Airbnb Has A Nightmare Problem
Bloomberg Businessweek|June 21, 2021
When violent crimes happen during stays, the company’s secretive safety team is called on to soothe guests, help families—and prevent PR disasters
By Olivia Carville

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.”

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. CHESKY

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.

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