Airbnb Has A Hidden-Camera Problem (#GotBitcoin)
When Max Vest shook hands with the host of his Miami Airbnb back in January, the man introduced himself as Ralph—even though “Ray” was the name he’d used in all their prior communication.
This was the first and only indication that something was wrong. But his host had a great rating on the home-sharing site, and many of the comments mentioned how friendly and accommodating he was. So Vest, a children’s-camp director from Gainesville, Florida, didn’t think much of the discrepancy and settled into the two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment he’d be sharing with Ralph—or was it Ray?—and his girlfriend for the next five days. At about 8 or 9 p.m., he went out for dinner; by the time he got home, his hosts had gone to bed in the room adjacent to his, and he prepared to do the same.
That was when he saw the light. Two small, black, rectangular boxes were stacked next to an outlet on the far side of the guest room, both facing the bed. From afar, they looked like phone chargers. But when Vest got closer, he realized they were cameras, and they were recording.
He quickly got dressed, grabbed his belongings, and pocketed the cameras’ memory cards as evidence. Then panic set in: It was almost midnight, and he was alone in the home of someone whose name he didn’t even know, apparently being recorded. What’s more, his host could have been watching as he discovered the cameras.
Vest was afraid of what might happen if Ralph saw him leave. “I know what he had [at] stake by being caught,” Vest said. But he managed to leave the apartment without incident, get in his car, and make two phone calls—one to his wife, and one to Airbnb’s safety team.
The company refunded Vest’s money, paid for a hotel room for the night, and eventually removed the host from the site. But Vest alleges that Airbnb made several missteps in the run-up to, and subsequent investigation of, his stay with Ralph. He has retained counsel and informed Airbnb that he is considering filing a civil suit against it under Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. He says the company should have flagged his host sooner for the name discrepancy and the fact that he did not have his landlord’s permission to rent out the property, which is in violation of Airbnb’s terms of service. He also alleges that Airbnb mistreated him during its investigation, and that it should have done more to support him as he reached out to law enforcement. (A representative for Airbnb declined to comment on the specifics of Vest’s allegations.)
In emails reviewed by The Atlantic, Airbnb told Vest that the company is taking his case “extremely seriously” and that guest safety is its “top priority.” But Vest says he feels Airbnb treated him as a frustrated guest when he feels he was the victim of a crime.
“This wasn’t [just] a negative experience,” he said. “This was a criminal act.”
Airbnb’s rules allow cameras outdoors and in living rooms and common areas, but never in bathrooms or anywhere guests plan to sleep, including rooms with foldout beds. Starting in early 2018, Airbnb added another layer of disclosure: If hosts indicate they have cameras anywhere on their property, guests receive a pop-up informing them where the cameras are located and where they are aimed. To book the property, the guests must click “agree,” indicating that they’re aware of the cameras and consent to being filmed.
Of course, hosts have plenty of reason to train cameras on the homes they rent out to strangers. They can catch guests who attempt to steal, or who trash the place, or who initially say they’re traveling alone, then show up to a property with five people.
A representative for Airbnb’s Trust & Safety communications department told me the company tries to filter out hosts who may attempt to surveil guests by matching them against sex-offender and felony databases. The company also uses risk scores to flag suspicious behavior, in addition to reviewing and booting hosts with consistently poor scores.
If a guest contacts Airbnb’s Trust & Safety team with a complaint about a camera, employees offer new accommodations if necessary and open an investigation into the host. In a statement, an Airbnb representative said, “The safety of our community—both online and offline—is our priority, which is why we take reports of privacy violations very seriously and employ sophisticated technologies to help prevent bad actors from using our platform in the first place.”
But four guests who found cameras in their rentals told The Atlantic the company has inconsistently applied its own rules when investigating their claims, providing them with incorrect information and making recommendations that they say risked putting them in harm’s way.
“There have been super terrible examples of privacy violations by AirBnB hosts, e.g., people have found cameras hidden in alarm clocks in their bedrooms,” wrote Jeff Bigham, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon whose claim was initially denied after he reported cameras in his rental. “I feel like our experience is in some ways more insidious. If you find a truly hidden camera in your bedroom or bathroom, Airbnb will support you. If you find an undisclosed camera in the private living room, Airbnb will not support you.”
In January, Bigham discovered cameras in his rental that he says were never disclosed. After he reached out to the Trust & Safety team, representatives told him he and his family had in fact consented to the cameras because they were visibly displayed in photos on the listing. After Bigham’s blog post on the ordeal went viral, Airbnb apologized and refunded his money.
But Bigham says customer-service representatives for Airbnb twice sided against him before reversing their original decision, and only after his blog post was widely shared online.
“No one really seems to know what they’re doing,” Bigham said in an email. “And it seems like it’s only going to get worse.”
In a statement, Airbnb said: “We have apologized to Mr. Bigham and fully refunded him for his stay. We require hosts to clearly disclose any security cameras in writing on their listings and we have strict standards governing surveillance devices in listings. This host has been removed from our community.”
Bigham had to rely on social-media visibility to settle his case, but he had crucial evidence: photos of the cameras and proof he never agreed to them. Airbnb says that’s usually enough. During investigations, guests usually have to submit photos of the cameras or recording devices, which Airbnb employees then confirm with hosts. Hosts have a clear financial stake in defending against these claims and are temporarily suspended during investigations. A representative for Airbnb told me it isn’t company policy to tell guests to reach out to hosts. Emails reviewed by The Atlantic tell a different story.
Noelle De Guzman, a trainer and fitness blogger in Manila, reported finding cameras in her Airbnb while traveling with her family over New Year’s. Emails between her and Airbnb representatives show that the company informed her host he was being investigated and told her she must reach out to the host herself to clarify whether the cameras were in use—a violation of the company’s own policy.
Airbnb also told Vest to interact with his host after discovering a camera. In his haste in leaving the apartment that night, Vest left with Ralph’s house keys. In emails Vest shared with The Atlantic, a member of the Trust & Safety team told him he had to return the keys—even though Airbnb had suspended Ralph and begun investigating the complaint. Vest worried that returning to Ralph’s house would prompt a confrontation.
“That told me that they weren’t taking this seriously,” he said. “[Returning his keys] shouldn’t be on the top of their list.”
When Vest found the cameras that night, he had no idea what type they were or whether they were streaming live to his host or saving to the memory cards. Airbnb makes no restrictions on the type of equipment or streaming and storage devices hosts can use—a potential problem for guests as home surveillance cameras get smaller, cheaper, and more advanced.
Alfie Day told me he found a camera in his rental’s living room while he and his girlfriend were visiting his brother in Bulgaria. Day works in IT, so he performed an Nmap scan to learn more about the devices in the home. He discovered that the host had installed a type of camera that could be remotely controlled to pan, tilt, and zoom in on anything it sees. The expanded field of view meant that while the camera was in the living room, it could discreetly follow guests from room to room. The scan also revealed that the camera had a high-capacity storage system that lets users share very large files quickly across the same network.
Day credits Airbnb’s Trust & Safety customer service for responding quickly and carefully, but he still wonders what happened to the video footage. It could theoretically be stored on the device, saved to the host’s cloud account, sent to a shared network for other users to watch, or uploaded to any illicit site, living forever outside Airbnb’s control.
In 2015, Airbnb settled a civil suit brought by a German woman who discovered hidden cameras while staying at a rental in California in 2013. As part of her case against the company, she argued that she now fears that “images of her exist in electronic form and could make their way onto the Internet or some other medium.”
Airbnb declined to comment on the record about the details of the allegations by Vest, De Guzman, and Day.
Vest thought that by taking the memory cards from Ralph’s home with him, he could take back the recorded footage before it was uploaded elsewhere. But leaving with the cards created another problem.
Like many other businesses in the so-called sharing economy, Airbnb is a middleman. It does not own its rental properties or employ its hosts; the innovation that propelled it to a $31 billion valuation was organizing, branding, and putting a professional sheen on the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s home. But even though guests book and pay through Airbnb’s interface—and even though people don’t describe their vacation lodgings by saying they’re “staying with a guy named Ralph”—Airbnb is just a broker. The company imposes rules, mostly to comply with local tax and housing regulations, but company rules don’t supersede local laws, even if guests assume they will. This makes for all kinds of tension, especially when something goes wrong.
Vest told me that when he tried to file a police report with the Miami Police Department, the officers questioned Vest in return, accusing him of theft, because he had taken Ralph’s keys and memory cards when he left the house that night.
Vest explained to the police that no, he hadn’t just stumbled across cameras in someone’s home and stolen their property—he’d been the victim of a crime. The officers didn’t see it that way. Ralph may have violated Airbnb’s rules, but the police don’t enforce Airbnb’s terms of service. In their eyes, Ralph was a homeowner, with every right to have cameras in his own home. Vest, meanwhile, had admitted to taking Ralph’s property without his consent or knowledge.
