MarketingThe vacation rental company has been accused of confusing Australian consumers with its dollar pricing.

When dollar signs aren't what they seem on Airbnb

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Is that USD or AUD? The ACCC is seeking compensation for Australians who were misled into believing their accommodation prices were in AUD when they were actually in USD.
Is that USD or AUD? The ACCC is seeking compensation for Australians who were misled into believing their accommodation prices were in AUD when they were actually in USD. Photo Credit: GettyImages/FJZEA

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is going after Airbnb for allegedly misleading consumers with its pricing information.

The competition watchdog will claim consumers were deceived into believing prices for Australian accommodation on Airbnb’s website, or mobile app, were in Australian dollars, “when in fact for many consumers prices were in US dollars”.

The ACCC will argue before the Federal Court in Australia that while at least on some occasions Airbnb referred to the price as ‘USD’ in small font on the last page of the booking process, “this happened only after the platform had already displayed numerous dollar (‘$’) amounts on earlier pages, without nearby reference to US dollars, and after the consumer had clicked to ‘reserve’ their accommodation”.

“We allege that Airbnb’s misleading conduct meant that consumers were deprived of the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether, and at what price, to book their holiday accommodation on the Airbnb platform,” ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said.

In April this year, the Australian Federal Court ordered Trivago to pay penalties of A$44.7 million (US$31.4 million) for making misleading representations about hotel room rates on its website and in television advertising, in proceedings brought by the ACCC.

The watchdog is now seeking from Airbnb “declarations, injunctions, pecuniary penalties, orders for the compensation for affected consumers, costs, and other orders”.

“By taking this action, we are stating very clearly that digital platforms like Airbnb need to ensure the accuracy of all statements that may affect consumers’ purchasing decisions,” Cass-Gottlieb said.

The ACCC noted that between January 2018 and August 2021, the average Australian dollar to US dollar exchange rate was about US$0.72.

“At this rate, an Australian consumer who thought they were paying A$500 for their accommodation booking would have actually paid almost A$700 before any foreign currency conversion fees.

“Airbnb did not compensate many consumers who complained about this conduct, and so we will be arguing that the court should order Airbnb to compensate people who were misled about the price of their accommodation,” Cass-Gottlieb said.

In a statement to Travel Weekly Asia, Susan Wheeldon, Airbnb’s country manager for Australia and New Zealand, said, “While a fraction of a percentage of guests are believed to have been impacted, we were nonetheless extremely disappointed to have found that this occurred and we will compensate affected guests. 

“Upon this issue being brought to our attention by the ACCC, we worked to update our platform so that the relevant currencies are clearly displayed from the first page for all Australian guests booking stays on our platform. 

“We’re also conducting a comprehensive review of how this issue occurred and the way in which guest complaints were initially handled.

“We have worked constructively with the ACCC with respect to this matter from the start, and we will continue to engage and cooperate in good faith.

“Our team continues to work diligently to find new ways to improve and innovate so that guests, hosts and the wider community can enjoy the benefits of travel.

“To that end, we have recently introduced a number of protections to help guests book with confidence, including measures such as our flexible cancellation filter and enhanced guest booking protection.”

The story has been updated to reflect the response from Airbnb. 

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