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Our First Scary Experience

Wow! Tonight we had a really scary experience. A Russian couple came to stay with us a week ago. We’ve had several Russians stay with us and we’ve never had a single problem at all. But they were all from Moscow, a very international city and they were what I call “internationalized”. Meaning, they adhered to international norms of behavior and they understood the ways of the world outside of Russia.

But when these people first arrived, I immediately got a bad feeling. One, because they were from some really small town near the Black Sea - far outside of the major metropolitan areas of Russia. Two, they barely spoke a word of English and we’ve had to communicate mostly via Google Translate (thank God for that)! And three, they were obviously very much ‘country’ people who had never travelled outside of Russia.

The first problem came up when I tried to teach them how to use the security system and the lock on the door. The guy had a total mental block towards our alarm system. I showed him five times how to use it, and he still couldn’t get it. To this day (their 8th day with us), they still refuse to lock the door when they leave or return and they refuse to turn the alarm system back on after they come home. But since my wife and I live here, we just decided to leave them alone about it and we would finish everything up after they came home for the night.

We also have a security camera in plain view in the shared living room/dining area of the apartment. The camera is so obvious. It’s this huge (5" x 5") white camera with two blinking green lights on it that our alarm company installed for us. It’s setup on a table that’s right next to the dining table and it points towards the front door. A portion of the dining table is in its view. Every night for eight nights they’ve eaten dinner at the dinning table sitting just a couple of feet away from it. But apparently they didn’t notice it until last night and when they did notice it they became enraged.

We rarely check it, it doesn’t record audio or video and it can only be used for “live” viewing. The only times we look at it are when we may want to go into the kitchen to cook a meal and we just want to check to see if any guests are using the kitchen. If they are we’ll wait until they finish. But it is also for security purposes, in case we heard any loud or strange noises out there we’d check the camera before going in to see what was going on. Anyway, it just seemed like a good idea to have a camera out there when you’re going to have several hundred strangers waltzing through your apartment every year.

Without our knowing it (because we don’t look at it all that often), the guy had written a note on a piece of paper and placed it against the wall and then turned the camera around to face the note. We never saw the note on camera and when he came home and realized we hadn’t seen it, he got really angry and picked the note up, shoved it into my wife’s hand just as she walked into the kitchen and yelled at her.

My wife came back to tell me what had happened and handed me the note. The note said, “This is your house! but! you should have warned you watching us! is VILE!”

So I go out to talk to the guy and through Google Translate he accused us of having a hidden camera that he had found in the bedroom! I said, “show me”! He declined. He had to decline because there was no hidden camera in the bedroom. Then he kept pointing to the very obvious camera in the living room and said, “What’s that? What’s that?” I answered that, “it’s a security camera”. He said, “why didn’t you tell us about it?” I said, “it’s right there, everyone can see it!” And he kept yelling “you should have told us!” Then he started asking “why is it there, why isn’t it mounted on the wall?” I looked at him and shrugged, like I didn’t understand the question - because I didn’t. What difference does it make if it’s on the table at stomach height or a few inches higher mounted on the wall?

Anyway, he got so angry and said it was “unconscionable” what we had done. He kept saying, “you were watching us, you were watching us, you are perverts!” (Like even if we had watched, it would somehow make us perverts to watch two people cook dinner"). He was yelling and I was actually scared about what he might do at that point. Was he going to start a physical fight? Or throw things at me? I didn’t know. I tried to calm him down and explain why we had it but through the language barrier, it was almost impossible to do when he was so angry.

I went back into our bedroom with my wife and locked the door. I waited for a while - half expecting him to come barging through the door. A few minutes later my wife went into the kitchen to get something and when she came back she said they were in there eating.

So I thought it might a good idea to go back in to talk to them calmly and try to explain what happened. I know in situations like that, if the person can see you again and see that you’re not mad and that you feel badly that they were so upset it can help calm them down. So, I went to my computer and typed out a longer message than I was able to give him in person, explaining why we have the camera and that in America it’s perfectly legal to have a camera in plain view that’s in a public area of the house. Then I apologized for upsetting them and told him I felt terrible that this had made such a bad impression on him.

