Jacob Lopez, a 19-year-old from the US claims he was locked in the fourth floor Madrid apartment where he was sexually assaulted by his host, a transsexual woman.
When it became clear he was trapped in the apartment, he rang his mother in the United States who called Airbnb for help, but its employees would not give her the address of the flat and refused to call the police.
The company instead gave her the number for Madrid’s police, told her to ring them and ask them to call Airbnb for the address.
But, she told The New York Times, that when she called Madrid’s police she was met with a recorded message in Spanish and when she called back her Airbnb contact, it went straight to voicemail.
Lopez is now back in the United States and in trauma therapy after his ordeal, something which Airbnb told The Local was "a unique situation".
"We realize we can learn a lot from this incident and we can do better," a spokesman from the accommodation listings site, which has seen 50 million guests use its service since it was founded in 2008, told The Local.
"We are clarifying our policies so that our team will always contact law enforcement if we are made aware of an emergency situation in progress. Safety is our number one priority and we want to get our hosts and guests as much help as possible," he added.
The company told The Local it would be beefing up its safety measures following the incident.
"Guests and hosts can identify an Emergency Contact when they’re setting up their profile. We’re working on enhancing this tool so these Emergency Contacts are pre-authorized to receive any information they need in case of an emergency.
"We’re also overhauling the system that guests use to share their itineraries with family and friends, making it easier and faster for guests to share all the important details about their trip, especially from their mobile device."
Photo: Justin Sullivan/AFP
Lopez says that when he arrived at his host's flat in Madrid, she repeatedly tried to kiss him and ordered him to take off his trousers or he would sleep on the streets. Lopez thought his host had a weapon and after he was sexually assaulted, became increasinly desperate:
"I was telling myself that I was going to have to kill her or she was going to kill me," he told The New York Times.
"Thoughts that should never have to go through anyone’s mind started to come into mine. How are you going to live with yourself the rest of your life knowing that you killed someone? But if you don’t, then you won’t have a life."
He eventually got out of the flat after telling the woman he had arranged to meet friends, who would become suspicious if he did not turn up. He reported the assault to Madrid's police who are currently investigating.
The incident, which the host - who was born male and now lives as a woman - claims was consensual, has brought the issue of safety of online flat letting services to the fore.
While Airbnb promotes its security measures, the company did not come to the aid of one of its guests who was in trouble,"putting the onus on his mother" to help rather than sending someone to check on Lopez, as The New York Times put it.
"While the issue of sexual assault is a global challenge - and different laws in different countries impact what a web platform can do to help - there is nothing more important to us than the safety of our community," the Airbnb spokesman told The Local.
"The weekend that this occurred, over 800,000 people stayed on Airbnb around the world, and 70,000 were staying on Airbnb in Spain. But even one incident is one too many, and while no industry has a 100 percent safety record, that’s what we strive for," he added.
Private home rentals are now more popular than hotel stays for tourists in Spain, driven in part by the success of Airbnb.
The company’s rise has not been welcomed everywhere, however, with Catalonia "declaring war" on Airbnb-style rentals, slapping tourists with a tax for staying in private homes.