A spokesperson for the Miami PD couldn’t confirm or deny Vest’s account, noting only that the case is still under investigation by the department’s Special Victims Unit. The police have not formally brought criminal charges against the homeowner, Vest, or Airbnb. According to Vest, the police told him that they’d found footage of past guests, but none of Vest, and that they’re working to identify and contact past guests who appear in the footage. But there’s virtually no way to tell whether the footage is already online somewhere. Airbnb says it is working with law enforcement, both in Vest’s case and whenever guests file police reports.
Vest is relieved that the police are investigating, but he still feels Airbnb should have done more.
“When something like this happens, they need to really be serious about the consequences,” Vest said of the company. “Just removing a listing—it doesn’t really send a message.”
Shooting, Sex Crime and Theft: Airbnb Takes Halting Steps to Police Its Platform
Employees who pushed for more stringent safety measures were overruled; ‘This is the challenge of the internet era’.
Airbnb Inc. employees had a proposal in 2017 for making the home-sharing platform safer for both hosts and guests. Everyone who signs up, they suggested, should have to provide a government identification such as a driver’s license.
The company had suffered through a string of embarrassing safety problems, including prostitution, theft and voyeuristic hosts using cameras to watch guests. An ID requirement might deter bad actors, the employees argued.
It wasn’t the first time members of Airbnb’s trust and safety team had made such a proposal, according to people familiar with the discussions. Once again, after heated debate, other company executives, including co-founder and Chief Executive Brian Chesky, rejected it. Airbnb had studied the issue and found that some users would stop signing up if asked to produce ID, said the people familiar with the discussions.
San Francisco-based Airbnb, which is preparing to go public next year in a highly anticipated IPO, blossomed into a $31-billion behemoth by following the growth-first mantra that has defined Silicon Valley for years. Now it is grappling with the question that could consume the tech industry in the coming decade: How much responsibility should companies assume for bad things that happen on their platforms?
On Halloween night, Airbnb got a reminder of what was at stake. Gunmen entered an out-of-control house party in Orinda, Calif., and opened fire, killing five people. The home had been rented out on Airbnb, then advertised on social media as a “mansion party.”
Days later, Mr. Chesky said Airbnb would launch a 24/7 “Neighbor Hotline” staffed with a rapid-response team to field complaints, expand its screening of “high-risk” reservations flagged by internal systems, and begin verifying all seven million of its property listings for accuracy and quality.
“We are redoubling our efforts to combat unauthorized parties and get rid of abusive host and guest conduct,” he wrote in a series of tweets.
Later that week, Mr. Chesky said the company needed to “take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform. This has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.”
In early December, after The Wall Street Journal provided Airbnb with written questions about safety issues, the company announced additional measures, including a commitment to spend $150 million on safety initiatives and the creation of a dedicated line where city officials could contact the company when issues arise.
In an interview, Margaret Richardson, Airbnb’s vice president of trust, said Airbnb has been innovating on safety issues throughout its history. “Our aspiration is to keep getting better and better on safety and doing everything that we can to address the issues that have been raised,” she said.
She said that requiring all members to provide a government ID, however, would exclude some Airbnb members who don’t have them, like those in some developing countries. She said the company has its own systems for verifying identities, which relies on phone numbers, social-media accounts and payment instruments. “This is the challenge of the internet era,” she said. “How do people’s online identities and offline identities—how do you match them?”
Airbnb declined to make Mr. Chesky available for comment.
Airbnb said an average of two million people are booked into its listings world-wide each night. In the 12 months ending July 31, it said, 0.05% of trips had a safety-related issue reported by a guest or a host. It said it has more than 50 employees reviewing what it calls high-risk reservations. It doesn’t disclose other statistics about safety.
Airbnb’s platform doesn’t list the addresses of properties, providing them to users only upon booking. To examine the issue of problem properties, the Journal looked at data from several cities that require short-term rental licenses, then cross-checked those addresses against police records. There were hundreds of instances of crimes at licensed short-term rental properties on platforms such as Airbnb, including burglaries, sexual assaults and murders. Some occurred at properties that had been subject to previous police activity, or involved individuals with prior police records.
In Minnetonka, Minn., Airbnb guest Derrick Kinchen climbed into bed with the 7-year-old daughter of the Airbnb family hosting him in September 2017, according to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. The girl’s father walked in to find the girl’s nightgown pulled up and Mr. Kinchen laying next to her naked and aroused. The father immediately called the police. Mr. Kinchen was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct of a victim under 13.
Mr. Kinchen had an extensive criminal record over the prior decade, including at least four misdemeanor convictions for false reports to authority, drug possession and stealing, records show. He pleaded guilty last year in the Airbnb case, court records show. In a brief interview, he confirmed his prior criminal history but declined to comment further.
His criminal history wasn’t disclosed to his Airbnb hosts. Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said the company ran a background check on him, but only removes members with serious criminal conviction histories, such as felony burglary. Airbnb said it isn’t able to disclose specific results of a user’s background check to other members.
Convicted sex offender Phillip Bailey, who police said hadn’t appeared in court on four misdemeanor charges in North Carolina, including stalking and assault on a female, rented an Airbnb with his wife in North Carolina in early 2018. His Airbnb hosts discovered weapons and drugs in his room and called police, who arrested him on the earlier matters, according to High Point, N.C., arrest records. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mr. Nulty, the Airbnb spokesman, said after the company analyzed the incident, “our team addressed a vulnerability in our process that prevented this user from being flagged and removed by our background check system as he should have been.”
The way Airbnb handles problems on its platform is likely to be a focus for investors and regulators as the company prepares to go public.
Tech companies, including Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., have long argued that they don’t bear responsibility for the problems on their platforms, an argument that Airbnb has made in court cases, including over a lawsuit brought by Santa Monica, Calif., over policing illegal rentals. That position is being challenged by some city officials and regulators. Ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. in November lost its license to operate in London after regulators found widespread instances of unauthorized drivers using the app to pick up customers.
Airbnb was founded in 2008, billing itself as a trusted platform where guests could connect with hosts offering rooms, apartments or entire houses. It is now the largest home-sharing platform in the U.S.
One of the first uproars over public safety came in 2011 after a host blogged about her home being destroyed by an Airbnb guest. “They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals…my entire life,” the anonymous host wrote.
The post went viral, and the public outrage caught Airbnb executives by surprise. At the time, Airbnb’s trust and safety team was run by just a few people. The company quickly hired more, and the unit eventually swelled to about 300 employees.
From the start, the team butted up against employees in charge of expanding the company, according to some former employees. It unsuccessfully fought for more frequent and stringent background checks, they said.
Mr. Nulty, the spokesman, said Airbnb screens all hosts and guests globally against terrorist and sanctions watch lists, and that U.S. residents receive more screening, such as sex-offender registrations and felony conviction checks.
When it screens users, Airbnb generally doesn’t ask for a Social Security number—a requirement that some experts on background checks said is crucial to identifying criminals, who might be using fake names.
Airbnb’s Ms. Richardson said running background checks is seen by some as discriminatory against certain groups, including formerly incarcerated people. Some advocates for criminal-justice reform, she said, have advised the company “that doing background checks is not appropriate, and that people are unnecessarily excluded from travel” because of old criminal records.
Some cities have complained that Airbnb has been too hands-off in addressing safety, leaving the cities themselves to police properties and guests.
The Journal’s analysis of available records from Nashville and New Orleans—two popular Airbnb destinations that require short-term rental licenses—identified about 500 properties that had been subject to police activity. Dozens of properties were involved in multiple incidents. The total number of listed properties in those two cities ranged from about 2,400 to 9,500 during the relevant times.
Although Airbnb isn’t the only property-sharing site operating in those cities, a dozen of the property owners in each city contacted by the Journal all said they were listed on Airbnb and confirmed there were police incidents at their properties.
Airbnb’s Mr. Nulty said the company had more than 772,000 reservations in Nashville and 366,000 in New Orleans during the periods in question. He said Airbnb works closely with New Orleans and has met repeatedly with Nashville officials.
“We’ve had over 500 million guest arrivals on Airbnb,” Mr. Nulty said, “and negative incidents are very rare.”
Airbnb relies heavily on a review system to provide feedback to prospective guests. Each host receives an overall review of up to five stars, and their pages show comments on recent stays. Airbnb leaves it up to guests to read the reviews of properties before making reservations.
Not all complaints, though, are visible. If a host or a guest complains to the company about a review by another party, Airbnb sometimes will remove both members’ reviews rather than mediate the issue, according to people familiar with the company’s system for handling reviews. And Airbnb holds both a guest’s and host’s review for two weeks after a visit—a policy intended to discourage members from retaliating against one another.
Airbnb said it would take down a review for several reasons, including if a member is trying to extort another member or if the review is deemed “irrelevant” to a visit. It also will remove a review if a member mentions a continuing internal investigation by the company into a visit.