I had it translated and then printed it out. I just hoped to God that the translation was fairly accurate! When I got out there he had seemed to calm down a great deal so I handed him the note. He read it very slowly, trying to comprehend what was no doubt some confusing Russian. And then he looked up and said, “OK”. Then I told him verbally how sorry I was for upsetting him. This seemed to really calm him down. Then my wife came in and suddenly started trying to explain (again) why we had the camera. At this, the Russian man put his hand up and said, “stop, just stop”! Meaning, he had had enough of the conversation. So she stopped and apologized and then we left.

He was still very upset. But between the time I first talked to him and then talked to him again later, I contacted Airbnb to tell them what had happened - because I did feel some fear for our physical safety at that point.

What I guess was most upsetting is what Airbnb wrote back and said. They said this:

"Please be advised that video and audio surveillance equipment in places where people may have a reasonable expectation of privacy may violate the law in a number of U.S. states. You represent that you are compliant with all local laws regarding surveillance.

On Airbnb, prior notice to your guest and consent as required by law is mandatory. If a guest denies consent and wishes to cancel their reservation, Airbnb will allow cancellation without penalty to the guest and all applicable penalties for a host cancellation will apply. If we determine that surveillance equipment has been used in violation of applicable legal requirements, your account will be reviewed under the Airbnb Terms of Service. It would be appropriate to note this on the Description and House Rules sections on your listing’s page."

That was pretty disconcerting to get such a harsh message from them about this from Airbnb. The camera is not in violation of any state law, as it is in plain view and it’s in the most public area of the whole apartment. But to think that some know-nothing bureaucrat at Airbnb might determine on their own that it’s illegal and deactivate our account is pretty unbelievable.

I’m sorry that you’ve had this experience and that it’s been an upsetting one, especially for your wife getting yelled at by angry guests. I am afraid that I do agree with Airbnb, and also with how the guest must be feeling - the indoor camera absolutely should be disclosed in your listing and should additionally be pointed out while you are showing the guest your space. It doesn’t matter if it’s super obvious - as you mention, these are perhaps more simple people and they may not recognize what to others would be an obvious camera. Also, who knows if there is any extra cultural sensitivity to surveillance, especially if these are Russians who might have a heightened sense of paranoia (I watch too many spy movies).

I don’t think it’s necessary to disclose security cameras outside of the unit, as there is no expectation of privacy outside of a building/apartment. I myself have multiple listings and some of them have security cams outside, some have a RING doorbell with a motion detector/camera and some have cameras on neighboring buildings/houses that provide coverage. I do disclose outside security cameras as I want to discourage extra guests and if they know I can see them strolling up they are more likely to not have surprise guests show up.

THere have been instances where guests have found hidden cameras in bedrooms (recently in Montreal) so it’s not a huge stretch for a guest to jump to that conclusion.

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I agree that is crucial to disclose that people would be able to be viewed by camera in the place they had rented and were enjoying privacy. i also would have been upset. i would not have chosen to rent it in the first place… so you took that option away from them when you didnt disclose this in your listing or after booking. i agree with airbnb. perhaps hosting isnt your cup of tea if you feel its necessary to stay safe.

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I also side with AirBnB’s position who have better things to do then deal with these confrontations: the camera a risky and unnecessary caution. The fellow’s manner, of course, is very rough and no joy to even have to deal with in the first place. One of those bumps in the long road.

I have security cameras outside - and I disclose this in the check in details - I do not want any guests to complain about the cameras or think I am doing something inappropriate.

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I see both sides of this, so I understand why you’re upset. If the camera is that obvious, well I mean, the guy should have seen it and asked right away. If I’d seen it, I would have asked what it was for. I might be inclined to ask you not to use it, but honestly, I get videoed on my job every time I step out out of my office, so I may as well get filmed elsewhere.

Still the man’s attitude was frightening and so you were right to report it and I would have been freaked out too. How about getting a baby monitor and putting in the kitchen and telling your guests? Or a strategically placed mirror, where you could get a glimpse into the kitchen from around a corner or up a stairwell, a convex one that takes in a panoramic view of the space? Surely no one would complain about that, especially if you explain that it’s to make using the kitchen easier.

