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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Airbnb removed them for having criminal records. Now, they’re speaking out against a policy they see as "antihuman."

When Bernard Charles created an account on Airbnb to book a stay for family members coming to town for his upcoming wedding, it did not cross his mind that two 7-year-old non-traffic summary offense convictions would get him banned from using the popular vacation rental service.

Less than an hour after joining the app and trying to use it to book a stay, Charles, a creative project manager in Pittsburgh, received an email from Airbnb stating his account was under review. Soon, he was unable to access his account.

Charles told CBS News that the 2016 convictions stemmed from defending himself during a family fight, and that he had pleaded guilty only because he was unable to attend the court hearing at the time.

Airbnb learned of Charles’ convictions because it uses a company called Inflection Risk Solutions to run a background check on guests in the U.S. and India after they have submitted “at least an accurate first name, last name and date of birth.” The company discloses on its website that it shares this information with authorized third-party service providers for processes like background checks.

Inflection Risk Solutions takes users’ information to generate a consumer report that includes any criminal charges tied to the person’s name, birth date and phone number. Charles said he believes such general background checks are unfair, failing to take into account mitigating factors.

Charles’ experience isn’t unique. Other users hoping to book vacation rentals through the California-based company, founded in 2008, say they have also had their accounts suspended or placed under review due to their criminal records. Now, many are speaking out and asking the company to reconsider how they handle the appeals process.

“There’s no personalization, and they never really take the time to understand your criminal history,” Charles said of the consumer report generated by Inflection Risk Solutions. “Society wants to shame you for having a background, and sometimes it was just you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Airbnb told CBS News that they have two types of appeals. If users believe there is incorrect information in their report, they appeal directly to Inflection, which then would inform Airbnb. If the Inflection report is correct, the second type of appeal would be by directly responding to Airbnb’s email for the company to then consider the appeal based on the context of the crime, and if rehabilitation has taken place.

“It was embarrassing”

Shortly after searching online for information that might explain why he had been flagged, Charles came across a tweet posted by Pittsburgh Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, who had been a long-time Airbnb user before also receiving a ban for a previous criminal conviction.

“It was embarrassing, and it just made me feel that all the work I had done over the past seven years was meaningless, at least to them,” Hallam told CBS News.

Following the viral tweet, Airbnb rescinded the ban on Hallam.

Hallam says her conviction was for drug possession and shared that she struggled with a 10-year battle with substance use after becoming addicted to painkillers. Hallam said she believes her status as an elected official motivated the company to reinstate her account.

Like Hallam, Charles also contacted Airbnb to request the company restore his account. But Airbnb declined, directing him instead to contact Inflection Risk Solutions if he thought the consumer reporting company’s information about his criminal record was inaccurate.

Attorney Mark Mailman, co-founder of consumer protection law firm Francis Mailman Soumilas P.C., has previously sued Inflection Risk Solutions over what a client alleged was an inaccurate background check.

Mailman explained that companies that conduct consumer background checks must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which requires accurate reporting of a user’s information. The 1970 law also gives consumers the right to know what information is contained in a background check report.

Mailman told CBS News the FCRA gives consumers the right to see what’s in their report and requires companies to notify them when information inside it is being used against them, which is why Airbnb sends out an email to notify users when they are banned because of a criminal background check.

Checkr, which acquired Inflection in 2022, said in a statement to CBS News that it is “committed to the highest standards of accuracy and fairness.”

“As a consumer reporting agency regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), we only report criminal records that have been filed in a court of law. We take any disputed inaccuracies seriously and promptly investigate and remediate these when appropriate.”

Banned by association?

Matt, who lives in New Mexico and requested to be identified by his first name only out of concern that speaking about his experience could affect his job, told CBS News that Airbnb banned his wife from using its services simply for, in Matt’s view, being associated with him.

“My wife wasn’t there with me using [drugs], wasn’t doing any of that,” Matt said. “I met her when I was in recovery, and now she can’t use a company because she’s associated with me.”

Airbnb told CBS News that it’s a “necessary safety precaution,” and that it restricts the accounts of people who are likely to travel with a person who has been banned.

“We want to prevent people who have been removed from Airbnb from using the platform both as a guest and as a host via someone else’s Airbnb account,” the company told CBS News.

Matt says he has struggled with substance abuse in the past and has several misdemeanor convictions for public intoxication and a felony conviction for possession of a controlled substance. He says he has been in recovery for nine years and now, as a clinical psychologist, researches ways to help individuals with substance use disorders.

Matt’s experience with Airbnb is not unique either. In 2018, an Airbnb user named Michael Haynes detailed his attempt to dispute his own ban in an online essay.

Haynes said Inflection Risk Solutions’ consumer report showed three charges brought against him, but the final court finding was only a misdemeanor traffic offense. Haynes attempted to amend the report to help his case for overturning Airbnb’s ban. But he said Inflection Risk Solutions refused to accept any changes without Haynes submitting his Social Security number in order for them “to eliminate any other person with the same name and birth date.”

CBS News has reached out to Haynes for comment on his experience.

Airbnb has not shied away from enforcing policies that it believes are necessary for safety precautions. In 2019, the company started reviewing U.S. and Canadian reservations to weed out suspicious rentals, such as guests who booked a one-night stay close to their home.

In an effort to reduce large gatherings and damage to a host’s property, the company also limited its rental home occupancy to 16 people.

CBS News has reached out to several Airbnb hosts for comment on the company’s background check policy.

Veronica Horowitz, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo whose research focuses on criminal punishment, says she had her own brush with Airbnb in 2022 because of two drug felony convictions, for which she served 13 months in prison. She maintains that if Airbnb had followed its own policy regarding eligibility for reinstatement, her account would have been reinstated at the time.

Initially, Horowitz thought the ban was placed on her account because Inflection’s first report dated one of her convictions inaccurately. But, even after she appealed Inflection’s corrected report, which cited nearly 20-year-old drug felony convictions, her account was not reinstated.

“It makes me angry is how it makes me feel. And Airbnb is just one example of a company that discriminates against people with criminal records,” Horowitz said. “There are many of them.”

Like Hallam and others, Horowitz said she does not plan to use the vacation rental service unless it changes its policy to be “less exclusionary.”

When contacted by CBS News, Airbnb reviewed the cases of Matt and his wife, Charles, and Horowitz, and reinstated their accounts on the platform.

Airbnb said in a statement to CBS News that background checks are “not perfect.”

“As part of our efforts to protect our community, Airbnb runs criminal background checks for Hosts and guests in the U.S. That said, background checks are not perfect. We have worked with criminal justice experts, academics and advocates as we have continued to evolve our policies and processes. Additionally, we offer an appeals process so that we can make case-by-case determinations,” Airbnb said.

Horowitz said she doesn’t plan to return to the app despite her reinstatement unless Airbnb starts “implementing the ‘nuanced, personalized approach’ that they claim on their website.”

Charles said the company fell short of offering an experience for his wedding — a time that meant the most to him.

“They robbed me of that gift because they outsourced their responsibilities,” Charles said. “Airbnb is antihuman.”

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