Amy Urban from Berkeley in California missed out on a planned trip around Ireland with her family this summer, due to Covid-19.
Together with her husband, she planned to take their daughters, aged 12 and 15 on a tour of Ireland including Killarney, the Aran Islands and Derry, as well as four nights in Dublin on arrival, she says.
Urban is well travelled. “I’ve rented places all over the world, Japan, Denmark, Amsterdam,” she says by Zoom,on a recent Thursday.
She planned her trip in February and after doing some research found an apartment in Dublin that looked good. It wasn’t cheap, at €360 a night but it looked comfortable and the website looked polished, she says.
The luxury property-management company, HipHipStay, had good reviews online on several websites and she recalls checking Trustpilot, a customer-review website she says.
“They really had five-star reviews,” says Urban. So she booked from HipHipStay directly.
Later, after she ran into problems with HipHipStay, Urban would wonder if those reviews she saw were genuine.
Then she found an article from last December published by Dublin InQuirer, with evidence suggesting that HipHipStay had been writing their own reviews.
The short-term-let company was temporarily suspended from Airbnb late last year, but that was short lived. By the end of January 2020 they were back up on the platform.
The Pandemic Effect
After the Covid-19 shutdown Urban’s travel plans were up in the air, by May she realised that she wouldn’t be able to travel to Ireland in July as planned, she says.
She was aware of the effect of the pandemic on businesses so she contacted her accommodation providers to say she would accept vouchers to come at a later date, she says.
Most responded quickly, she says.
Only HipHipStay did not respond to emails and messages, she says, so Urban posted a bad review on Trustpilot.
“I have been trying to reach HipHipStay from the US for several weeks,” she wrote on the site. “Is there any organization in Dublin that can help us get our money back?”
After she posted her review, the owner of the company, William McGlade, contacted her and offered her travel credit, which she accepted.
They conversed back and forth about a few issues in correspondence shown to Dublin InQuirer. Then on 11 June she tried to sign into her messages on the HipHipStay site.
“All of a sudden I try to sign into our conversation and there is no more conversation on the website,” she says. “The website has been cleared of properties, my credentials don’t work anymore and there is no record of my reservation on the website.”
After that, on 23 June, the HipHipStay website disappeared for a time, she says.
She then decided to pursue a refund through her bank, Citibank.
On 10 July 2020, Urban was offered “conditional credit” by her credit company. She has still not received a refund.
Citibank told her that HipHipStay had until 3 September 2020 to reply to them.
McGlade then made contact offering her a credit note and asking her to take down the Trustpilot review.
She wrote back saying that she couldn’t trust that her family would have a place to stay in Dublin if she were to rebook with HipHipStay.
“In the past month my login details stopped working on your website and then your website completely disappeared,” wrote Urban. “I also learned that you have been banned from Airbnb for writing your own reviews.”
McGlade wrote back saying he couldn’t give her a refund. “We are not in a position to refund you since we have had to deal with over 1000 cancellations.”
HipHipStay did not respond to an email query asking them to show that they have lost money or have issued refunds to other customers.
Urban received several emails, calls and messages from McGlade last week. He said that he was offering her €500 in credit with the company as a goodwill gesture and that he has now approved her credit card refund.
At the time of writing, there are no properties listed on theHipHipStay website and Urban has still not got a refund.
HipHipStay didn’t respond to two calls, two emails and a text message asking them to discuss these issues.
Although Urban booked from HipHipStay directly, the company had also advertised on various short-term let platforms, of which Booking.com and Airbnb are the most popular.
Airbnb is different from the other travel sites in that it claims to verify the identity of its hosts.
McGlade says he has never reviewed his own properties. However, on Airbnb listings, a user named Will, with a profile photo that matches McGlade’s image, who says he works for DublinBNB, left 14 reviews for HipHipStay properties on various dates in 2017 and 2018. DublinBNB is the original name of William McGlade’s company 5 Star Stay, according to the Companies Registration Office.
The profiles had the same photo and the same reviews but a new name. The Brian profile still said it was verified by Airbnb.
Back in December, a spokesperson for Airbnb said: “We have zero tolerance for this type of behaviour and as soon as this was brought to our attention, we launched an immediate investigation and have suspended the host from the platform.”
A spokesperson for Airbnb didn’t directly answer a question as to why they allowed HipHipStay back on the platform. “The listings are no longer available on Airbnb, and we took action when the matter was brought to our attention last year,” he said.
After the ban customers continued to encounter difficulties with HipHipStay’s “luxurious” properties and they raised issues in the reviews.
A user calling themselves Jason posted a review saying that the James Joyce House had a leaking roof before the ban, and that problem got worse it seems. By February 2020, someone wrote a review in French complaining that there were mushrooms growing out of the ceiling.
According to Airbnb, the company is big on trust. “Our real innovation is not allowing people to book a home; it’s designing a framework to allow millions of people to trust one another,” said the CEO of Airbnb Brian Chesky to staff in an open emailin November 2019.
“Trust is the real energy source that drives Airbnb and has enabled us to scale our platform to 191 countries and to more than 600 million members,” he wrote.
Urban thinks that she was misled by online reviews which presented a false impression of HipHipStay as a company. “This whole business is centered around the reviews,” she says.
Meanwhile the online battle continues on Trustpilot, where McGlade had disputed the veracity of Urban’s review of HipHipStay together with six other customer reviews.
Their testimonials were temporarily suspended. She was asked to submit evidence, which she did.
Trustpilot has now decided in favour of Urban and several others and restored their reviews.