New York City officials are accusing an Astoria family of allegedly operating a ring of illegal Airbnb rentals—a very lucrative ring.
As pointed out by Wired, the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement filed a lawsuit last week against 13 individuals and entities that allegedly ran a five-year housing scheme that earned over $5 million in revenue. Officials say the 211 illegal rentals—located in 36 residential buildings across Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan—were unlawfully marketed on Airbnb and other popular "home sharing" platforms, such as Booking.com and Homeaway.com.
The lawsuit, which names realtor Elvis Tominovic as the leader of the operation, states that since 2015 the defendants "collaborated and conspired with each other, as well as with other unnamed defendants, in a wide-ranging operation to profit from illegal short-term rentals that have converted dozens of permanent residential dwelling units into de facto hotels, and misled thousands of transient guests into booking such unlawful and unsafe accommodations."
Tominovic's co-defendants include his mother, father, sister, domestic partner, and domestic partner's sister. They are accused of misleading approximately 60,000 guests about the safety and legality of the rentals in question, as well as using fake accounts and multiple listings to avoid detection from Airbnb and law enforcement.
The plaintiffs point to a three-story property in Astoria that had been divided into 12 rental units with a total of 24 beds. A NYC Department of Buildings inspector stated the units were poorly assembled and were not equipped with the legally required smoke detectors and sprinklers.
Online reviews highlighted the run-down conditions of the units, with many renters complaining about the lack of heat, hot water, space, and proper sanitation. Some guests also claimed they were instructed to ignore city inspectors who approached them during their stay. In some cases, the guests were also asked to lie.
"During our stay, there was knocking on the door periodically from 1 am until 8 am, and, since we had been instructed to not answer the door under any circumstances, we were left to an incredibly unrestful sleep," one review read, as pointed out by Wired. "[The host] is putting people in a very uncomfortable and rather questionable situation in this apartment and I would not recommend."
According to court documents, investigators believe the defendants used shared bank accounts, phone numbers, and IP addresses, to create more than two dozen phony host accounts on various websites. In some cases, the defendants would include fake addresses in the listings, and then provide the actual location after the unit was booked. These tactics helped Tominovic and his family go undetected for years.
"People are engaging in anti-detection techniques like establishing fake host accounts, so it doesn't look like it is all one person, and using multiple phone numbers, even though it is one person operating multiple units," Christian Klossner, executive director of the mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, told Wired. "And in this case, clearly there was coaching going on."
The listings in the lawsuit have since been removed from Airbnb.
According to Wired, city officials want the defendants to shut down their operation, pay fines and damages, and surrender "all revenue, properties, and proceeds from illegal rental activity."
"We have long said that we want to work with the City on a regulatory framework that will provide for effective enforcement against illegal hotel operators," an Airbnb spokesperson told Wired. "After working with the City and providing data in response to valid legal process, we will continue to urge the City to come to the table, so that we can find a solution that addresses our shared enforcement priorities while still protecting the rights of regular New Yorkers."