Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

After Home-Trashing Incident, Airbnb Builds an In-House Enforcer Team

The worst-case scenario for posting your home on Airbnb is for the place to get wrecked. It happened recently in Austin, where someone rented a whole home using the San Francisco-based online rental service and let the bathroom toilet overflow overnight. The guest was oblivious and didn’t notice the extensive damage until the next morning.

Airbnb trust and safety enforcers Monroe Labouisse, Phil Cardenas and Anna Steel

Airbnb trust and safety enforcers Monroe Labouisse, Phil Cardenas and Anna Steel

But when Airbnb looked into the matter, it turned out there was a reasonable explanation: The guest was hearing-impaired and could not hear the running water. The company compensated the host for the damage and repairs.

It’s these kinds of highly personal, often tricky, disputes to which Airbnb now devotes 50 investigative agents on its trust and safety team, which is led by former U.S. Army intelligence officer Phil Cardenas and former government investigator Anna Steel.

That kind of background is common on the team, although it is not Airbnb’s internal police force, Cardenas said. “We’re not hiring for security guards,” he said. “We’re people-people.”

Monitoring its rentals more rigorously has been a key area of improvement for Airbnb, to say the least.

The high-profile startup had a widely publicized horror story of a San Francisco host, known as EJ, who had her home badly vandalized in the summer of 2011 and blogged that she was inadequately supported by Airbnb. Despite the programs the company instituted since then, the incident still looms, and the idea of it remains a very real fear for many people.

In the “sharing economy” — represented by startups such as Airbnb, Uber and Lyft — maintaining customer trust is paramount because, at any given moment, they are all one bad incident away from users turning back to more traditional arrangements.

The trust and safety team at Airbnb handles caseloads of user conflicts, doing everything from monitoring new reservations for trigger words like “Western Union” or personally calling every group of eight or more people who made a reservation in New Orleans during the Super Bowl this year to wish them a good time and remind them to respect their hosts.

Apparently, it worked — there were no damages reported.

Online peer-to-peer disputes are, of course, nothing new. Marketplaces like eBay have helped sort out conflicts between users for years.

But, as Monroe Labouisse — who manages Airbnb’s 300-person customer service organization, which includes the trust and safety unit — explained it, Airbnb is quite different, because it bridges the gap between online and offline.

People on eBay still use silly monikers — believe it or not, Labouisse’s actual personal eBay ID is !seymourcash!, dating back to 2002, when he worked there.

By contrast, people on Airbnb are staying in each other’s homes, so they really need to trust each other. The site has started requiring some users to submit both government photo IDs and online profiles, and plans to extend the program more broadly.

Two years later, the company doesn’t like to talk much about the EJ incident, but it’s clear that it had a lasting effect. Labouisse, Steel and Cardenas all joined after the summer of 2011. And, while sitting in on my interview with the trust and safety team, Airbnb’s head of communications, Kim Rubey — who arrived at the company in November 2011 — noted, “we all started in the wake of EJ.”

Since then, Airbnb set up a $1 million “Host Guarantee” program, where it agrees to cover damage resulting from a booking.

That gets abused occasionally — Steel noted that she has become familiar with Google Image Search returns for pictures of trashed houses. But she said that in 2012 only 400 out of three million Airbnb stays became Host Guarantee cases.

A human touch isn’t a cure-all, but it’s often better than a machine can do. In one recent case, fraud detection picked up the same guest staying with the same host for just one night a whole bunch of times. An agent investigation revealed that it was a simple case of a person with a recurring business trip who had found a place he really liked.

In general, Airbnb’s enforcers try to use a light touch. “In a dispute, both people are members of our community,” said Steel. In another case, a host was distraught after her guest drank a special commemorative Obama beer out of her fridge. While the damage was done, Airbnb tried to assuage the situation by buying her a membership to a beer-of-the-month club.

Sometimes a human approach brings false positives, too. Cardenas, the former army intelligence officer, was traveling with his eight-month-old son on a recent trip, and stayed at a place on Airbnb. When he made the reservation, though, the host started asking highly personal questions about the baby’s habits and preferences. Cardenas’s hackles were raised and he wondered if this was a safe situation.

But, as it turned out, the host had a young kid, too, and just wanted to be helpful and leave out baby equipment for Cardenas to use. So that case was solved before it was even opened.

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