Terri was fast asleep when her phone rang. It was midnight on a Tuesday in early May. Despite the hour, she answered the call because it was from a guest at her Airbnb rental. The news she got was alarming.
"I've been bitten by something," Terri says the guest told her. "I think you have bedbugs."
Terri, a retired federal agent, has been renting out her three-bedroom beachside condo in South Carolina for nearly two years. (CNET opted not to disclose her full name to spare her public scrutiny.) She's what Airbnb calls a "superhost," an experienced and highly rated property owner. Terri didn't know where the bedbugs came from, but she was sure they hadn't been there before her guest arrived. So she turned to Airbnb for help.
At first, the short-term rental service provided assistance. Terri spent three hours on the phone with the company that night trying to find new lodging for her guest and information on. But then Airbnb went silent. After CNET informed Airbnb more than two months later that it was writing a story about what happened, the company contacted Terri. Airbnb acknowledged it mishandled the situation.
"We have an outstanding customer support team," Ben Breit, Airbnb's head of trust and safety communications for the Americas, said in an email. "But when our handling of an issue fails to meet the high standards we set for ourselves, we work hard to ensure it is not repeated."
Terri's tangle with bedbugs is just one of hundreds of creepy-crawly examples of the problem affecting the popular lodging service. Spend time on an Airbnb forum, Twitter or Reddit and you'll see report after report of bedbugs, whose bites don't spread disease but can leave itchy welts and cause allergic reactions. Some of the reports include photos of swollen arms and legs covered in dozens of red boil-like bumps. Property owners often say renters are the source of the unwanted visitors, while travelers -- or guests, in Airbnb parlance -- blame hosts for not keeping their properties clean. Both sides agree that Airbnb isn't doing enough to fix the problem.
CNET spoke to eight people who dealt with bedbugs in Airbnb rentals within the last three years. All of them said Airbnb, which was founded in 2008, doesn't seem to have a systematic procedure in place for handling outbreaks. And most said that while they eventually received some form of compensation from Airbnb, the company failed to provide adequate support.
"This is my first real issue with Airbnb," says Dariele Blain, whose weekend away with friends went awry after she says the critters emerged at her Airbnb rental in Philadelphia. "But it's such an egregious one that I don't know if I'll book with them again."
Like other Silicon Valley unicorns -- private companies with a high valuation -- Airbnb is known for "disruption," the idea of changing a service or product with technology to make it better. It's turned the lodging industry on its head by getting regular people to use its platform to rent out rooms or entire homes to travelers. Airbnb's service is now operating in almost every country on Earth and it has over 6 million listings for rent. That's more rooms than the top five hotel chains combined.
Airbnb proponents say these short-term rentals help hosts make ends meet, while also bringing more visitors to cities where people can't afford high-cost hotels. But its business model has also triggered unintended consequences. The company has been blamed for rising rent and reduced rental stock in many cities, including its hometown of San Francisco. And in the case of bedbugs, experts say Airbnb's use of millions of independent hosts means that keeping a lid on the pest epidemic can be hard to do.
"The Airbnb concept leads to less control by the health authorities in general compared with more traditional hotel concepts," says Bastiaan Meerburg, who runs the Dutch Pest & Wildlife Expertise Centre. "People subrent a room in their house to earn some money but do not know who will occupy it, which may lead to bedbug problems and a lot of costs to get rid of those again. Tourists also do not know what to expect."
It's unclear whether Airbnb's bedbug problem is equivalent to hotels or other accommodations since it declined to provide any details about how limited or widespread an issue it is. For those cases it does have, Breit said the company will suspend the listing until "the host can provide evidence (i.e. from an exterminator) documenting that the issue has been fixed."
But beyond that, when it comes to individual complaints from hosts and guests about bedbugs, Airbnb said in a July 2019 tweet that it handles such situations case by case.
Bedbugs without borders
After talking to Airbnb that night in May, Terri went into high gear. She managed to move her guest and get an exterminator into her condo the next morning.
The exterminator did a thorough search and found some full-grown bedbugs. But there were no nests, and Terri's mattresses appeared free of the tell-tale black spots from bedbug feces. It didn't appear to be an infestation, Terri says. The exterminator told her he believed the bedbugs were likely brought in by her guest (bedbugs can attach themselves to luggage while traveling, for instance). He wrote a report on his work, and Terri provided it to Airbnb.
Bedbugs are reddish-brown, apple seed-size creatures that are attracted to heat and the carbon dioxide people exhale, so they tend to bite while their victims are sleeping. Once a place is infested with the pests, they're extremely hard to get rid of since they can survive up to three months without a blood meal. It can include multiple visits from exterminators, throwing away furniture and laundering everything on high heat to banish the bugs. This can take a financial and psychological toll on people.