The property where New York software sales consultant Erik Zambrano stayed in Tulum, Mexico, earlier this year had many positive reviews on Airbnb, he said. On the first night he and three friends stayed there, thieves broke in and stole a computer and some jewelry. The thieves came back the subsequent two days while the guests were out, despite multiple complaints to the property’s manager and Airbnb, according to Mr. Zambrano.
When he returned to New York, Mr. Zambrano said, he looked up the property again and saw claims by other reviewers that they, too, had been robbed there.
According to Airbnb, it received two reviews from guests claiming they were robbed before Mr. Zambrano’s stay. One review, labeled **WARNING**, said the property-management team stole cash, credit cards and a laptop. That guest said he complained to Airbnb.
Because Airbnb holds reviews for 14 days, one of the reviews didn’t post until Mr. Zambrano was already at the property, and the second didn’t post until after he returned.
Airbnb pulled the property from the platform in March, more than two months after Mr. Zambrano’s stay. Mr. Nulty said that when Airbnb receives reports about security, it asks the host to address them, and if it receives multiple reports, listings are subject to removal. That is what it did in Mr. Zambrano’s case, he said.
Airbnb frequently strikes out-of-court monetary settlements to resolve complaints from guests and hosts. In 2017 alone, it made hundreds of such settlements involving refunds, credits or cash, according to people familiar with the matter. In return, users signed agreements saying they wouldn’t file a future claim.
Mr. Nulty said: “We believe that when guests have experiences that fall below our high standards, it is our responsibility to make every effort to remedy the situation.” He said Airbnb had 130 million guest arrivals in 2017.
The company said 0.03% of trips resulted in a “significant claim” being paid out, which it defined as $500 or more.
The large home in Orinda where the catastrophic Halloween house party took place had been the subject of multiple complaints to city officials and police in the prior year about parties and noise, according to city records and interviews with officials.
In March, after a party drew a flurry of neighbor complaints, city manager Steve Salomon and a police official told the property hosts in a conference call: no more parties and no more noise.
In a follow-up email, the city told property owners Michael Wang and Wenlin Luo not to allow more than 13 people on the property at any time, and to change their Airbnb listing to reflect that, according to records reviewed by the Journal. It isn’t clear whether they complied. Ms. Luo declined to comment on behalf of herself and Mr. Wang.
On Halloween night, more than 100 people showed up for what had been advertised on social media as “An Airbnb mansion party.” Next-door neighbors Shahin and Sean Saki heard gunshots around 10:30 p.m. Partygoers began fleeing in panic. “It was chaos,“ said Mr. Saki. In late November, two men were arrested in connection with the shooting.
In the days after the shooting, Airbnb said it was in close touch with the police chief and attempted to engage with other city officials, Mr. Nulty said. Orinda held an hours-long council meeting to debate whether to end short-term housing such as Airbnb. Neighbors, some in tears, gave impassioned speeches. The city imposed a temporary ban on short-term rentals when the owner isn’t present.
The city manager said he invited Airbnb representatives to attend. No one did.
Airbnb Is Spending Millions of Dollars To Make Nightmares Go Away
When things go horribly wrong during a stay, the company’s secretive safety team jumps in to soothe guests and hosts, help families—and prevent PR disasters.
The first-floor apartment on West 37th Street, a few blocks south of Times Square, was popular with tourists—so popular that a set of keys was left at the counter of a nearby bodega for Airbnb renters to pick up. That’s where a 29-year-old Australian woman and a group of her friends retrieved them, no identification needed, when they arrived in Manhattan to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 2015.
The apartment had been advertised on Airbnb even though most short-term rentals are illegal in New York. The city, prodded by powerful hotel unions, was at war with the company, which was listing thousands of apartments in the five boroughs despite some of the strictest regulations in the country.
Soon after ringing in the new year, the woman left her friends at the bar where they’d been celebrating and returned to the apartment on her own. She didn’t notice anything amiss or see the man standing in the shadows as she walked into the bathroom.
By the time she realized she wasn’t alone, the blade of a kitchen knife was pointing down at her. The stranger grabbed her, shoved her onto a bed, and raped her. Drunken revelers were wandering the streets outside, but the woman was too scared to scream.
The attacker fled with her phone, but she managed to reach her friends with an iPad, and they ran into the street to find a police officer. The cops were already in the apartment an hour or so later when the man returned and peered into the doorway. They caught him and emptied his backpack, pulling out three incriminating items: a knife, one of the woman’s earrings, and a set of keys to the apartment.
That morning a call came in for Nick Shapiro. A former deputy chief of staff at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council adviser in the Obama White House, Shapiro was two weeks into a new job as a crisis manager at Airbnb Inc. “I remember thinking I was right back in the thick of it,” he recalls. “This brought me back to feelings of confronting truly horrific matters at Langley and in the situation room at the White House.”
Shapiro notified other Airbnb executives, including Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky. Meanwhile safety agents from the company’s elite trust-and-safety team sprang into action.
They relocated the woman to a hotel, paid for her mother to fly in from Australia, flew them both home, and offered to cover any health or counseling costs.
The duplicate keys posed a particular problem for the company and a mystery for investigators. How had the man gotten them? Airbnb doesn’t have a policy for how hosts exchange keys with guests, and its reputation for safety, and possibly its legal liability, hinged on the answer. Shapiro (who’s since left the company) helped coordinate an investigation into the matter.
A week later, a staff member was sent to court to see if Airbnb was mentioned during a proceeding. It wasn’t. The local media didn’t report on the crime either, despite the lurid details, and the company wanted to keep it that way.
The story remained unreported until now, in no small part because two years after the assault Airbnb wrote the woman a check for $7 million, one of the biggest payouts the company has ever made. In exchange she signed an agreement not to talk about the settlement “or imply responsibility or liability” on the part of Airbnb or the host.
Details of the crime, the company’s response, and the settlement were reconstructed from police and court records and confidential documents, as well as from interviews with people familiar with the case. The woman, whose name was redacted in court documents and who asked through her lawyer not to be identified, declined to comment. So did her lawyer.
Ben Breit, an Airbnb spokesman, says that the company doesn’t have the power to keep stories out of the media and that, despite the wording of the settlement agreement, the woman “is able to discuss whether she holds anyone responsible.” He adds that Airbnb’s goal following the incident was to support the survivor of a “horrific attack” and that local political issues had nothing to do with its response.
The way Airbnb has handled crimes such as the New York attack, which occurred during a bitter regulatory fight, shows how critical the safety team has been to the company’s growth. Airbnb’s business model rests on the idea that strangers can trust one another. If that premise is undermined, it can mean fewer users and more lawsuits, not to mention tighter regulation.
For all its importance, the safety team remains shrouded in secrecy. Insiders call it the “black box.” But eight former members and 45 other current and former Airbnb employees familiar with the team’s role, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of breaching confidentiality agreements, provided a rare glimpse into its operations and internal struggles.
The job, former team members say, is a nerve-wracking one, balancing the often conflicting interests of guests, hosts, and the company. “I had situations where I had to get off the phone and go cry,” a former agent recalls. “That’s all you can do.”
“We all know that you can’t stop everything, but it’s all about how you respond. … You have to make it right”
Founded in 2008 by design students Chesky and Joe Gebbia, along with engineer Nate Blecharczyk, Airbnb has grown from a funky couch-surfing alternative to one of the biggest hospitality companies in the world, with 5.6 million listings, more than the number of rooms in the top seven hotel chains combined.
Its $90 billion market value—the share price has doubled since the company went public in December—shows just how much progress the founders have made in wooing investors since their ramen days.
One of the first Silicon Valley venture capitalists they pitched was Chris Sacca, an early backer of Instagram, Twitter, and Uber. After their presentation, Sacca later recalled, he pulled them aside and said, “Guys, this is super dangerous. Somebody’s going to get raped or murdered, and the blood is gonna be on your hands.” He didn’t invest.
From the outset, Airbnb has encouraged strangers to connect online, exchange money, and then meet in real life, often sleeping under the same roof. It’s somewhere between a tech platform and a hotel operator—unable to disavow responsibility for ensuring its users are safe, as some tech companies might, or to provide security guards and other on-site staff, as a hotel would.
What makes trust and safety at Airbnb more complicated than at Apple or Facebook “is that you are dealing with real people in real people’s homes,” says Tara Bunch, Airbnb’s head of global operations. Bunch has overseen the safety team since being hired away from Apple Inc. last May.
“People are naturally unpredictable, and as much as we try, occasionally really bad things happen,” she says. “We all know that you can’t stop everything, but it’s all about how you respond, and when it happens you have to make it right, and that’s what we try to do each and every time.”
In the early days, the co-founders answered every customer service complaint on their mobile phones. When that became unmanageable, they hired support staff to field calls. It wasn’t until three years in, after more than 2 million booked stays, that the company faced its first big safety crisis.
