Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Violated: A traveler’s lost faith, a difficult lesson learned

I am crouched low on the carpeted steps of my apartment building's old staircase, bent over into something resembling the fetal position. There is a skylight overhead; the sun's hazy glare makes me want to close my eyes, and not have to see for a while. But instead, I take this opportunity - with head resting heavily on the step above me - to record this moment in writing.

I am just half a flight away from the top floor, where my home is located. But I don't have the mental energy to take those last few steps into my apartment. It's too creepy in there anyway.

Three difficult days ago, I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked.

With heart pounding and stomach churning, I slowly swung the door open as both a pungent odor and the full realization of what had occurred washed over me: this wasn't just a random break-in. My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed by a "traveler" I connected with via the online rental agency,
I would be remiss if I didn’t pause here to emphasize that the customer service team at has been wonderful, giving this crime their full attention. They have called often, expressing empathy, support, and genuine concern for my welfare. They have offered to help me recover emotionally and financially, and are working with SFPD to track down these criminals. I do believe the folks at when they tell me this has never happened before in their short history, that this is a one-off case. I do believe that maybe 97% of's users are good and honest people. Unfortunately I got the other 3%. Someone was bound to eventually, I suppose, and there will be others. For this reason, I felt compelled to get my story out as soon as possible – as a warning to travelers and renters everywhere – even though this case remains under investigation, and the final chapter of this story remains unwritten.

What I Know

There is little I know at this stage, but I am slowly putting the pieces together. Someone named Dj Pattrson (was it a guy? A girl? I still don't know – but I have noticed much too late that the person misspelled their own last name) came into my home earlier this month (apparently with several others, according to witnesses) and set out on what I believe to be the carefully-planned theft and destruction of my home and my identity.  With an entire week living in my apartment, Dj and friends had more than enough time to search through literally everything inside, to rifle through every document, every photo, every drawer, every storage container and every piece of clothing I own, essentially turning my world inside out, and leaving a disgusting mess behind.

They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card and grandmother's jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals... my entire life. They found my birth certificate and social security card, which I believe they photocopied - using the printer/copier I kindly left out for my guests’ use. They rifled through all my drawers, wore my shoes and clothes, and left my clothing crumpled up in a pile of wet, mildewing towels on the closet floor. They found my coupons for Bed Bath & Beyond and used the discount, along with my Mastercard, to shop online.  Despite the heat wave, they used my fireplace and multiple Duraflame logs to reduce mounds of stuff (my stuff??) to ash – including, I believe, the missing set of guest sheets I left carefully folded for their comfort. Yet they were stupid and careless enough to leave the flue closed; dirty gray ash now covered every surface inside.

They did weird stuff too: moving things around in a spooky, psychotic kind of way - creepy little things that I am still discovering as I dig through the wreckage - like cutting the tags off my pillows, and hanging a painting of Paris on the wall that I had never hung before... probably while wearing my now-missing Ugg boots and Roots cap.

All the while, Dj Pattrson was sending me friendly emails, thanking me for being such a great host, for respecting his/her privacy…. telling me how much he/she was enjoying my beautiful apartment bathed in sunlight, how much he/she particularly loved the “little loft area” upstairs… with an “lol” closing one sentence, just for good measure. It makes me sick to my stomach to think now of these emails.

The kitchen was a disaster - the sink piled high with filthy dishes, pots and pans burnt out and ruined. Comet Cleanser was dumped everywhere; the kitchen counters, wood furniture, my gorgeous new bed frame, my desk, my printer… all were doused in powdered bleach. The death-like smell emanating from the bathroom was frightening (and still is) and the bathroom sink was caked with a crusty yellow substance. Various pairs of my gloves were strewn about – leather, dishwashing and otherwise – I imagine in a weak attempt to cover up fingerprints. Whoever these people were, they were living large and having one hell of a time for an entire week inside my home, unwatched, unchecked, free to do whatever destruction they wished. And damn, did they do a lot of it.

This was my home

I am reeling. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Despite it not being in New York... I LOVED my apartment nonetheless. It was my own private retreat, my sunny, bright, cozy loft that I would melt into on those rare occasions when I wasn't traveling. The space was simply decorated, minimalist enough to reflect a home life that was all mine, a place that was peaceful, and safe.

It was several months after moving in that I finally felt ready to try renting it out while I traveled. (I had rented out my apartment several times while living in New York, through Craigslist no less, and always with exceptional results). Now, I convinced myself that anyone would love and respect this lovely space as much as I did. It seemed silly to let a perfectly good apartment sit empty while I traveled, when there were so many visitors to San Francisco in need of a place to stay, who wanted to experience a city as I preferred to: in a local’s home, outside the tourist bubble of a hotel. Anyway I liked the idea of someone being there, looking after my thirsty houseplant, and of course the opportunity to earn some extra cash was more than appealing. I live in an expensive city on an inconsistent freelancer's salary. It isn't so easy to get by every month, and when someone is willing to pay what amounts to half the monthly rent for a one-week stay, well... who could resist?

Then along came, with its accolades in the media and great reviews, and it seemed like the perfect solution! Certainly it's a brilliant idea, offering a controlled and seemingly low-risk environment in which travelers and hosts can connect and exchange - the Facebook of couch-surfing, so to speak – that appears to eliminate all the insecurity and randomness of using Craigslist. In exchange for using the site, the service fee of only 3% is a small price to pay for access to such a large inventory of great apartments worldwide. I first gave it a try as a “traveler”; the exceptionally positive experience renting an property in Sydney last month was all I needed to sell me on the concept, and I soon thereafter listed my own place for a week of upcoming travel.