The insects were nearly eradicated after World War II but had a major resurgence around 2010. Since then, they've been found almost everywhere, including five-star hotels, cruise ships, movie theaters, libraries, subway cars, nightclubs and even jury rooms. It's no surprise they've also been found in Airbnb rentals.
"The problem has been around since the Bible days and it's not going away," says Grant Schwarz, a Florida attorney who handles bedbug lawsuits in the US. "It's not like being bit by mosquitos. It happens to you when you're most comfortable and vulnerable -- you're lying in bed."
Schwarz says he gets hundreds of calls a year from people who believe they got bedbugs in Airbnb rentals. He says he receives more calls during the summer because that's when people travel the most.
While Airbnb didn't provide numbers on how many complaints it receives about bedbugs, a look at help forums on its website brings up 230 results on the topic over the past three years. People in places from Auckland, New Zealand, to Madrid, Spain, to Kyoto, Japan, tell stories of dealing with the critters. For comparison, a search for "cockroaches" calls up 103 results and "missing key" brings up 139 results.
A handful of news stories about bedbug-infested Airbnb rentals have been published over the last few years. In one, a woman said she was "devoured by the bloodsucking insects" in a Los Angeles rental. In a Hollywood Airbnb, an entire family said it was bitten on their arms and faces and one of the rental's mattresses was crawling with bugs and covered in blood stains.
Those stories sound similar to the scenarios people shared with CNET.
Blain says she rented a six-bedroom townhome in Philadelphia with 19 other people for her best friend's birthday last month (the booking was made under her friend's name). The plan was to stay for the weekend, cook a big dinner and spend time together. As soon as she arrived, expecting her friends to show up with all of their boxes of food, she went upstairs to check out the rooms.
"I looked at the bed and I saw something crawling," she says. "I was like, 'Is that what I think that is?'"
She immediately took photos and called Airbnb. Blain says the company confirmed it was a bedbug but told her it wouldn't relocate the group to another Airbnb since they were then "at risk" of spreading the pests. Instead, Airbnb told them to book a hotel. After calling around for a couple of hours, Blain found a hotel that could accommodate the big group and that they could afford. They saved all of their receipts and Airbnb reimbursed them a few days later for everything, including their rental and hotel.
"There's nothing in there [about] what to do if the house is not clean or if there's bedbugs," Blain says. "They need to be more proactive with stuff like that because it's a public health issue."
A spreading problem
When the bedbug population exploded nearly a decade ago, many of the reports were problems at hotels and motels. That type of lodging was considered a major culprit in the transmission of the insects, according to Michael Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. But that's changed, he says.
Over the years, hotels have instituted policies for curbing bedbug transmission, such as leaving linen carts in the hallway during room cleaning and scheduling regular pest inspections.
Marriot, Best Western, Wyndham and IHG hotel chains didn't return requests for comment on their bedbug policies. The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which includes those chains among its more than 25,000 members, says it's partnered with the National Pest Management Association to create a series of workshops to educate hotels on bedbug inspection techniques and prevention tips. Now, 98% of hotels have at least one ongoing bedbug prevention program, according to a 2017 study by pest control operator Orkin.
"Hotels are for the most part on top of the problem," Levy says. "As the epidemic has progressed, it's gotten into people's houses and that's where it's become entrenched."
A 2018 report by National Pest Management Association, which represents more than 6,000 pest control operators, says single-family homes and apartments and condos -- the types of properties most likely to be listed on Airbnb -- are the chief places exterminators deal with bedbugs. A typical extermination costs between $1,000 and $2,500.
While Airbnb's rental inventory provides unique options for travelers who want to steer clear of cookie-cutter hotel rooms, those millions of homes are managed under a basic set of requirements, like "accept reservation requests" and "avoid cancelling on guests." Airbnb also suggests hosts provide a "clean and tidy space." But in its terms of service, Airbnb says it has "no control over" any of its listings and "does not guarantee" the rentals' "existence, quality, safety, suitability, or legality."
When asked what Airbnb does to prevent the spread of bedbugs in its rentals, Breit directed CNET to the Community Standards posted on the company's website. These standards don't mention bedbugs specifically but do say "you should not keep unsecured weapons, disease risks, or dangerous animals in your listing." Breit also said Airbnb takes bedbug complaints "seriously."
"We take bedbug complaints as seriously as we would any safety or cleanliness complaint," Breit said. "And we appreciate when hosts or guests bring these types of issues to our attention so that we can improve and correct any problems."
Aside from urging users to contact its customer support hotline and suspending a listing if bedbugs pop up, it's hard to discern if Airbnb has a cohesive policy on what to do in those situations. When asked what the company's policy is for situations in which a guest finds lodging uninhabitable due to bedbugs, Breit pointed CNET to Airbnb's Safety Resources and Tips, Guest Refund Policy, Contact Us page, Trust and Safety portal, Community Standards, Standards and Expectations, Host Protection Insurance, Terms and Policies and Terms of Service. None of these documents mention bedbugs specifically.
