By Shoshana Wodinsky and Emma Ockerman
Bethany Hallam has had her account reinstated, but her case wasn’t the first time Airbnb background checks have come under scrutiny, and it likely won’t be the last.
Bethany Hallam, a self-proclaimed “big Pittsburgh sports fan,” has used Airbnb Inc. for years because it’s often a cheaper alternative to traditional hotels when traveling to Steelers and Pirates games with a band.
That’s why the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, General Counsel was stunned when, after booking a staycation for a birthday trip to Miami for a Steelers game with her boyfriend and best friend on September 12, she received an email from Airbnb (ABNB) informing her that she had been banned from hosting or booking reservations on the platform. His reservation was cancelled.
As someone recovering from a substance use disorder and as an advocate for criminal justice reform, Hallam has been open about her past criminal record involving misdemeanors and summary convictions, but it came to light during from a recent background check, Airbnb told him. She tweeted her experience on Monday night, which went viral. Airbnb reversed its decision on Tuesday.
“100 million people in this country have criminal charges on their record,” Hallam told MarketWatch. “Everyone I heard of was in the same situation as me, where they had been convicted for years and paid their debt to society – either they were incarcerated, or they were fined, or they done probation or community service. — all debts to the company have been paid. And yet Airbnb has still banned them.”
An Airbnb spokesperson said Hallam’s ban was not meant to last a lifetime. The email she received from Airbnb, which she shared with MarketWatch, is ambiguous and doesn’t say how long she couldn’t use the platform, just that she couldn’t book or host – nor does it explain which specific beliefs or beliefs might have led to the ban.
“For the safety of our community, Airbnb conducts background checks in the United States and may take steps to remove individuals with certain convictions or who have multiple prior convictions,” said Ben Breit, a company spokesperson. , in a statement to MarketWatch. “We understand that there can be a number of reasons why someone may have a criminal conviction on their record, so we have developed an evidence-based appeal process that takes into account the type of crime and the evidence of rehabilitation when considering reinstatement.”
Read: Airbnb hosts booked white nationalists, while some guests found spycams – management says it improves security
“We have now reinstated Councilman Hallam’s account based on this process,” Breit said. “We appreciate her patience and hope to support her on her future travels.”
Still, Hallam wasn’t quite happy, she told MarketWatch. Airbnb has been screening and banning guests for years. She wanted to know why her record, which includes convictions for drug possession and driving under the influence, has become an issue now, having used the platform as recently as July. She also wanted to know how Airbnb’s use of background checks affects the many other Americans with criminal records who want to use the platform.
“I haven’t had a conviction since I started using Airbnb,” Hallam said. “The whole time I’ve been on their platform, I’ve had the same criminal record. Nothing has changed.”
She wanted to know what company policy was and to be assured “that others who have been similarly banned for unfair reasons will be reinstated.”
Airbnb says it checks terrorist designations and “certain databases” of criminal records and sex offender registries for U.S.-based guests, as well as international versions of backgrounds or registered sex offender checks for U.S.-based guests. people living outside of the United States, subject to availability and what is permitted. by applicable laws.
The company on its website says people are not banned for “lesser” offenses, such as possession of marijuana or disorderly conduct, but could receive a lifetime ban for murder, terrorism, rape or child molestation. Other crimes may result in dismissal, a period of ineligibility, or review depending on when they occurred, such as a burglary or a property damage case, the website says.
On its website, Airbnb says it submits basic information about users who live in the United States to “our approved background check providers.” In Hallam’s case, the information on her case came from a “consumer report generated using the Inflection SafeDecision API product offered by Inflection Risk Solutions, LLC,” according to the email she received from ‘Airbnb. That company did not immediately respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.
See also: Airbnb helped house 100,000 Ukrainian refugees
It’s not hard to find anecdotes — like this one from 2018 — of people saying they were unjustly banned from using Airbnb due to Inflection’s API misrepresenting their prior beliefs. Last year, a man who was permanently banned from Airbnb following such a background check ended up filing a class action lawsuit against Inflection for wrongly characterizing a years-old misdemeanor charge as a violent crime. Inflection settled those charges last summer.
An API, which stands for Application Programming Interface, is a piece of code that software developers can use to plug in information from an outside source. In its own docs, Inflection says the API it provides to customers can pull up a history of a person’s past offenses using nothing more than a person’s name and the state they live in. The documents don’t describe where this information comes from beyond that the company has access to “thousands of reliable government sources.”
From these sources, Inflection’s “Trust and Safety” API – which has been named in the class action case as the source of these bans – will classify a person’s violation into one of 10 categories such as “property,” “financial,” or “traffic,” according to Inflection’s own documentation.
According to that same documentation, Inflection offers customers like Airbnb access to the date a person’s “offence” was committed, and details about the seriousness of the offense or the degree of a particular crime. . Inflection notes that this information “[is] not uniform across jurisdictions or sources,” nor is it standardized in any particular way.
The Inflection documents also explain that the company will “algorithmically determine” the so-called “infringement level” of a particular infringement alongside the aforementioned details. “FELONY” is for felony offenses, “MISDMEANOR” is for misdemeanors, “INFRACTION” is for minor offenses and traffic violations, and “UNKNOWN” is how Inflection groups offenses it “cannot determine” or whose he”[does] do not understand.”
See also: What employers can — and can’t — ask for background checks
The aforementioned class-action attempt specifically calls this “offense level” algorithm, which listed a prior conviction as a “felony,” when in fact it had been reclassified as a misdemeanor by local courts. Since this settlement, Inflection has also removed the “violent” tag for a person’s offenses.
Last April, Inflection was acquired by competing background check giant Checkr Inc., which offers background checks for gig workers at companies including Uber Technologies Inc. (UBER) and Instacart, for a amount estimated at $400 million. Checkr has raised nearly $600 million in venture capital from high-profile investors including Accel Parnets, Y Combinator and Khosla Ventures, according to FactSet, which reports the company was valued at $4.6 billion at the end. of last year, before acquiring Inflection.
Checkr’s portfolio of background check companies has undergone its own review; one such company, RapidCourt – which recently spun off into a new Checkr subsidiary called Tessera Data – had been the subject of several class action lawsuits over allegations that its criminal reports contained outdated or outright incorrect details about people’s previous convictions. Checkr itself has fought about 80 class action lawsuits at the time of this writing, most dealing with its own record of providing potential employers with outdated information about potential employees.
Checkr did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
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Nearly a third of America’s working-age population has a criminal record, according to NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, and the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the FBI had 77.7 million people on file. main criminal database. Nearly half of black men and nearly 40% of white men are arrested by age 23, according to the Brennan Center.
The obstacles posed by these records are numerous: people with criminal histories may find it difficult to obtain a job, housing or a loan. Hallam said that when she was a tenant, she struggled to find accommodation without a co-signer. And as background checks become more routine, the potential hurdles for those involved or formerly involved in the US criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes black people, also increase.
Because of this lopsided treatment, some lawmakers have pushed to automatically seal or erase certain criminal records, or prohibit landlords from disqualifying people solely on the basis of their criminal history.
Hallam, who said she had “a lot of privilege” as a white woman who grew up with a great support system, said she realizes “I have certain advantages in life that a lot of people have. ‘other people in this country, and also in my community, have none’, even though she still faced myriad challenges.
“I’ve seen how people treat people who have been in the criminal justice system, and it breaks my heart every day,” she said.
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