A short-term rental advocacy group is claiming that online “pirates” are stealing registration numbers from the City of Toronto’s website and using them to post fake listings on Airbnb. It’s a problem that has cropped up since the City decided to introduce a registration system as part of short-term rental regulation. Cottage country municipalities that are considering or implementing a similar registration system are also vulnerable to this scam.
“The city attempts sweeping enforcement actions to take down pirates, but pirates easily repost fake listings by reusing the permit data the city leaves unprotected,” contests Fairbnbhosts.ca on its website. “Visitors can’t be sure if they are booking a pirate space or a legal operator.”
Since September 2020, Toronto has required all short-term rental operators to register with the city. This is to “prevent the proliferation of ‘ghost-hotels’ and protect critical rental stock by maintaining access for tenants to long-term accommodations,” the city said in an email.
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As part of this process, operators receive a registration number from the city, which they use to set up their listing. But all 6,277 of these registration numbers are publicly available online, along with the first three digits of the short-term rental’s postal code. Scammers can access the registration numbers and use them to set up fake listings.
There’s a simple solution, says George Emerson, director of Fairbnbhosts.ca, which describes itself as a travel industry trade association protecting the interests of Toronto’s Airbnb operators. “The city says [the registration numbers are] how they verify with the booking platforms,” he says. “But if your website and my website want to exchange information, we don’t have to do that in a way that’s exposed to the public finding it. We do it on a secure shielded website. We would use a database. Every website has a database, and we would use that method to exchange information.”
Emerson adds that this is commonly done. “Computers verify large datasets all the time through secure ways without revealing identities.” But when he asked the city whether it could privately exchange registration information with booking sites, staff told him it wasn’t a priority.
The city is aware of the fake listings being posted. To combat the issue, it performs compliance audits using data discovery techniques. “The city compliance audits flag listings that have missing, inaccurate, or incomplete information that prevents the city from verifying registration status and operators who are not in compliance with the bylaw,” the city said.
But these compliance audits are part of what’s wrong with Toronto’s short-term rental regulations, Emerson argues. When setting up a listing, the rental’s information must match the city’s registration data. “The address mismatches are so tiny, like whether there’s a ‘St.’ or ‘St’,” he says.
Other incorrect listing information includes operators using nicknames instead of their full name as listed on government-issued IDs, using incorrect postal codes, adding in building names rather than street addresses, not including unit numbers, or placing unit numbers in the wrong field.
If a listing’s information is flagged as incorrect during a compliance audit, the city will take the listing down. When the city flags a “pirated” listing, it may also take down the legitimate listing, penalizing an operator who’s following the bylaws.
“No other type of business gets this kind of a shakedown, this kind of level of harassment,” Emerson argues.
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