You know, the guy probably just doesn’t want to get caught picking his nose or something…it’s a universal feeling, that need for privacy. I’d chalk this up to experience and ditch the camera. Even describing it on your listing could freak out potential guests.

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Tara_Golden said: “I agree that is crucial to disclose that people would be able to be viewed by camera in the place they had rented and were enjoying privacy.”

That’s fair. I honestly hadn’t thought of it because after hosting more than 1,000 people over the last 7-8 years not a single person has ever mentioned it. Airbnb agrees with you as well saying today that there’s no problem with the camera as long as I mention it in my listing - which I have now done.

Before you come down too harshly though, you might need to be in our guests’ shoes to understand why no one has ever complained about it - or even mentioned it. There is a reason only one out of a thousand people has had a problem with it. In fact, if you get 5 stars 999 times and 1 star once, that would give you a 4.996 rating. So I guess you could say the camera has a rating of 4.996.

As far as hosting not being our cup of tea because we feel it is necessary to stay safe - I’m going to assume that’s not really what you meant to say because if it was, it’s patently ridiculous. OF COURSE I feel the need to keep myself, my wife and my child safe with hundreds of random strangers coming through our home every year. Absolutely I feel safety is important and I’ll never apologize for that.

The camera has helped us catch some pretty unethical misdeeds on the part of what turns out to be a higher number of less-than-honest guests than we would have ever imagined having. Like guests who have tried to sneak in more people than they told us they had. Or the many guests who feel free to rummage through our cabinets and refrigerator taking whatever food they want - even though we’re clear in our listing that guests must provide their own food and that all the food here is our own personal food unless we tell them otherwise. We’ve actually been very thankful that we’ve had the camera because of the number of less-than-honest guests that have shown up at our home.

superhostnyc - you said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s super obvious - as you mention, these are perhaps more simple people and they may not recognize what to others would be an obvious camera. Also, who knows if there is any extra cultural sensitivity to surveillance, especially if these are Russians who might have a heightened sense of paranoia”

I think you hit the nail in the head. The Soviet-era paranoia actually occurred to me while we were talking. He grew up in the Soviet Union - I asked him about that during our conversations in the previous days. I think he may have had actually a very rational paranoia about cameras because of that. Back then everybody was spied on and a camera or a bug didn’t mean “security” to them at all - it meant imminent risk of jail. So I understand why he would freak out a lot more about a camera than most people would have.

Also, you’re right that it wasn’t obvious to him that it was a camera. He told me that at one point. He said, “how would I know that was a camera?” I was amazed by that! I thought how could anyone not know?

Anyway, apparently there’s a good end to the story. Airbnb wrote back and said it’s perfectly acceptable to have a security camera in the public areas of your apartment, as long as you mention it in your listing. So I added mention of it to our listing and they wrote back very happy and said everything is fine.

The Russians came in tonight and were very happy and friendly again as they had been in the beginning. So apparently they finally figured out what it was all about. I think perhaps my note last night helped as well as the fact that last night I unplugged the camera in front of him and turned it to face the wall - to show him we didn’t care anything about watching them. Funny thing was, when we got up this morning he had turned the camera back to facing the room! But he didn’t plug it in. I took that as somewhat of an acceptance of what had happened.

Pilfering food isn’t such a big deal and I’m not sure I would put a camera there to catch people at it. The fact is that “often” when people are rifling around for something, it’s an ingredient they need to supplement something they’re already making, like needing sugar to go with coffee. Honestly, I’ve had so much food left behind in my unit–and you must have too–and it’s saved me so much money that adopting a give and take attitude toward it might be better. Either that or lock your food up? Or get an industrial sized fridge, like one of my hosts in South America did? He has about 6 rooms for six guests and each of us had enough space for a lot of food. I left some behind and gave it to some new guests coming in since the host didn’t want it.

I have a question, though. If you are hosting people in your home, how can they sneak extra people in? I’m trying to picture your set-up and I’m having some difficulty. I have a self-contained unit and so I know that that makes it easier, but in a home where you are sharing? How does that work? Is it a very big apartment?

