Along with the ability to hail a ride from our phones, the app era has pioneered a great cultural shift, a mass willingness to, say, let a stranger spend the night in our homes or meet up with a cute random guy after just a few texts.
But our newfound propensity for trusting strangers from the internet has also enabled a new approach to crime. You don't have to break into someone's home to rob them anymore. You can just book it for a night on Airbnb.
With background checks, user reviews and finely-honed systems of reward and punishment to encourage trust and good behavior, companies like Airbnb and Uber have tried to mitigate the possibilities of these kinds of encounters going sour. The vast majority of the time, people get rides, homes, and action with no problem, but every once in a while, things go very wrong.
Here are some of the ways on-demand apps put new twists on old crimes this year.
Hot girls, it turns out, are a good way to lure someone to a scene of a crime. Last week robbers made off with a California college kid's cellphone, cash and car after he arranged to meet up with a woman from Tinder on a street corner in the middle of the night. When he showed up — surprise! — there was no hot hookup waiting for him on the street. Instead he found a different woman, accompanied by two guys and a gun.
It's not the first such tale. Booty calls have morphed into 911 calls often enough that Philadelphia police warned people to use "extreme caution" when using the sites. After another Tinder meet-up turned violent, the company echoed the police warning, noting that it does not perform background checks on users of the site.
When you're broke and traveling, a free place to crash is an alluring offer. But sometimes it's hard to tell whether your would-be host is really an affable good Samaritan or a creepy con artist. A mother and her two daughters found this out while using Couchsurfing.com, a site that predates Airbnb, where hosts advertise free or very cheap places to sleep.
In April, a predatory Couchsurfing host was sentenced to six years in prison after he drugged and raped a 16-year-old Australian girl, who was staying in his apartment with her sister and mother. The family thought they could feel safe with the host, since he was a cop. It turned out that he was also a serial rapist who used Couchsurfing to lure women to his home. In response, Couchsurfing said that user safety was a priority and that it was constantly updating its "tools and processes to find and halt abusers" of the system.
Not all strangers can be trusted in your home. This summer, a San Francisco resident found this out the hard way. A woman who rented a home via Airbnb forced her way into a locked closet and made off with more than $35,000 in valuables. They were able to give police video of the theft, because they, like so many other people these days, had home surveillance cameras.
Luckily, after a 2011 incident in which an Airbnb guest ransacked a host's house, Airbnb's insurance for the most part covers this kind of thing. In response to the burglary this summer, the company said that incidents like this are incredibly rare.
Like your apartment, if you give someone the keys to your car, there's really no guaranteeing they'll return it in good working order. Or that they'll return it at all. In July, a woman's car was stolen after she dropped it in the hands of the car-sharing startup FlightCar while on a trip out of town. The company said at the time it does not do background checks and called such thefts rare. Back in 2012, another car-sharing startup folded after too many people had cars stolen using the service.
Who hasn't gotten into a random Prius thinking it was the Uber they hailed? When that happens, sometimes, it turns out, the not-actually-an-Uber-driver pretends to work for Uber and then tries to kidnaps you. There have been multiple instances of kidnappers impersonating Uber drivers this year, including one where a Florida man drove a female student to a random destination, whipped out his you-know-what and demanded sexual favors. The student made a run for it, but it's probably safest to do what Uber advises: make sure your ride's license plate actually matches the one in the app.
By now most of us are wary of e-mails from Nigerian princes, but e-mails from fraudsters masquerading as Airbnb have generally been much more successful. To prevent fraud, Airbnb doesn't release a person's payment to a host until their stay is over. But in some cases, after booking, users have received e-mails from hosts asking them to verify their account details or to make payments outside of the Airbnb system. The scam has duped more than a few people. In some cases, the listings themselves have been fraudulent, too. Airbnb has advised users to be diligent when vetting e-mails that appear to come from the company.