In 2011 a host in San Francisco blogged about returning from a work trip to find her home ransacked. Her “guests” had trashed her clothes, burned her belongings, and smashed a hole through a locked closet door to steal her passport, credit card, laptop, and hard drives, as well as her grandmother’s jewelry.
In a follow-up post, the host wrote that an Airbnb co-founder had contacted her and, rather than offering support, asked her to remove the story from her blog, saying it could hurt an upcoming funding round. Soon #RansackGate was trending on Twitter, and the incident snowballed into a crash course in crisis management. The result: a public apology from Chesky, a $50,000 damage guarantee for hosts (since increased to $1 million), a 24-hour customer-support hotline, and a new trust-and-safety department.
As Airbnb grew, so did the number of dangerous incidents—everything from hosts hurling suitcases out of windows to concealed cameras, gas leaks, and sexual assaults. Many of the crimes taking place inside short-term rentals listed on its platform and others could have happened in any apartment or hotel room. But in some cases hosts used the platforms to commit them.
In one October 2011 incident, an Airbnb host in Barcelona plied two American women who’d booked a stay at his home with alcohol, then raped them. When the women went to the police the next morning, the host threatened to upload videos of the attack to the internet if they didn’t drop the case, according to local media reports.
Police searched his apartment and found hundreds of similar photos of other victims. The man received a 12-year prison sentence. Airbnb, which declined to comment about the case for this story, paid the two women an undisclosed amount and banned the host for life.
By 2016 the safety team was overwhelmed with calls, many of them minor in nature, and Airbnb started training contractors in call centers around the world to handle the flood of complaints. Airbnb says that fewer than 0.1% of stays result in a reported safety issue, but with more than 200 million bookings a year, that’s still a lot of trips with bad endings. Only the most serious problems are transferred to the internal safety team.
That team is made up of about 100 agents in Dublin, Montreal, Singapore, and other cities. Some have emergency-services or military backgrounds. Team members have the autonomy to spend whatever it takes to make a victim feel supported, including paying for flights, accommodation, food, counseling, health costs, and sexually transmitted disease testing for rape survivors.
A former agent who was at Airbnb for five years describes the approach as shooting “the money cannon.” The team has relocated guests to hotel rooms at 10 times the cost of their booking, paid for round-the-world vacations, and even signed checks for dog-counseling sessions.
“We go the extra mile to ensure anyone impacted on our platform is taken care of,” Bunch says. “We don’t really worry about the brand and image component. That stuff will take care of itself as long as you do the right thing.”
Former agents recall cases where they had to counsel guests hiding in wardrobes or running from secluded cabins after being assaulted by hosts. Sometimes the guests were the perpetrators, as with an incident when one was found in bed, naked, with his host’s 7-year-old daughter. Agents have had to hire body-fluid crews to clean blood off carpets, arrange for contractors to cover bullet holes in walls, and deal with hosts who discover dismembered human remains.
The work can be so stressful that agents have access to cool-down rooms with dimmed lighting to create a soothing atmosphere for answering harrowing calls. And it can take a heavy toll. Some former agents say they suffer from vicarious trauma. On the job they tried to remember that everything that happens in life can happen in an Airbnb.
That perspective was drilled into new recruits during 12-week training sessions: Just as nightclubs can’t eliminate sexual assaults and hotels can’t stop human trafficking, Airbnb can’t prevent bad actors from using its platform.
The company says its safety agents are taught to prioritize customers in crisis, yet many understood themselves to have a dual role to protect both the individual and Airbnb’s public image.
In sensitive cases, according to some former agents, they were encouraged to get a payout agreement signed as quickly as possible. Until 2017, other insiders say, every agreement came with a nondisclosure clause that barred the recipient from talking about what had happened, making further requests for money, or suing the company.
That practice ended when the #MeToo movement showed how nondisclosure agreements were being used to shield high-profile individuals and companies from fallout over allegations of misconduct. Airbnb replaced the NDA section of its payout agreement with a narrower clause that says recipients can’t discuss the terms of their settlement or imply that it’s an admission of wrongdoing.
The company declined to comment on the terms of settlements, or the safety team’s budget. But a confidential document seen by Bloomberg Businessweek shows that in recent years, Airbnb spent an average of about $50 million annually on payouts to hosts and guests, including on legal settlements and damage to homes. (The company says that most of its payouts are related to property damage under its host-guarantee insurance program, and that even six-figure settlements are “exceptionally rare.”)
Former safety agents also describe tension with the trust side of the department, whose job is to develop policies to prevent bad things from happening, whether it’s bed bugs, loaded guns, or kidnappings. Safety agents, who clean up only after disaster strikes, say they felt like the unloved side of the department.
There was also tension between the safety and sales teams about professional hosts who manage multiple properties and whose removal from the platform for a safety violation could cost Airbnb hundreds of listings.
The hardest part of the job, the former agents say, was making peace with their role in keeping cases quiet and ensuring that victims and their families didn’t blame the company.
Sometimes they were told to prioritize less traumatic situations involving reality-TV stars and others with big social media followings, which they say made them uncomfortable. Breit, the Airbnb spokesman, says that all safety incidents are treated “appropriately and consistently.”
Like many Silicon Valley companies, Airbnb rose on the strength of a growth-at-all-costs ethos—rolling into cities, skirting regulations, winning the popular vote, and catching on so fast that by the time officials noticed what was going on, they had no chance of controlling it. Regulatory battles blew up around the world, the most toxic of which played out in New York in 2015.
The city conducted sting operations to expose illicit rentals of shorter than 30 days and ordered the company to provide addresses of its listings, sparking years of legal fighting. Airbnb hired opposition researchers to dig into the backgrounds of its critics and paid for attack ads.
In early 2016, after the assault near Times Square, safety agents did what they were trained to do: provide comfort and assistance to the victim. But the possibility of a lawsuit raised the stakes. Chris Lehane, a former political operative for President Bill Clinton, had been hired by Airbnb as head of global policy and communications a few months before the incident.
Company insiders say Lehane, the author of Masters of Disaster, a 2014 book about “the black art of damage control,” was afraid the case could be used by opponents to run Airbnb out of town. (Lehane declined to be interviewed.)
The issue with the keys wasn’t easily addressed. Arrangements such as the one used by the host on West 37th are common in the short-term rental ecosystem—a luggage store next door to the building advertised itself online as a “convenient spot for picking up Airbnb lockbox keys.” But these practices can be dangerous, with keys passing through an unknown number of hands.
William Delaino, a long-term tenant on the third floor of the West 37th Street building, recalls that the woman’s friends rang his buzzer that night after getting no answer from her.
“There were quite a few Airbnb units in the building, and I was used to this kind of thing from foreign travelers,” he says. He estimates that 4 of the building’s 12 units were being rented out on Airbnb at the time.
Its owner, Kano Real Estate Investors LLC, declined to comment. But after the attack, tenants say, it updated its leases to forbid them from listing their apartments on Airbnb.
Detectives were lucky that the alleged rapist, Junior Lee, had returned with the keys. He was charged with predatory sexual assault, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. A prosecutor told the judge that Lee, 24, was a “career criminal” with 40 misdemeanor convictions, according to court transcripts. Lee pleaded not guilty, and bail was set at $250,000.
Airbnb escaped mention not only in the media and in the indictment but also in the police report and the complaint filed by prosecutors. Nor is there anything in the public record about how Lee got the keys.
His Legal Aid lawyer, Evan Rock, declined to comment on the case. Lee, who’s been deemed mentally unfit, is in custody awaiting further examination, but even if he goes to trial it’s not clear whether the company’s role will be an issue, or whether the mystery of the keys will ever be solved.
Airbnb’s potential liability for not enforcing a stricter key-exchange policy won’t be an issue thanks to the $7 million settlement, which came about after the woman’s lawyer, Jim Kirk at the Kirk Firm in New York, sent a letter threatening legal action. Although the settlement doesn’t bar the woman from cooperating with prosecutors, it does prevent her from blaming or suing the company.
That was especially important for Airbnb because the woman wasn’t the one who’d rented the apartment, so she hadn’t signed the company’s 10,000-word terms of service agreement—another important way Airbnb keeps incidents out of court and out of the public eye.
Anyone registering on the site is required to sign this agreement, which bars legal claims for injury or stress arising from a stay and requires confidential arbitration in the event of a dispute. Former safety agents estimate the company handles thousands of allegations of sexual assault every year, many involving rape.
Yet only one case related to a sexual assault has been filed against Airbnb in U.S. courts, according to a review of electronically available state and federal lawsuits. Victims’ lawyers say the terms of service are an important reason.