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That does sound scary and I would also be upset to feel like Airbnb was siding with the guest that was making you so very uncomfortable.

It sounds like you did the right thing in the end though, learned from it, and then shared what you learned here, which I’m sure will be helpful to others.

Probably when we think or use the word ‘obvious’ an alarm bell should ring. Obvious to us may not be obvious at all to others, and incredible as it can seem sometimes. I myself have looked back at situations and realized that something was obvious but I completely missed it. ; )

Glad it’s worked out now!

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I can see both sides, and agree the man was over the top with his reaction. However, I’d be very uncomfortable myself discovering an undisclosed cc was on me!

Especially if he is older, as others have mentioned. I also think Air is trying to cover all their bases by being firm about what is legal and what isn’t, and they must get this issue a lot so are ready with that canned response. Your idea that they should see it so it should be obvious is not really disclosure, as you’ve figured out.

However, because you MUST disclose this in your listing, I’d wager you need a really really diplomatic way of saying it so that it’s not a turn off. If I were shopping for listings and found one that said I’d have a camera on me (except for outside) I would definitely move on!!!

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I say “, your safety is assured by my Nest Cam which is continually on at the entrance”

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That is full disclosure!

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But that sounds like it’s on the outside Rolf. It’s a different thing if it’s inside and encompasses most of the living area. I mean, that could count as false advertising. If I were this host, I’d just get a panoramic convex mirror. There’s something about having one’s every move, especially in a private home, monitored by video…even if someone told me it wasn’t recording, only livestreaming, I’d still feel a bit odd. Every time I step outside my office, I’m aware I’m being videoed. I don’t do anything really differently, but I certainly don’t do anything personal, like pull up my bra strap or my pants if they’re sagging…and it would definitely be possible at certain times of the day because the hallway is very quiet.

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Actually the exact quote from my description is “Your safety is assured with my electronic key system and a Nest Cam covering comings and goings at the House entrance. Additionally, I am on site and almost always here.”

Rolf, that’s a great suggestion! I already put something very similar in our House Rules where I had a section on our security system. I just added that there is a security camera in the shared space to insure the safety of all guests.

Reeny, I agree that pilfering food isn’t such a big deal. But sometimes it can be a big headache. Like when one guests decided the last bit of milk was his to drink. No problem. No measurable monetary loss. But it sure meant an extra trip to the store at a really bad time (when I was trying to leave for work), because our baby needed milk right then and there!

Also, good question Reeny about how someone could sneak extra people into our home while we’re there. The reason is that our bedroom is way in the back. It’s rather large and we spend most of our time back there. We also have our own bathroom so we don’t run into guests in the hallway going back and forth to the bathroom. Once we’ve eaten dinner for the night, we’re pretty much out of the public part of the apartment until the next morning. Also, when we’re in the bedroom, we can neither see nor hear guests coming and going. Sometimes we can hear them if they’re talking, but if they’re quiet, we can’t. And we can’t even hear the front door open and close from there. It’s a 1,700 sq ft apartment, so it’s pretty large for the New York area and if you’re in the back you really have no clue what’s going on in the front.

Anyone who has stayed with us for more than a couple of days knows that they could easily come and go without our ever being aware of it. One girl had a third guest that she had told us about and said she was going to stay for three days. She paid for it. Then we noticed one night on the camera that this girl was still here on the 5th day! Then there have been two other occasions where people who had registered as 2 guests brought in a third guest on the second or third night of their stay. It can and does happen. And it has probably happened even more times than we’ve actually noticed.

Konacoconutz, I agree with most of what you said. But one thing I might differ with you on is when you said the obviousness of a camera doesn’t really count as disclosure. That all really depends on where you live. Each state has somewhat different laws about it. They all have the same gist - that you can’t have a hidden camera in a room where privacy is to be expected, namely bedrooms and bathrooms. You can’t use a camera for any prurient purposes. But in New York they actually get very specific about what they mean by disclosure and notification. They say you must post a written notice unless the camera is conspicuously located and in plain view. And this camera is in as plain a view as any written notice could be. If anyone misses this camera, they would be just as likely to miss a written notice!

