When the online world shouldn't be welcomed home

We've all heard of online matchmaking and dating services that have gone wrong. If you're lucky, you'll walk away with nothing more than an embarrassing tale about how your date's toupee landed on your lap during dinner.

We've all heard of online matchmaking and dating services that have gone wrong. If you're lucky, you'll walk away with nothing more than an embarrassing tale about how your date's toupee landed on your lap during dinner.

If you're unlucky, you may very well end up being a case study in an episode of Crime Watch.

But, what happens when the online misfortune extends into the private confines of your home?

My colleague Kevin Kwang is back on Tech Podium this week to highlight the perils of opening your home to temporary tenants sourced online from bed-and-breakfast social networks. As one American found out, being sociable was the last thing on her guest's mind.

Mi casa es su casa. This Spanish phrase for "my house is your house" is commonly used by people to express welcome and a sense of friendship and closeness to invited family and friends.

However, following an incident in June which saw San Francisco resident EJ's house thrashed by a tenant she got to know through online bed-and-breakfast (B&B) marketplace, Airbnb, it appears the phrase is now tainted with a negative modern-day connotation. And technology, coupled with human fallibility, played a major part in it.

You see, EJ had earlier entrusted her home to a paying lodger, Dj Pattrson, whom she had "met" online through Airbnb only to see her home, and life, thrashed. She wrote in her blog: "I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked. With heart pounding and stomach churning, I slowly swung the door open as both a pungent odor and the full realization of what had occurred washed over me: this wasn't just a random break-in. My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly thrashed by a 'traveler' I connected with via the online rental agency, Airbnb.com."

What ensued was a series of back-and-forth exchanges between Airbnb customer service staff and executives, ongoing police investigations and negative press for the nascent social media-based B&B market.

Why am I bringing this incident up, you might ask. Well, as a somewhat frequent traveler and keen social media user, the business model intrigued me.

Would I be willing to open up my home--something I've paid good money for and painstakingly refurbished--to strangers whom I barely know and met over the Internet?

Yes, each owner and his or her home will be "curated" by people who had previously rented from them before, and this is fundamentally the premise of social media-based commerce--trusting in the collective experiences of past and present customers.

Yet, the idea of opening my doors to strangers is simply counter-intuitive and contrary to everything my parents and moral education teachers have drilled into my head from young.

From the looks of things, though, there are people more willing than I am to put their trust in companies such as Airbnb, as well as rivals such as Wimdu and Roomarama. Renowned venture capitalists such as Andreessen Horowitz and Investment AB Kinnevik, for example, are betting on the success of the business model, helping Airbnb and Wimdu secure huge funding rounds of US$112 million and US$90 million, respectively. Their investments, however, were put forward before the San Francisco thrashing made light.

Obviously, there are kinks to be worked out, as seen in EJ's case.

Bryan Tan, a Singapore-based lawyer and director of Keystone Law, notes that operators such as Wimdu and Airbnb act as agents authorized by homeowners to advertise their properties for rent online. These agents need to act according to the terms agreed upon by both parties and cannot "act in a manner where they benefit to the detriment to homeowners", he stresses.

What's tricky is that each operator has a different set of terms and conditions put in place. For instance, Wimdu states that its duties extend from the matching of landlord to tenant, to verifying--within the confines of the Internet--the tenant's registration data. It is, however, not responsible for verifying the legitimacy of the property put up for rent and resolving disputes between landlord and tenant during and after the conclusion of the contract, Tan notes.

To prevent another homeowner from falling victim like EJ, the lawyer suggests it is in the homeowner's interest to take up the recommendation put forth by such marketplace operators, and request additional conditions to be added to the contract between landlord and potential tenant.

It remains to be seen whether the model of these social bed-and-breakfast marketplaces will thrive beyond markets such as Europe and the United States, given the propensity for people to rent, rather than buy, their homes.

Personally, I believe mi casa es su casa should remain a phrase reserved only for loved ones and friends that we know beyond the online realm. What do you think?