Have you ever wondered how Airbnb has operated so long without a huge scandal? After all, we’re talking about a business model that involves strangers staying at one another’s homes for money — with the app getting basically a finder’s fee.
But they can’t really do a thorough background check on all these randos, right? In Florida alone we have to imagine there would be some real nightmare scenarios that would make the company look horrible. How do they prevent these?
They don’t. They cover them up.
At least, that’s according to an investigative report out on Tuesday by Bloomberg Businessweek. The outlet interviewed eight former members of an alleged secret group known as the “black box” team that makes these incidents go away, as well as 45 other former employees with knowledge of the team’s actions.
According to these sources, the team includes about 100 members based in large cities all around the world, including Dublin, Montreal, and Singapore. Most have military or emergency-services backgrounds. One who was willing to give his name was Nick Shapiro, a former deputy chief of staff at the CIA and National Security Council adviser in the Obama White House. Some pretty weighty qualifications to be the company’s crisis manager. Makes you wonder just how big the crises were! The answer is big.
Per the report:
Another Set Of Keys
The worst one Shapiro recalled working on was the case of an Australian woman who was visiting NYC for New Year’s Eve and had found the perfect apartment near Times Square. Per the report, she had picked up her set of keys to the apartment at a nearby bodega — and was not even asked to show ID. Late that night, after celebrating the holiday, she returned to the apartment — where a man was already inside waiting for her. She was raped at knifepoint.
The man stole her phone, but she managed to get hold of friends and contact the police. They caught the rapist right away — because the cops were still there when he came back again that night. It was then that they discovered how he had gotten in. He had a set of keys, too.
It was that last bit of information that had Airbnb worried. If there was any part of this that occurred because of their lax safety protocols, they could be held liable. So they made it go away. How? In this case, they paid the woman for her silence. They wrote her a check for $7 million in exchange for her signing an agreement never to talk about the settlement “or imply responsibility or liability” on the part of Airbnb or the host.
The man was charged but found mentally unfit for trial; somehow Airbnb’s name was kept out of any reports on the incident. How the rapist got the keys has never become public record.
When confronted with the story, Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit confirmed there was an agreement but claimed the woman is still “able to discuss whether she holds anyone responsible” if she wants. (She and her lawyer both chose not to comment to Bloomberg though. Inneresting.) He also said the only reason they paid her is because they wanted to help the victim of a “horrific attack.” Right. Because we all know how altruistic for-profit corporations are.
Thousands Of Allegations
What were the other worst stays like? Well, unfortunately there were many other rapes, with victims getting the cost of counseling and health services covered. In one case, a host in Barcelona got two female guests drunk and raped them; when they told him they were going to the police the next morning, he showed them he had recorded the rape on hidden camera — and threatened to upload it to the internet. Thankfully they did go to the police, who found the man had hundreds of photos with other victims.
But there was more. A lot more. Former black box team members say the company deals with THOUSANDS of allegations of sexual assault every year.
Sometimes the hosts were the perpetrators, sometimes it was the guests. In one case, a guest was found naked in bed with the 7-year-old daughter of the host. Agents even described being sent in to counsel victims who were still in the lodgings, hiding from their assailants.
Why aren’t there more lawsuits? Attorney Teresa Li told Bloomberg it’s about those terms of service full of legal language that no one ever reads. Airbnb have an arbitration requirement that keeps people from suing in most cases.
Li says she handled two rape cases in which the victims went after Airbnb, and one was able to do more than file. In that case, a woman was staying at a rental in Los Angeles while she was apartment hunting. However, she found her host creepy and decided to get out of there; that’s when, she claims, he barred her from leaving and masturbated in front of her, ejaculating into a trash can. When she ran out, he allegedly called after her:
“Don’t forget to leave me a positive review on Airbnb.”
The man later claimed the encounter was consensual and wasn’t charged with a crime. Ugh.
Li explains that this suit was allowed to move forward because it was ruled the company hadn’t done a through enough background check on the host, who had previously been charged (but not convicted) of battery. Li says she argued that the company had created a false sense of security for her client by highlighting “trust” and “safety” on their website. Airbnb settled for an undisclosed amount, and Li isn’t legally allowed to say how much.
Can the company be held legally liable for any of the incidents they are, in a sense, facilitating by matching hosts to guests? No one has any idea yet. Li explains:
“The law around these platforms is unclear. Everything is getting sent to arbitration, so nobody really knows.”
That seems to be just how Airbnb likes it.
Agents say they were encouraged to get payout agreements signed by victims as quickly as possible — agreements which included a nondisclosure clause which prevented them from discussing what had happened to them. However, employees say the NDA portion stopped in 2017 as the #MeToo movement picked up steam and these kinds of hush money payments became all too well-known to the public.
But the horror stories aren’t limited to sexual assaults. Per Bloomberg, agents say they’ve 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.” Yeesh.
In 2019, eight tourists from Brazil died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an Airbnb rental they were staying at in Santiago, Chile. Two of them were children.
In one of the deadliest incidents, a man booked a large house outside San Francisco on Airbnb for a single night, inviting over 100 guests via social media for an out-of-control “mansion party.” This guest had previously been reported to the company for leaving a bullet at another lodging. But he was allowed to do it anyway. At the party a gunman opened fire, killing five party guests.
Airbnb founder Brian Chesky offered his condolences on Twitter. Essentially his thoughts and prayers.
However, when Jesse Danoff, the lawyer of the mother of one of the victims, a 23-year-old man named Raymon Hill, issued a statement criticizing Airbnb, the company stepped up — sort of — and offered to pay for the funerals of the victims. However, says Danoff, when the victims’ families sent the bills, the company started haggling. Danoff says:
“They don’t care anymore, because the news cycle has moved on. The only thing that really motivates them is the threat or potential threat of bad PR or a nightmare in the press.”
So much for that altruism.
Found Buried Nearby
In another case, a woman from Florida was murdered by a security guard at the apartment complex she was staying at in Costa Rica — that she had found on Airbnb. Carla Stefaniak told friends the place was “sketchy” when she arrived; there was no power or water, so she said she was going to ask the security guard for help. That was the last anyone heard from her.
Her body was found buried half-naked and wrapped in plastic about 1,000 feet from the apartment. The security guard was ultimately sentenced to 16 years for the murder, and Stefaniek’s family sued Airbnb — saying they had failed to do even the simplest background check on the guard. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
Airbnb pays out a LOT of money in undisclosed settlements and agreements. They pay specifically to keep it all undisclosed. According to a confidential internal document obtained by Bloomberg, they spend about $50 MILLION every single year covering up horrific stays like these.
So that’s apparently why we aren’t hearing horrible stories about Airbnb all the time. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.
Something to think about the next time you’re deciding whether to get a hotel or save some money with an Airbnb.
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