The case that did make it through was filed in 2017, when Leslie Lapayowker, a 51-year-old woman, sued Airbnb after allegedly being assaulted by a host in Los Angeles. Lapayowker was moving to the city from New Mexico and had booked a 30-day stay while she searched for an apartment, according to court documents.
The lawsuit says that after she decided to leave because of the host’s bizarre behavior, he followed her into the studio unit she’d rented, locked the door, held her in a chair against her will, and masturbated in front of her, ejaculating into a trash can.
As Lapayowker fled, according to the complaint, the host said, “Don’t forget to leave me a positive review on Airbnb.” The man, who said the encounter was consensual, wasn’t charged.
Lapayowker’s lawyer, Teresa Li, says the suit was able to proceed, despite the arbitration requirements in Airbnb’s terms of service, because the company hadn’t done a thorough background check of the host. Airbnb only flags prior convictions, and though the host had previously been charged with battery, he wasn’t convicted.
In her filing, Li argued that Airbnb created a false sense of security by using the words “trust” and “safety” on its website. The company moved to settle, offering Lapayowker an undisclosed amount of money in exchange for dropping the case. It also banned the host from its platform. Airbnb declined to comment, as did Lapayowker.
Li says she’s barred from discussing the negotiations or the amount her client received. She’s also settled another assault case against the company, brought by a U.S. citizen raped in India by a host’s relative who was out on bail after being charged with murder.
A similar process played out when the family of Carla Stefaniak, a Florida woman murdered while celebrating her 36th birthday in Costa Rica in 2018, filed a lawsuit against the company later that year. Stefaniak’s decomposing remains were discovered half-buried and wrapped in plastic about 1,000 feet from her Airbnb rental. A security guard at the complex where she was staying was convicted of her murder.
The suit claimed that Airbnb had failed to perform a background check on the security guard, who was working in the country illegally. The company settled the case for an undisclosed amount.
The result of all these settlements, combined with the terms of service provisions that prevent lawsuits in the first place, is that the courts have never established the extent to which short-term rental operators might be liable, if at all, for crimes that take place in the properties they list. “The law around these platforms is unclear,” Li says. “Everything is getting sent to arbitration, so nobody really knows.”
“The only thing that really motivates [Airbnb] is the threat … of bad PR or a nightmare in the press”
Airbnb’s desire for secrecy also makes it difficult to understand what impact short-term rentals have on the overall safety of neighborhoods. The company doesn’t make the addresses of listings public, to protect the safety and privacy of its users.
And though some U.S. cities require hosts to list their units on short-term-rental registries, most don’t release the data, citing the same privacy concerns. Those that do often don’t disclose apartment numbers, making it all but impossible to check many addresses against police calls or arrest records. The registries also don’t include units rented illegally.
Businessweek obtained registries for Austin, Miami Beach, and Los Angeles through public records requests, seeking to cross-reference them with public databases of police calls or crimes. Police responded to thousands of incidents at short-term rentals in the three cities over the past two years.
In Miami Beach, the registry showed 1,071 police calls to addresses listed in 2019, including 40 for violent crimes. But police reports don’t say which platform the unit was on or whether it was being rented at the time, making it difficult to draw useful conclusions about the correlation between the short-term rental industry and crime. Academic researchers say similar limitations have frustrated their efforts to study the link.
Only about a half-dozen scholarly studies have been carried out on the subject, and their findings are contradictory.
With cities and police forces unable to gather data, and with cases rarely reaching the courts, high-profile incidents have tended to drive the political conversation around short-term rentals. Mindful of this, since 2018, Airbnb has escalated such incidents to its global crisis management team, which was formed by Lehane and other executives and initially headed by Shapiro, the former CIA official.
Airbnb “can’t control everything,” says Shapiro, who now runs his own consulting company. “But after something bad happens, how they respond to make it better or not is 100% in their control, and they can’t mess that up.”
Several deadly incidents took place in 2018 and 2019, in addition to Stefaniak’s murder, as the company was gearing up for an initial public offering. One was in November 2018, when a retired New Orleans couple died after inhaling toxic fumes while they slept at an Airbnb in Mexico. Their son appeared on television afterward, pleading for Airbnb to do more to protect its users.
Chesky, who declined to be interviewed for this article, wanted to know why cases like this kept landing on his desk and why the company was mishandling or delaying its safety responses, according to people familiar with his reaction.
The answer to the second question was that the safety team was understaffed. When executives realized this, a shakeup ensued. In early 2019 the safety team was split from trust, placed under the community-support division, and given additional engineering resources and staff.
But tragedies kept happening. That May six Brazilian tourists, two of them children, died of carbon monoxide poisoning inside an Airbnb rental in Santiago, Chile. A relative had called the company before they died, but the response was delayed because no one at the call center spoke Portuguese. Chesky was furious, former employees say.
Then, that Halloween, Airbnb faced one of its deadliest incidents: a shootout at a $1.2 million four-bedroom home in Orinda, Calif., about 20 miles east of San Francisco. The house, which had been the subject of numerous complaints to police and the city, had been booked for one night.
The guest, who’d been reported to Airbnb for leaving a bullet at another listing just days before, triggering an internal safety warning, then advertised a “mansion party” on social media. More than 100 people were there when a gunman opened fire, killing five.
Chesky expressed his condolences via Twitter and announced new safety measures, including a ban on party houses and a promise to verify the photographs, amenities, cleanliness, and safety of all the listings on Airbnb.
(This effort is still under way.) But the company didn’t reach out to the mother of one victim, 23-year-old Raymon Hill, for a week, until her lawyer, Jesse Danoff, wrote a letter and issued a statement criticizing Airbnb for providing little more than prayers. Even some of the company’s own safety agents were upset. They say that party houses had been a problem for years.
Airbnb subsequently offered to pay for the funerals, but Danoff says that when some of the families sent bills of more than $30,000, the company started haggling. “They don’t care anymore, because the news cycle has moved on,” Danoff says. “The only thing that really motivates them is the threat or potential threat of bad PR or a nightmare in the press.” (Airbnb says it paid the bills. Danoff says he’s still negotiating a settlement.)
“They need to be held accountable for what happened,” Hill’s mother, Cynthia Taylor, says of Airbnb. “My son’s life was taken away at a property they allowed to keep renting on their service after multiple complaints.”
That December, Airbnb announced $150 million of additional trust-and-safety spending. It’s introduced a 24/7 hotline that offered renters immediate access to a safety agent; created a system to flag high-risk reservations; banned users who were under 25 and didn’t have a history of positive reviews from booking an Airbnb in the area where they live; and stopped allowing one-night stays over Halloween, July Fourth, and New Year’s Eve.
Many of these measures were focused on the U.S.—rolling them out globally has been a challenge, given differing cultures, customs, and regulations in the 191 countries where Airbnb operates.
The company has also debated whether to force users to provide government-issued identification, but it decided against doing so to avoid excluding hosts and guests in countries where ID is difficult to obtain.
In early 2020, the pandemic hit, wiping out travel as countries closed borders and the world went into lockdown. Airbnb lost 80% of its business in eight weeks. The safety team was inundated with calls relating to infections.
To make matters worse, professional party promoters started turning Airbnb rentals into nightclubs, offering live DJs and bottle service.
Hundreds of intoxicated, unmasked revelers were let loose in U.S. suburbs, straining police resources, infuriating public health officials, and overwhelming the safety team.
Last May, Chesky cried into his webcam during a companywide meeting at which he announced that 25% of the workforce would be cut. The layoffs were expected. What came as a shock to many was that the entire safety team in Portland, Ore., including 25 of the company’s most experienced agents, was let go.
Some were told they could keep their job if they took a pay cut and moved to Montreal, where Airbnb was relocating its North American safety operations, lured by favorable tax breaks and lower real estate and labor costs.
In emails and question-and-answer sessions with employees, Chesky was criticized for betraying the Airbnb community and its safety agents, who said they’d laid their mental health on the line for the company. He acknowledged the misstep and offered to rehire some of the agents temporarily, at time-and-a-half pay, until the Canada-based team was fully trained. About 15 returned.
None of this was reported at the time, and it didn’t interfere with the IPO. After trading opened in December, Airbnb scored one of the biggest first-day rallies on record, boosting the wealth of each founder to more than $10 billion. Sacca, the investor who’d rejected the startup 13 years earlier, tweeted his congratulations. “I let the worst case keep me from seeing the likely case,” he wrote. “Every platform will have some bad actors, but most humans are good people. They knew that. I didn’t listen.”
Airbnb still has safety crises to face, assaults to respond to, and regulatory battles to fight. On May 31, as part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit with New York City, the company started turning over information about its hosts, including names, addresses, and whether they’re renting their entire apartment. The data will make it easier to track illegal listings.
More than five years after the attack on West 37th Street, Airbnb still hasn’t set any clear rules regarding keys. The case set off a yearslong internal debate about keyless entry. If hosts could be compelled to use digital keypads and change the code after each stay, a situation like that might be avoided in the future.
