When Bernard Charles created an account on Airbnb to book a stay for relatives coming into town for his upcoming wedding, it didn’t occur to him that two seven-year-old convictions for a non-traffic offense would get him banned from driving. use the popular holiday 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 saying his account was under review. Soon he could no longer access his account.
Charles told CBS News that the 2016 convictions stemmed from defending himself during a family dispute, and that he only pleaded guilty because he was unable to attend court at the time.
Airbnb learned of Charles’ convictions because it used a company called Inflection Risk Solutions to conduct background checks on guests in the US and India after they provided “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 such as background checks.
Inflection Risk Solutions uses users’ information to generate a consumer report detailing any criminal charges associated with the person’s name, date of birth, and phone number. Charles said he believes such blanket background checks are unfair because they don’t take into account mitigating factors.
Charles’ experience is not unique. Other users seeking to book vacation rentals through the California-based company, founded in 2008, say their accounts have also been suspended or placed under surveillance because of 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 Inflection Risk Solutions’ consumer report. “Society wants to shame you for coming from a background, and sometimes it was just being 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 should contact Inflection directly, who will then notify Airbnb. If the Inflection report is correct, the second type of appeal would consist of responding directly to Airbnb’s email so that the company can then consider the appeal based on the context of the crime and whether there is rehabilitation occurred.
“It was embarrassing”
Shortly after searching online for information that might explain why he was flagged, Charles came across a tweet posted by Pittsburgh Councilmember Bethany Hallam, who was a longtime Airbnb user before also being banned due to a previous criminal conviction.
“It was embarrassing and it made me feel like all the work I had done over the past seven years was pointless, at least to them,” Hallam told CBS News.
Following the viral tweet, Airbnb lifted its ban on Hallam.
Hallam said her conviction was for drug possession and said she struggled with a decade-long battle with substance abuse 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 reinstate his account. But Airbnb refused and instructed him to contact Inflection Risk Solutions if he believed the consumer reporting company’s information about his criminal record was incorrect.
Attorney Mark Mailman, co-founder of consumer protection law firm Francis Mailman Soumilas PC, 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 included in a background check.
Mailman told CBS News that the FCRA gives consumers the right to see what’s in their report and that companies must notify them when the information in it is used against them. That’s why Airbnb sends an email to notify users when they’ve been banned due to 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 governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), we only report criminal records filed with a court. We take all disputed inaccuracies seriously and promptly investigate and correct them if necessary.”
Banned by association?
Matt, who lives in New Mexico and asked to be identified only by his first name because he was concerned that speaking about his experiences could affect his job, told CBS News that Airbnb banned his wife from using its services simply because, according to Matt, he was connected to him.
‘My wife wasn’t there when I was using [drugs]”I met her when I was recovering, and now she can’t use a company because she’s connected to me.”
Airbnb told CBS News that it is a “necessary safety measure” and that it is restricting the accounts of people likely to travel with a banned person.
“We want to prevent people who have been removed from Airbnb from using the platform as both a guest and a host through someone else’s Airbnb account,” the company told CBS News.
Matt says he has struggled with substance abuse in the past and has several convictions for public intoxication and a misdemeanor charge of possession of a controlled substance. He says he has been in recovery for nine years and is now a clinical psychologist researching ways to help people with substance abuse.
Matt’s experience with Airbnb is not unique either. In 2018, an Airbnb user named Michael Haynes described his attempt to challenge his own ban in an online essay.
Haynes said the Inflection Risk Solutions consumer report showed three charges against him, but the court’s final ruling was just a traffic violation. Haynes attempted to change the report to support his case for overturning the ban on Airbnb. But he said Inflection Risk Solutions refused to accept changes without Haynes providing his Social Security number so they could “eliminate any other person with the same name and date of birth.”
CBS News has reached out to Haynes for comment on his experiences.
Airbnb has not shied away from enforcing policies it believes are necessary for safety measures. In 2019, the company began reviewing US and Canadian reservationssuch as guests who have booked a one-night stay close to home.
In an effort to reduce large gatherings and damage to host property, the company also limited occupancy of the rental properties to 16 people.
CBS News has reached out to several Airbnb hosts for comment on the company’s background check.
Veronica Horowitz, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo whose research focuses on criminal punishment, says she became involved with Airbnb in 2022 because of two drug felony convictions for which she served 13 months in prison. She claims that if Airbnb had followed its own policies regarding reinstatement eligibility, her account would have been reactivated at the time.
Initially, Horowitz believed the ban was placed on her name because Inflection’s initial report inaccurately dated one of her convictions. But even after she appealed Inflection’s corrected report, which cited nearly two decades-old convictions for drug offenses, her story was not reinstated.
“It makes me angry, that’s how I feel. And Airbnb is just one example of a company that discriminates against people with criminal records,” Horowitz said. “There are many.”
Like Hallam and others, Horowitz said she doesn’t plan to use the vacation rental service unless the policy is changed 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 conducts criminal background checks for hosts and guests in the US. That said, background checks are not perfect. We have worked with criminal justice experts, academics and attorneys as we refine our policies and processes. In addition, we offer an appeals process so we can make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” Airbnb said.
Horowitz said she has no plans to return to the app despite her recovery unless Airbnb “implements the ‘nuanced, personalized approach’ they claim on their website.”
Charles said the company failed to deliver 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 anti-human.”