Yet now I ask myself this: for what, exactly, did I pay a service fee to What did I get in exchange for my 20-something dollars? What was the advantage of using this service over Craigslist, which is free? Ironically’s site states “the promise of our site is that it is entirely transparent” when in reality, it is not. And therein lies the fundamental, though not immediately apparent, difference: on Craigslist, I am warned loudly and repeatedly that use of the site is at my own risk. I am encouraged to take certain precautions, and I have the ability to do so by gaining quick access to the email addresses, phone numbers, and other identifying information of the person(s) I am communicating with, all of which can be researched and at least somewhat verified by means of basic internet searches. Alternatively, tightly controls the communication between host and traveler, disallowing the exchange of personal contact information until the point in which a reservation is already confirmed and paid for. By hindering my ability to research the person who will rent my home, there is an implication that has already done the research for me, and has eliminated the investigative work that Craigslist requires. In effect, the friendly, community-based site with its Golden Rules creates a reasonable expectation that some basic screening of its users has occurred, and speaks little to the risks involved, primarily within the very small print of the lengthy Terms of Service. Thus by the time this reservation was confirmed and I was given Dj’s email address and phone number, I was on a plane heading East, and he/she was armed with my welcoming instructions on where to pick up the keys to my apartment.

Blame and violation

My first call was to 911. I stood by, horrified and hysterical, as 2 officers from SFPD checked every corner, every closet with guns wielded. My next call was to - I tried their "urgent" line, their email address, their general customer support line. I heard nothing - no response whatsoever - until the following day, 14 sleepless hours later, and only after a desperate call to an freelancer I happen to know helped my case get some attention. (This has been my most urgent request of the agency: that they immediately institute a 24-hour/day customer support line. A 24-hour/day business absolutely needs this in place.)

As I later watched CSI dust for prints, I knew that my time in this apartment was over. Although I had the locks changed (the creeps still have my apartment keys) I feel exposed. I stand on my balcony watching people walk by, wondering if "that person there" could be one of them.

I can't stay here much longer. The feeling of having been violated is overwhelming. The apartment’s energy - once light and airy - now feels thick and disquieting. I've had the place scrubbed and sterilized, every inch of it. I've burned candles and white sage, repotted my (near death - they didn't water it) houseplant, and bought myself some bright flowers. I've tried, but I can't settle back in. I can't use a water glass without thinking it was used by them. I can't put on a pair of underwear without picturing their filthy hands rifling around in my dresser drawers. I can’t ever be comfortable here again.

Despite this very fresh trauma, I can still recognize to be a brilliant concept that fills a much-needed hole in the traveler market, and based on their amazingly kind, caring response and support throughout the past few days, they have proven to me that they are an honest company with pure, good intentions. But I do think theirs was a concept that was executed much too quickly, and that some basic screening and security measures must be instituted as soon as possible, that some basic efforts be made to help prevent this from happening to another unsuspecting host.

I certainly cannot and do not blame the agency for what has occurred. If anything, I blame myself. In retrospect, and as I read through my initial email exchanges with Dj, I recognize now that something was “off” in his manner of communication, that I trusted too easily, and probably did not do my due diligence to properly protect myself and my home. And so I am frustrated with myself, and dealing with feelings of guilt and self-doubt, wondering how I could have let my guard down. But if we are going to go down that path, if we are going to turn the blame on me, then a woman who gets raped may as well blame herself for wearing a short skirt and heels. Victims don’t ask to be victims, and pointing fingers back at them is less than helpful. I am struggling now to not do this to myself.

And perhaps similar to the feelings of a victim of rape, the hardest, and maybe saddest, part of this is the recognition that whoever disappeared with my grandmother's bracelets, my hard-earned dollars and pieces of my identity stole something else, something that cannot be replaced: they stole my spirit. I get angry when I realize I will never again be who I've always been before, someone who lived strong and free by the creed that people are essentially good, that if you think optimistically, trust others, and have faith in the world around you, it will take care of you in return. Those who know me have witnessed the way in which I have always lived: with a belief that if I live my life in the best and most way honest way possible, everything will be ok. Yet in the breath of a moment, that just... disappeared. I have no faith anymore. I don't trust anymore. I don't know if I ever will again.

I don't know how this will all turn out. I am trying now just to maintain momentum, to keep up my energy and work closely with the incredible investigative team at SFPD. I've picked through gallons of garbage, searching for bits of evidence and clues. I've spent hours on the phone with banks, credit card companies, the credit lending bureaus. I'm taking all steps necessary to prevent the likelihood of identity theft, a crime that will linger and affect my life for years to come.

I've had to miss several days of work and essentially put my life on hold. I haven't slept or eaten properly in days, and I'm exhausted. My strength is gone, and as I pick through the wreckage, clean up this mess and try to piece my life back together, I realize the only thing that sounds appealing now is to go spend a few months near a beach, somewhere calm and sunny. Somewhere like Mexico, or Bali.

But ideas like this, adventurous and enticing travel ideas that I've had so many times before, are now plagued with a question I've never before had to worry too much about:

How would I find a place to stay?



This is the contact information provided to me at the time the reservation was confirmed:

Dj Pattrson