April 23, 2014 at 7:36 AM ET
Our parents teach us from an early age to stay away from strangers: Never get into their cars or allow them into our homes. But now, we're doing both: sharing our homes and our cars for quick cash. Move over, Craigslist, it's the new online boom. But how safe is it?
Today, convenience is king. Don't want to pay for an expensive car service? There's an app for that, called Lyft. Don't want to pay to kennel your dog? Have a stranger pet-sit for less using DogVacay. And the ultimate in sharing: your home. Strangers can rent it by the night using Airbnb. One couple made $20,000 doing it.
It's a multibillion-dollar industry called the "sharing economy": more and more companies connecting strangers to share, swap and rent everything from clothes to bikes to children's toys.
The trend is featured in the May edition of Wired magazine. "To give you some sense of how big this is, six million people stayed in Airbnbs last year," said Jason Tanz, the magazine's executive editor. "The company is reportedly worth $10 billion, which is bigger than some hotel chains, including Hyatt."
But all that trust can cause trouble. Ari Teman posted an ad on Airbnb offering his New York City apartment for $300 a night. Someone took him up on it.
"I'm a stand-up comedian," Teman said. "I travel a lot, and it seems like a great deal while you're out, not using your apartment, [to] make some money."
But when Teman came back, "the place was destroyed," he said. "Things were all over the floor: bottles of alcohol, wrappers. The furniture had been disassembled, broken things were moist."
It turns out the strangers who rented his apartment hosted sex parties: Teman found their fliers online.
"It was a rancid, disgusting nightmare that evening," he said. "It was like the apartment itself had been violated. You immediately want to curl into a ball, except there was no clean surface to do so."
Airbnb says it reimbursed Teman for damages under its Host Guarantee program, and banned the offending guest. The company told NBC News: "Problems for hosts and guests are incredibly rare ... we are constantly evaluating new security measures, and we have a zero tolerance policy for these issues."
"It's good to trust other people, but not willy-nilly," Wired magazine's Tanz warned. "These companies all collect a lot of data about the people who use them, so read up and don't just go in blind."
Many of these companies are trying to install systems to check up on users: Who are they, do they have issues? But there's only so much they can do: After all, they're dealing with strangers.
And there are growing pains. New York's attorney general is investigating Airbnb, which is in talks to go public. The AG says most New York City sublets listed by Airbnb appear to violate state law on short-term rentals.
Bottom line: Always do your homework before letting anyone into your home.
"Over 11 million guests have had a safe, positive experience on Airbnb, and this weekend over 230,000 people will stay on Airbnb worldwide. We help promote positive experiences through a global trust and safety team available 24/7, authentic reviews, verified profile information, and the $1 Million Host Guarantee.
Problems for hosts and guests are incredibly rare, but when they happen, we try to help make things right. We took immediate action to find Ari a safe place to stay and reimbursed him for damages under our Host Guarantee program. The individual who rented this space has been permanently removed from our community. Like other leaders in global hospitality, we are constantly evaluating new security measures, and we have a zero tolerance policy for these issues."