Even requiring them to disclose whether they had keypad entry could make a difference. Shapiro, the former head of crisis management, recalls pushing for more keyless entry. “I remember trying to talk about the key-exchange process and ways to prevent hosts leaving them at shops,” he says.
In the end, little was done beyond posting information about keyless entry online and working with several lockmakers to reduce the cost of implementation. Doing more would have been difficult because Airbnb can’t dictate how hosts enter their own homes, and it might have discouraged them from listing on the platform.
The business case won out. You can see the evidence in cities around the world: small lockboxes hanging on fence railings, ready for the next Airbnb guest to collect their key.
Father Says Airbnb Aid After Daughter’s Death Was Damage Control
Company provided money and support when a New York high school teacher was found unconscious in a rented villa in Mexico. Her father now says the family was caught up in an effort to avoid a ‘public relations nightmare.’
Lauren Kassirer, a 35-year-old New York City high school teacher, was found naked, bruised, and near death in an Airbnb rental on the Yucatan Peninsula three years ago this month. Now, with no answers about how she died and no one arrested, her father is looking back at the company’s offers of help and wondering if he got caught up in a damage-control campaign.
“They took advantage of our family’s vulnerability to avoid a public relations nightmare,” said Eli Kassirer, 74, sitting at his kitchen table in New Paltz, New York, in late June, surrounded by documents about the case and a box containing his daughter’s ashes. He said he decided to speak publicly for the first time after reading a story in Bloomberg Businessweek last month about how the company handles violent crimes at its listings, providing victims and their families with money and working hard to deflect bad publicity.
He said he regrets that he followed Airbnb’s advice to delay talking to the media and worries that other young women may suffer as a result of lax safety practices at short-term rentals. But he doesn’t blame Airbnb for Lauren’s death, and his anger is also directed at what he views as a shoddy investigation by local authorities who didn’t examine the scene and misplaced evidence.
Kassirer said Airbnb offered its government connections to assist in the investigation and paid for private investigators and lawyers. The company covered about $250,000 in expenses, including funeral costs, and sent the family a check for an additional $750,000, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity because settlement amounts are confidential. “It was a cynical, calculated, and manipulative attempt to keep us away from the media,” Kassirer said.
Ben Breit, an Airbnb spokesman, said the company’s only priority was supporting the family after a “horrific” attack. He said there were no strings attached to the financial support. Nick Shapiro, Airbnb’s head of crisis management at the time and a former deputy chief of staff at the Central Intelligence Agency, said that at the family’s request he discussed the case with Mexican officials, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department, a member of Congress, and national media outlets.
He also said he made sure that the settlement payout didn’t prevent the family from speaking publicly about the case and that he arranged for Airbnb Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky to call the family.
“I care deeply about the Kassirer family and did everything possible to help them,” Shapiro, who left the company in 2019 and now runs his own consulting firm, said in an email. He said the family decided not to go public because the FBI said media involvement could make it difficult for U.S. officials to get permission to enter Mexico to investigate, which “was what they wanted most.”
FBI agents did travel to Mexico and looked into the matter, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. A spokesman for the bureau said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. Breit said the company followed guidance from the FBI and “offered to help connect Lauren’s family to the media at a time of their choosing.”
Lauren’s parents tell a different story. While the payout agreement didn’t require them to keep silent about the case, and Airbnb never said it would withdraw support if they spoke publicly, they say they believed the money and offer of help with high-level government connections came in exchange for not talking about the company’s involvement.
They say they feared that if they even mentioned that their daughter was found near death in an Airbnb rental or ignored the company’s suggestions about which private investigators to hire, or which journalists to approach and when, they would jeopardize that support and, ultimately, the chance to get justice for Lauren.
Airbnb has “a very sophisticated understanding of human psychology and behavior,” said Eli Kassirer, a retired high school principal. “This was all part of a strategy to keep us quiet, controlled, and happy. It was subtle coercion. They didn’t say, ‘If you go public, we are pulling funding,’ but to me it was very apparent that the support was part of a damage-control campaign.”
Lauren’s mother, Cathleen Sadler, who is divorced from Kassirer, agreed. “We all decided that we needed Airbnb and going to the media would distance us from the company that was helping us,” she said in a telephone interview. “None of us were sure. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
Lauren Kassirer arrived in Mexico on June 27, 2018. She wanted to make the most of her summer vacation after a recent break-up with her high school sweetheart of 17 years. She took selfies on a beach in Tulum, went swimming with turtles, and sent a text message to a friend on July 1 saying she was sitting by the pool at a villa owned by the nearby Hotel Akumal Caribe, looking at the stars. “It is so quiet here,” she wrote.
Later that night, she called a man in the U.S. she’d started dating a few weeks earlier to say she didn’t feel safe at the Moroccan-style Villa Taj-Kumal, where she had rented a room through Airbnb, according to text messages he sent to Lauren’s friend, Amanda Cadwallader. Usually a fiercely independent traveler, Kassirer said she felt creeped-out by an employee at the six-bedroom villa where she was the only guest. She said he’d been hitting on her, that she could see him watching her swimming through a window, and that she was going to lock herself in her bedroom, the text messages show.
A housekeeper found her lying on the floor of her room naked and unconscious at about 1:30 the next afternoon, according to a person familiar with the Ministry of Criminal Investigations file. Police weren’t called to the scene. Villa staff washed and dressed Kassirer, and a local doctor transported her to a hospital in Playa del Carmen.
The hospital is a 30-minute drive from the property, but Kassirer didn’t arrive until 6 p.m., hospital records show. She’d suffered from a brain injury resulting from a lack of oxygen but was still alive. She had a dislocated left knee, genital injuries, cuts inside her mouth, bruises on her arms, inner thighs, torso and pelvis, red marks on her knuckles, and redness on her wrists, according to the records. The investigative file states probable sexual assault, and one doctor said in police interviews that the redness on her wrists looked like ligature marks. The hospital requested a rape kit and started treating her for sexually transmitted diseases.
It was around 6:30 p.m. that evening in New Paltz when the U.S. Consulate in Mexico called Eli Kassirer. He drove to New York, got on a flight before midnight with his son and arrived at the hospital the following morning. He said he barely recognized Lauren because of the bruising to her face, and they arranged to airlift her to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
She arrived there the next day, July 4, her 36th birthday. More than a dozen neurologists assessed her condition and agreed she would never recover. She died on July 25, after 23 days in a coma.
The cause and manner of death are listed as “undetermined” in the autopsy report by Broward County Medical Examiner Rebecca MacDougall. The injuries seen on photographs taken in Mexico were healed, MacDougall noted, and a review of medical records revealed no severe injuries. “That does not rule out the possibility of assault,” she wrote, “but the time lapse between the event and her death, the lack of information regarding the circumstances, no scene investigation, and having no specimens available for testing make it impossible to put a complete story together as to what exactly happened in Mexico.”
It took MacDougall a year to sign off on the report because, she said in a phone interview, she was hoping more information would come to light about what happened. MacDougall enlisted the help of the FBI because she never saw any photos of the crime scene, there were conflicting stories about how and where Lauren was found, and she didn’t have access to the rape kit results or DNA specimens.
The only injury left on her body when MacDougall conducted the autopsy, she said, was a healing abrasion on her pubic bone. “There was no way to know what happened,” MacDougall said. “If we had an adequate investigation by the Mexican authorities, then it might have been an easier case to deal with.”
Airbnb first heard about what happened from the host who listed the property, according to a former safety agent for the company who was involved in the case and asked for anonymity because of an employment-related confidentiality agreement. The host said Lauren had slipped in the shower, recalled the agent, who was part of an elite team that handles incidents involving serious bodily harm or crime inside Airbnb listings.
A few days later a cousin of Lauren’s called Airbnb to say she had been assaulted and was on life support, according to the safety agent. The cousin told Airbnb that an employee at the property was a suspect. The company removed the Villa Taj-Kumal and other listings owned by Hotel Akumal Caribe from its platform and permanently banned the host. Representatives of the hotel didn’t respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
Three months after Lauren’s death, her mother, father, and two siblings decided they were ready to go public, according to emails among family members seen by Bloomberg. They thought media pressure could help speed up the investigation, and they wanted to raise awareness about the dangers of women traveling alone. They discussed reaching out to NBC, the New York Times, and daytime talk show Dr. Phil, the emails show.
They had lengthy conference calls with Airbnb’s Shapiro and Shep Bingham, a lawyer and uncle of Lauren’s who was acting as the family’s legal representative. Bingham said in an interview that the family didn’t have the financial means to hire attorneys and private investigators in Mexico and that Airbnb was willing to pay for that.
He said they decided not to engage in a media blitz against the company. “We asked for help,” Bingham said. “They provided that help.” The family was aware that Airbnb was a corporation that was going to try to protect its brand, Bingham said. “That translates more than anything else, ultimately, to dollars and cents.”