Anyway, thank you all for your comments. You did help me realize that some people could be upset by this and that I should mention it on my Airbnb description so those that would be unsettled by it can move on and make a reservation with someone else. That’s the best way to keep everybody happy!

I keep coffee whitener on hand for exactly this sort of reason…if there’s only a bit of milk left, I don’t have to run out and get more. Also, maybe try long-life soy milk for your guests? I pay $1.50 at the dollar store for it and it lasts for ages. It has to be refrigerated after it’s been opened, but it’s there and I can store extra boxes easily.

I took a worst-case scenario into account when it came things like this. I also made things so that i could manage on my busiest days…so I didn’t overburden myself. Keeping an extra supply of stuff around really saves time.

Yeah, we try to keep an extra supply of everything, but sometimes no matter what you do you’re still going to run out of something! And milk is that one thing we seem to run out of more than anything else. We have to buy a gallon every single day just to stay even! So if one day we’re too busy to go to the store, things are going to be iffy by the next day!

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Jon and Reeny, I would actually think that pilfering food after being asked not to is a violation of your house rules at worst and rude at best. I would really dislike it, especially in a place like Hawaii where the cheapest milk is $6-8 a gallon. I sometimes make a special trIp to town for half and half so that I will never be without it!!!

I see what you mean about the camera and certain state laws. I’d still feel unsettled having a camera on me in common areas. I think if you word it correctly though it shouldn’t be that much of a turn off. And as you say you’ve had a ton of people who’ve stayed, saw the camera and didn’t care.

Perhaps there is a better way to achieve the same objective. What is it?. I have no clue, but necessity is usually the mother of invention. The camera’s presence, in what is implied or assumed as a private area, is a bit chancy.

I did do a quick poll among a few colleagues today all of whom did not like idea of a camera. These are all big Airbnb and Uber users, too. But, they said, if they’d already paid for a place in NYC, a very expensive city, they wouldn’t necessarily complain, they’d just lump it unhappily. Ya gotta remember, guests get reviewed too and so maybe they aren’t saying anything because they’re worried about what will happen come review time.

I personally would get rid of the camera. And I would take a different attitude to catching people pilfering. I mean, I’m a host, and I helped myself to a bit of sugar the day after I arrived at my Airbnb place on my last trip. I did buy some later in the day, but it was a biggish bag and I only needed enough for coffee for a week. I left it there, of course, because I wasn’t going to lug a bag of sugar home. But it was the same later on in the week for another guest there. She needed a bit of milk, which I had, and I told her to just help herself.

If you’re having people in your very own home, I think you need to separate out the food in a way that’s very very clear. I.e., separate cupboards and fridge. I’m just thinking back to my 20s and early 30s, when I had roommates. Either you worked out a reciprocal kind of understanding or there could be a bad, lingering atmosphere. I just chalked up pilfered food to the cost of sharing housing and tried to not get nit-picky. And, I gotta say, a camera sounds very nit-picky indeed.

And, in many ways, having guests in the house is often reciprocal. The kitchen cupboard in my rental is full of stuff people have left behind. There’s a full complement of soy sauces and teriyakis, all sorts of cooking oils and vinegars, on top of what I supply. The cupboard looks like the cupboard in a regular house, except it’s probably cleaner and better organized since that’s what guests expect. And I’ve had plenty of things left behind that I’ve taken…unopened bottles of wine, expensive juices, coffee, teas, laundry detergent, even packages of fresh, store-bought meat or left-over fruit. That’s the thing…when a person is only staying for a few days, they often purchase things in packages that are meant to last a lot longer.

As a host and a guest I know this, so I just think you should show a bit of trust here…I would feel I was staying in a place for transients (not guests) if I knew the host felt he had to have a security camera on and pointed at the shared space and the kitchen. It’s off-putting. I stayed at a place in South America where the host was very open and kind and there was a lot of give and take among him and the guests. It created a great atmosphere. You might want to aim for that instead.

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