't find a number to reach Wimdu on its website or in the confirmation email.

A lawyer for Wimdu, Peter Vida, said hosts receive a telephone number when their first booking is made. The number isn't sent in any subsequent correspondence. Mr. Vida pointed to Wimdu's live chat function and email as contact options.

Ms. Mahmoudieh did in fact send an email. She received an automated response saying her request would be processed as quickly as possible. Though Wimdu advertises round-the-clock customer service, Ms. Mahmoudieh didn't receive a call back until the next day.

It's also not clear why law enforcement failed to respond. According to the mother, the Berlin police told her on the phone they couldn't send anyone out on a call made from Hamburg. The neighbor would have to make the call, the police said. Although the neighbor promised to do so, he didn't apparently out of fear of the vandals.

According to a spokesman for the Berlin police, whoever told the mother that the police don't respond to calls from Hamburg was wrong. Ms. Mahmoudieh's mother has filed a complaint. The police are now investigating the incident as a case of theft and vandalism.

It's uncertain if law encorcement will ever find the perpetrators. The ID provided by Mr. Koslowski was reported lost in January 2015. Kevin Koslowski wasn't the man's real name.

After sending an assessor to examine the aftermath, Wimdu denied any liability.

Matthias Schlusche, an expert on damage and liability at Ergo Direkt Insurance, has closely examined the policies of both Wimdu and Airbnb.

In the case of Wimdu, the promise to cover up to €500,000 is full of exceptions. Wimdu's policy doesn't cover theft or vandalism of any kind, and this isn't stated on its website. According to Erik Schaarschmidt, an expert with the state of Brandenburg's Consumer Association, this amounts to deceiving the customer and could have legal consequences.

"Whoever promotes an insurance policy has to disclose the conditions," he said. "Otherwise, liability can arise from what's promised in the advertising."

In contrast to Wimdu, Airbnb's policy covers up to €800,000 including criminal acts such as vandalism and theft. There are exceptions for cash and artwork, but that's clearly stated. Airbnb says it covered all 540 reported cases of property damage of more than $1,000 last year.

According to Wimdu, there have been fewer than 10 cases of damage of more than $1,000 since 2011. The company, however, wouldn't say in how many of those cases it covered the damages. Wimdu would only say it "reacts individually from case to case."

But for Ms. Mahmoudieh, this bland statement will not be enough to help her rebuild her ruined home.

 

This article origianlly appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]