In one October 2018 email, a family friend who worked in public relations suggested they agree to tell Airbnb that the company “will not be mentioned by the family in any media interviews.” She said the family should come up with a “party-line” on how Lauren made her booking. “That is of course very much appreciated,” Shapiro responded.
“And also is important so the heat stays on the Mexican government and they can’t scapegoat Airbnb or anyone else.” Shapiro followed up with another email saying “the threat of media is worse than the actual news because of how short the life cycle of these stories are.” He suggested the family delay going public until the newly elected Mexican government was in office later that year but added: “If you decide it is time to take it to the media, I am here to help.”
In November of that year, Shapiro sent another email to the family saying he had “personal friends” at 60 Minutes and the Today show he could connect them with. Again, he suggested delaying going public. “Let’s get the plan together before we discuss any more media outreach,” Shapiro wrote. That month, the family friend who worked in public relations drafted a two-page memo about what happened to Lauren to share with the media. Shapiro was copied on the emails. The document said the incident took place in a hotel room and didn’t mention Airbnb. It has never been shared with any media outlets, the family friend said.
Behind the scenes, the family was growing wary of Airbnb’s involvement. In an email that October, Eli Kassirer warned family members that the company has been “masterful at controlling and managing us.” Airbnb’s main interest, he wrote, “is to keep their name free of controversy and negative publicity.”
That didn’t stop Kassirer from requesting additional financial support five months later to help launch a scholarship fund in Lauren’s name, writing in an email that Airbnb had been “very generous” and that he was “grateful” for the company’s support.
That request led to the $750,000 payout the family received in November 2019. The settlement agreement bars the family from suing the company and states that they agree the money is not an admission of wrongdoing on Airbnb’s part, according to people familiar with the matter.
In the end, the delays dragged on and no one was charged. Mexican authorities at the Quintana Roo state prosecutor’s office and the Municipal Ministry of Public Security and Transit in Tulum, didn’t respond to calls requesting comment. David Mark Mena Farca, a lawyer in Mexico representing the Kassirer family, said he has no idea if the prosecutor’s file is still open.
He said the investigation has gone cold and evidence, including scrapings from Lauren’s fingernails, can’t be found. It’s “highly unlikely that anybody will get charged,” Farca said.
There’s no legal precedent for Airbnb’s potential liability for crimes that occur inside its listings, largely because the company’s terms of service pushes disputes with users into confidential arbitration. The few cases that have resulted in lawsuits have been settled before trial.
Since Lauren Kassirer’s death, at least two other women from the U.S. have been allegedly raped inside Airbnb listings in Mexico. Both were traveling alone.
In May 2019, a 56-year-old woman from Portland, Oregon, was attacked inside a two-story home in Colima, on the Pacific coast, after a man climbed up an unsecured staircase and broke in through an unlocked window while she slept.
The intruder allegedly threatened to stab her with a metal fork and “in a brutal fashion, repeatedly and forcibly raped her,” according to a lawsuit filed against Airbnb in Oregon last year. The case has been stayed and shifted to arbitration because of Airbnb’s terms of service, according to court documents.
In January 2020, a man climbed through the open roof patio of an Airbnb apartment in Mexico, allegedly raped a Salt Lake City woman staying there and threatened to kill her, according to a safety agent who had knowledge of the case. During the attack, the man fell asleep on top of the woman, and she used her free arm to message her mother on Facebook, begging for help. The mother called Airbnb’s safety team and 911, and local police were sent to the property, the agent said. The man fled.
Breit, the company spokesman, called both cases “tragic” and said that Airbnb, which hasn’t previously been linked in the media to either incident, supported the survivors and their families.
No criminal charges have been filed in either case. That’s not unusual for Mexico, where crimes against women often aren’t investigated. In May alone, 98 women were murdered in killings known as femicides, official data show. Investigators resolve only 1% of cases on average, according to Impunidad Cero, a nonpartisan organization.
“In Mexico, the rate of solving crimes is very low,” said William Acosta, a private investigator hired by the Kassirer family to look into Lauren’s death. “They do a substandard investigation, especially if a foreigner is involved.” Acosta said he has been unable to get access to police files held by Mexican authorities. “It could take years, but sooner or later the truth will come out,” he said.
Eli Kassirer has all but given up on his pursuit of justice. He decided to go public now because he said he felt he owed it to Lauren and hopes no one else will “ever experience the nightmare that we have been through.” He particularly wants to reach adventurous young female travelers, like his daughter. “When you go to an Airbnb, you don’t know whose home you are going to, who’s been there before, who has the keys, or who has access to your room,” he said. “This is a dangerous proposition, and you’ve got to think about it.”
The Bloomberg story that prompted Kassirer to speak out shined a light on the safety challenges in the short-term rental industry, which was built by creating a sense of trust among strangers. It featured another violent sexual assault, this one in an Airbnb rental near Times Square early on New Year’s Day in 2016.
In that case, the alleged assailant had obtained a duplicate set of keys to the apartment. Several other travel companies have since updated their policies around key exchanges. Airbnb tightened its rules in 2019 to ensure that exchanges are made securely, but the new policy doesn’t provide specifics.
Airbnb says that less than 0.1% of stays result in a safety incident and that serious crimes are even rarer. In the past few years, the company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars enhancing its safety features, including adding a 911 safety button to its app to connect users with local police. “There is nothing more important than the safety of our community,” said Breit, the Airbnb spokesman. “We are deeply committed to helping everyone have a safe experience, particularly women who may be traveling alone.”
Earlier this year, the Villa Taj-Kumal popped back up on Airbnb’s platform under the name Luxury Akumal Villa. Seth Smith, who runs the property management company that hosted the listing, said in an interview that he had no idea what happened there in 2018 or that Airbnb had banned the property from its platform. The entire villa, including the room Lauren Kassirer rented, was available for $800 a night.
When Bloomberg notified Airbnb last month that the property was back on its platform, it was removed within 24 hours. Breit said the company has systems in place to detect if a new host account is connected to a banned user and that the owner of the villa used “deceptive and possibly illegal tactics” to relist it through a property management firm. But the relisting is a clear example of how difficult it is for Airbnb to keep track of what’s going on with all of its 5.6 million listings around the world — even ones where terrible things happened.
Airbnb, Vrbo Share Details On Party Houses, Not Violent Crime
Airbnb Inc. and Expedia Group Inc.’s short-term-rental unit Vrbo announced in June that they were partnering to share information about repeat “party house” offenders. What they didn’t agree on was sharing details about properties they’ve banned after violent crimes have occurred there.
That became an issue this week after Expedia permanently barred a Mexican villa where a 35-year-old New York City high school teacher was found naked, bruised and near-death three years ago while on a summer vacation.
The incident, first reported in a July 20 Bloomberg Businessweek story, led to an immediate lifetime ban of the villa and its host by Airbnb, the platform used to book the stay. But it was only after the story was published that Expedia became aware of what happened and removed the listing from its platform.
Unlike hotels, short-term rentals typically have no security guards or on-site support staff. It is up to the hosts who list their homes on the platforms to decide how they want to exchange keys with guests, who has access to the property and whether or not they want to install a smoke detector or put locks on bedroom doors.
The lack of regulations has allowed short-term rentals to explode into the fastest-growing sector of the online travel market, collecting almost 30 cents of every dollar spent on hospitality today.
The platforms also aren’t required to share information about properties they blacklist, even when they take the extreme action of a permanent ban. So a property barred by Airbnb can still be listed on Vrbo or other platforms.
That’s what happened with the Villa Taj-Kumal on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula after Lauren Kassirer rented a room there in July 2018 and never made it home. The night before she was found, she texted friends to say she was afraid of a staff member at the six-bedroom villa where she was the only guest.
She died at a Florida hospital 23 days later, never having regained consciousness. The cause of death was undetermined, despite bruises to her arms, inner thighs and genitals, and no one was arrested in connection with the case.
Airbnb quickly banned the villa, the host and other listings at the nearby Hotel Akumal Caribe, which owned the property. But earlier this year the villa popped back up on Airbnb under a different name. When Bloomberg notified Airbnb of the re-listing last month, the company removed it and said the host used “deceptive tactics” to post it through a third-party property-management firm.
Earlier this week, when Bloomberg notified Expedia about what happened at the villa, the company also removed the listing from its platform. “If we are made aware of a crime or safety issue that occurred during a stay booked on another platform our policy is to investigate and take appropriate action, including removing the property from our site and relocating any upcoming traveler bookings,” Dave McNamee, a spokesman for Expedia, said in an email.
That’s not good enough for Eli Kassirer, Lauren’s father, who decided to speak publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time in the recent Bloomberg story. “It’s scary to contemplate the fact that this listing might still be active,” Kassirer said. He said he fears other young adventurous travelers might book a room at the villa “without knowing the dangers that could be waiting there.”