Meanwhile, the company's official customer support account responded to a question on Twitter about its bedbug policy on July 11, 2019, noting that it handles the issue on a case-by-case basis.
"As each case is handled differently within our policies, we can't provide an exact solution," @AirbnbHelp tweeted. "We do have a team available 24 hours a day to assist should this, or any other unexpected situation arise."
Breit said on Tuesday that the information provided in the tweet 33 days ago is "incorrect." When asked again about a bedbug policy in place, Breit referred to his earlier statement on taking complaints "seriously" and suspending a listing until the issue has been fixed.
CNET spoke to one traveler who got bedbugs at an Airbnb and was asked by the company to sign a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting discussion of the experience. The traveler signed the NDA and declined to be named or speak about what happened.
After CNET asked Airbnb about NDAs last month, the company's legal department called CBS Interactive's lawyers objecting to the use of anonymous sources (CNET is a brand of CBS Interactive, which is owned by CBS). When asked again last week if Airbnb has people sign NDAs in instances with bedbugs, Breit said, "No."
Public health experts say disclosing bedbug situations is the best way to combat the spread of the insects. If people aren't talking about the issue, it's unlikely to get solved.
"For any situation, keeping people in the dark about bedbugs is going to aggravate it," says Levy, the epidemiologist. "You don't want your tenant or guest to be afraid to tell you about it."
'Is anyone getting bit?'
Sumaya Moallin, who's from Minneapolis, began planning a trip to New York with two friends in 2018. They saved everything they had and booked an Airbnb rental in Brooklyn last month under her friend's name.
"We got there at night," Moallin says. "The first morning I was like, 'Is anyone getting bit?'"
Her back, arms and legs were covered in welts. So she decided to examine the mattress. And when she lifted it up, she says, there were hundreds of bedbugs crawling underneath. Big ones were stuck on the pillow, she says.
"It was straight-up out of a movie," Moallin says. "I was like, 'I just want to get out of here.'"
Because Moallin and her friends had spent all of their money on the Airbnb, they couldn't afford to go anywhere else. When they called Airbnb, the company said it couldn't relocate them to another rental because they were "too much of a risk," she says. Airbnb told the group to book a hotel.
Moallin says the Airbnb representative told them hotels are "more equipped" to deal with bedbugs. Both Blain and Terri say Airbnb representatives told them the same thing.
After roughing it for two more nights at the infested rental, sleeping all together the last night in what they considered to be the cleanest bed, the group decided they couldn't take it anymore. Moallin and her friends reluctantly called their parents for help and were able to pay for two nights at a hotel. Once the whole ordeal was through, Airbnb ended up partially reimbursing them for the Brooklyn rental -- but not for the hotel, she says.
"We spent half of those days being eaten alive. We had to burn all of our clothes," Moallin says. "Now I'm even terrified of hotels because they're sending people there too."
Kristina Pankus, who runs a bedbug inspection business in the US and Europe called Doggybug, does bedbug detection and prevention in hotels regularly. She also gets bedbug inspection calls for a handful of Airbnb rentals every week. Pankus confirmed that Airbnb blocks rental units until they've been treated. And once a unit is cleared, Pankus sends a certificate to Airbnb saying the problem has been handled.
"Airbnb does try and control the bedbug problems as much as they can," Pankus says. "It's not like having cockroaches, it's much, much more difficult to treat. … It's still very taboo. People don't want to talk about it, and if it's not treated correctly it can be a disaster."
New towels, late apology
Terri was dead-set on avoiding such a disaster. Sickened by the fact the exterminator found even just a few bedbugs in her condo, she went to work deep-cleaning. After paying $1,600 for the exterminator and another $325 to have her mattresses encased, Terri paid $85 each to have her three neighbors' condos inspected -- just in case. She also bought new linens, bath towels, comforters, pillows and beach towels.
Airbnb initially said it would reimburse her for some of these costs. But every time she called the company, its mediators said her case was closed. Before publication of this article, Airbnb apologized to Terri and offered to let her keep all of the rental income from that May guest and another $655 for additional costs.
Now, with lessons learned, Terri has a bedbug inspector scheduled to check her condo every month. She says it'd be helpful if Airbnb told all of its hosts to do the same, as well as encase their mattresses. Neither of those suggestions are in the various online documents Airbnb highlighted for CNET. But, Terri says, those actions could help prevent the spread of the pests.
"Whenever you list your space, your condo, your house, your whatever, I wish Airbnb would tell you that bedbugs are a problem throughout the country," Terri says about registering a property with the company. "They don't ask you any questions. They're just like, 'Upload it,' and that's it."
Illustrations by Robert Rodriguez.
Originally published August 13, 5:00 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:39 p.m.: Includes additional comment from Ben Breit, Airbnb's head of trust and safety communications for the Americas, which says information provided in a tweet by Airbnb's official customer support account regarding bedbug cases is "incorrect."