Kassirer is calling for short-term-rental platforms to share information about banned properties. “I would hope there would be some way of monitoring and permanently de-listing any places that are deemed unsafe,” he said.
Any effort to do that would have to be voluntary because there’s no regulatory authority in the U.S. that can force short-term-rental companies to do so, said Arun Sundararajan, a professor of entrepreneurship at New York University’s Stern School of Business who has written books on the sharing economy.
“Right now, every platform has its own process — and its own blacklist,” he said. Sundararajan said a self-regulating industry consortium could enforce transparency across platforms and get the companies to share information about banned properties to prevent dangerous listings from hopping across sites.
The party-house agreement between Airbnb and Vrbo, its closest industry rival, is an example of that. With bars and nightclubs shut last year by Covid-19, some promoters booked homes on short-term-rental platforms to host events with live DJs and bottle service. The parties infuriated neighbors, spread the virus and, in some cases, resulted in fatal shootings.
Both companies tried to address the issue independently. But, they said in a joint statement announcing the Community Integrity Program in June, repeat offenders delisted by one platform can pop up on another. “One platform alone can’t solve this problem,” the companies said. “It requires an industrywide effort.”
The program is expected to begin in the U.S. later this year. Representatives for both companies said they have systems in place to guard against hosts re-listing banned properties on their own sites but have no immediate plans to expand the party-house program to include sharing information about listings that become crime scenes.
Airbnb Says It Will Allow Sexual-Assault Victims To Sue Company
Airbnb Inc. said it will allow hosts and guests to sue the company over claims of sexual assault and harassment in its listings, lifting a mandatory arbitration clause that’s been buried in its 40-page terms of service for more than a decade.
The update will be reflected in the next iteration of the company’s terms of service in the fall, the company said in a statement Friday, without specifying a date. “We believe that survivors should be able to bring claims in whatever forum is best for them,” the statement said. “We encourage our industry peers within the travel and hospitality space to consider taking similar steps for their respective communities.”
The move comes after a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation of violent crimes, including rapes, at Airbnb listings. That story highlighted the lengths the home-share company will go to keep such incidents quiet — sometimes spending millions of dollars on settlement payouts and using the binding arbitration clause in its terms of service to block users from filing claims for damages in court. In the course of follow-up reporting, Bloomberg has been asking Airbnb for weeks about details surrounding its arbitration policy.
Since as early as 2011, Airbnb’s terms of service has included a clause that says any dispute arising out of a stay booked on the platform will be settled through binding arbitration. All of Airbnb’s 150 million or so users were required to agree to this when they registered, meaning they signed away the right to sue.
The use of forced arbitration became a flashpoint in corporate America during the #MeToo movement. Many businesses started distancing themselves from the practice because of the way it shields corporations from public accountability. In 2018, Airbnb, along with Microsoft Corp., Google and Facebook Inc., removed binding arbitration in sexual assault and sexual harassment claims filed by employees. Sharing-economy peer Uber Technologies Inc. went further, updating its terms of service to eliminate forced arbitration for passengers and drivers.
Airbnb said the change to its terms of service “will codify a practice we have already had in place.” The company said that since January 2019 it has not asked a court to force any sexual assault or sexual harassment cases into arbitration. But Airbnb didn’t make any public announcements about changing this practice or update its terms of service.
Airbnb Suit Over Host’s Spying On Couple Goes To Arbitrator
A couple’s suit against Airbnb Inc. over a host’s secret videotaping at a vacation rental property must go to an arbitrator, the Florida Supreme Court held.
The Airbnb user agreement that the couple signed bound them to having an arbitrator, not a judge, decide whether the dispute can be litigated in court, Justice Ricky Polston said Thursday for the 6–1 state high court.
The ruling is a win for the online property rental company in its efforts to try and keep suits by users out of court.
The Texas couple, identified by the pseudonyms John and Jane Doe, allege they rented a condominium in Longboat Key through Airbnb. The condominium’s owner allegedly recorded their whole three-day stay there on hidden cameras, including interactions that the lower court summarized as “private and intimate.”
After they learned of the recordings, the Does sued both the owner and Airbnb, which they say should have warned them of previous privacy violations at other properties, and should have made sure the Longboat Key property didn’t have hidden cameras.
Airbnb sought to compel arbitration, and the trial court granted Airbnb’s request to allow the arbitrator to decide the right venue for the couple to pursue their complaint.
The intermediate court reversed in a split decision, saying the user agreement’s reference to arbitration rules wasn’t clear enough to indicate the couple’s consent to that.
The Florida top court here reinstated the trial judge’s ruling, saying the intermediate court’s decision was an “outlier.”
The kind of agreement used by Airbnb, known as a “clickwrap,” itself “is entirely silent on the question of who determines” whether the case can be heard in court, Polston said.
“Here, Airbnb and the Does clearly and unmistakably agreed that an arbitrator decides” the issue, Polston said. “Airbnb’s Terms of Service explicitly incorporate by reference” the rules of the American Arbitration Association, he said.
Such incorporation of the AAA rules “clearly and unmistakably evidences the parties’ intent to empower an arbitrator” to resolve where the case will be heard—in a court or in arbitration, he said.
The court joined all the federal appeals courts that have addressed the matter, he said.
Brannock Humphries & Berman and Mallard Perez PLLC represented the Does.
Joel S. Perwin, who practices in Miami Beach, Fla., and Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP represented Airbnb.
The case is Airbnb, Inc. v. Doe, 2022 BL 114039, Fla., No. SC20-1167, 3/31/22.
Airbnb Hosts Bash Refund Policy They Say Opens Door To Scams
* Guests Have Up To 72 Hours To Report An Issue And Claim Refund
* Airbnb Faces Challenge To Balance Needs Of Hosts And Guests
Hosts of rental properties on Airbnb Inc. are criticizing an updated company policy that gives guests more time to report issues with their stay and claim a refund, a revision hosts say leaves them vulnerable to scammers seeking a free vacation.
Under new rules that go into effect at the end of April, a guest will have up to 72 hours to report a “travel issue,” which could involve anything from pests on the premises to a broken hot tub.
If Airbnb determines that the incident was significant enough to disrupt the stay, guests are eligible for a full or partial refund from the host. Previous rules only gave guests 24 hours to report an issue.
Comments from hundreds of hosts on Airbnb’s community forum highlight the challenge the company faces in the delicate balancing act of satisfying both guests and the hosts who open their homes. Some hosts have said they’d rather de-list their property than face potentially ruinous refunds.
The stakes are high for keeping a robust supply of homes on the rental platform this year as pent-up demand after two summers of Covid-19 restrictions has people poised to travel more. Airbnb, Booking Holdings Inc. and Expedia Group Inc. have all said they are anticipating one of the best summer seasons yet.
But for hosts like Dustin Switzer, who rents a vacation home in Cape May, New Jersey, to about 250 guests a year, the prospect of a three-day reporting window is discouraging.
“If people complain about something really small just to look for a small refund, usually I’ll give it to them,” Switzer said. “Now I have a feeling I’ll have people looking for any possible thing and they’ll try to have me put them up at a hotel for $1,000 a night.”
Switzer has been using Airbnb exclusively to list the property for the last three years as it brings in more traffic than his local realty office. He’s booked for the summer and the month of September. Now, he says the new policy is “close to being the straw that breaks the camel’s back” and he’s strongly considering creating his own booking website.
Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky has described Airbnb’s more than 4 million hosts as the “core” of the company, but for years some have have complained it favors guests. Many hosts found themselves out of a paycheck when the company announced a global refund policy in the early days of the pandemic.
Since then, Airbnb has rolled out a variety of features to protect hosts and their homes, including $1 million liability insurance, $1 million in damage protection and quicker reimbursements for damages.
Airbnb announced the updated policy earlier this year after guests said that 24 hours wasn’t enough time in some instances. Airbnb said it’s scrapping a line that would require hosts to pay for a guest’s new accommodation if they had to leave their property, saying that it hadn’t ever been used.
“We hope a longer reporting window will provide more time for the host to work with guests to address any issues before we get involved,” an Airbnb spokesperson said.
But many hosts don’t see it that way. In an act of disapproval, some hosts are “snoozing” their listings, effectively taking them offline for a while, when the policy takes effect. Others are taking extra precautions to make sure they are fully protected from guests who try to take advantage of the policy.
Cayleigh W., who owns a rental property in upstate New York, is asking her crew of cleaners to take time-stamped photographs and videos when they finish cleaning the home as a precaution in case guests raise a complaint. She’s also making her listing description as specific as possible, to avoid any confusion guests may have.
“That’s going to be our only way to fight it,” she said in an interview, asking not to give her last name for fear her listing could be removed. “Do I think it’s fair, reasonable or realistic? Not really.”
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