Friday, July 12, 2024
Custom Text

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations

Home » How Airbnb fails to protect guests from hidden cameras

How Airbnb fails to protect guests from hidden cameras

by

CNN
 — 

It was another lawsuit brought by another victim whose fun-filled vacation turned into a voyeuristic nightmare: A woman was secretly recorded undressing at a rental property, her images stored on the computer of an alleged sexual predator accused of spying on unsuspecting renters for years.

Airbnb, one of the world’s largest short-term rental companies, had seen this sort of scenario before. Typically, the company seeks to settle hidden camera cases quickly and confidentially.

But this one played out differently.

An Airbnb representative testifying at a court-ordered deposition early last year offered a rare glimpse of the company’s hidden camera problem: Airbnb has generated tens of thousands of customer support tickets related to surveillance devices in the last decade.

During the hours-long deposition, the Airbnb employee also revealed that when a guest complains of a hidden camera, the company doesn’t – as a matter of practice – notify law enforcement, not even when a child is involved. The company may, however, reach out to hosts about complaints as part of internal inquiries – a move law enforcement experts say could hinder criminal investigations because it gives suspects time to destroy evidence.

A CNN investigation found that Airbnb consistently fails to protect its guests despite knowing hidden cameras are a persistent concern within its industry. Airbnb’s corporate strategies, moreover, have been aimed at preventing regulation of the short-term rental market to allow the company to distance itself from responsibility for guest safety and privacy.

Thousands of images have been recovered from short-term rental hosts by law enforcement. Hidden cameras placed in bedrooms and bathrooms show guests during their most private moments – changing clothes, being with their children, even having sex, according to CNN’s review of court and police records, as well as interviews with nearly two dozen guests who found surveillance devices at short-term rental properties or were told by police they had been secretly recorded.

Victims say they live under a shadow of fear that those private moments will become internet fodder.

“This is not my Social Security number or my email address. This is my naked body,” said one woman whose host secretly recorded her having sex with her husband at a cottage in Texas.

Airbnb declined CNN’s request for an interview. However, in a written statement, a spokesperson said that hidden camera complaints are rare, but when they do occur “we take appropriate, swift action, which can include removing hosts and listings that violate the policy.”

The spokesperson added that “Airbnb’s trust and safety policies lead the vacation rental industry and include background checks on US-based hosts and guests.”

CNN found that some of the policies touted by Airbnb come with significant disclaimers.

The company’s website, for example, tells users they should not rely on its background checks to identify “all past criminal convictions or sex offender registrations … or other red flags.”

And even if Airbnb discovers a user has a criminal background, convictions of “murder, terrorism, rape or child molestation” are not automatic disqualifiers under the company’s policy.

Brian Chesky was unemployed when he and his roommate came up with the idea for Airbnb in 2007 while struggling to make rent in San Francisco. For $80 a night, they opened their home to three travelers, offering them air mattresses, breakfast and Wi-Fi. They called their start-up Air Bed and Breakfast. Thirteen years later, the company went public in the largest IPO of 2020, with a valuation of $47 billion.

Today, Airbnb – which is valued higher than Hyatt Hotels Corporation and Marriott International combined – continues to chase the benefits of being an international hotel chain while shouldering few of the costs or responsibilities.

01:04

– Source:
CNN

Unlike hotels, Airbnb doesn’t control the properties it advertises or employ on-site staff such as security guards, receptionists or cleaning professionals. Instead, it leaves the costs of maintaining and protecting short-term rentals to hosts.

And, while hotels can be held legally responsible for guests harmed on their property, Airbnb frequently is not. In fact, Airbnb has fought against such liability in court, arguing it has little control over what happens at its listings – despite collecting roughly 17% of each booking.

The multi-billion-dollar short-term rental industry paints a rosy picture with advertisements highlighting how home sharing improves human connection and offers intimate, private spaces for busy travelers.

Still, violent crime and prostitution, as well as traveler deaths, have repeatedly forced Airbnb and its competitors into the international spotlight.

have a story to share?

One security concern, which has gone largely unchecked by Airbnb and the rest of the short-term rental market, is hidden cameras. Airbnb has known about the problem for at least a decade and has repeatedly notified its shareholders of the issue in annual reports since the company went public.

“We were aware of it, there were an abundance of cases coming in,” said one former Airbnb employee who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement with the company. The employee, whose team dealt with safety and privacy issues, said hidden cameras were among the group’s top concerns.

Despite those concerns, the company for years allowed video surveillance by hosts in common areas, if the cameras were disclosed to guests.

Chloe LeBrument, who traveled to London, Ontario, last summer with her fiancé for a music festival, found a camera hidden in a charger in the bedroom at an Airbnb rental.

“I’m sure there’s many, many people that have left the room having no idea that … they had been recorded,” said LeBrument, whose host has been criminally charged with voyeurism. LeBrument described feeling angry and disappointed by the experience.

“It felt really gross,” she said.

In January, CNN began reaching out to former Airbnb employees to ask about hidden camera concerns within the industry. In early March, Saturday Night Live mocked how ubiquitous the issue is in a skit. Just over a week later, the company announced it would ban all indoor cameras as of April 30. The company said nothing about how it would force hosts to comply with the rules.

“You can have all these great rules, but if no one’s checking that the rules are being followed … it’s still kind of the Wild West,” said attorney Bianca Zuniga-Goldwater, who represents several hidden camera victims in suits against Airbnb and Vrbo.

CNN reviewed more than a dozen police investigations and lawsuits across the US involving at least 75 victims and found Airbnb often moves swiftly to contain user complaints and resolve them out of court.

One attorney told CNN that Airbnb settled during a phone call after she gave them a heads up that she was going to file a lawsuit on behalf of a guest who said they found a camera hidden in their room at an Airbnb rental.

Airbnb seeks to compel complainants into arbitration, a process that hides cases from public view, according to six attorneys who represented clients in cases against the short-term rental platform. When a settlement is reached, Airbnb has required users to sign confidentiality agreements, which bar them from discussing details of the deal.

Airbnb told CNN its use of arbitration and non-disclosure agreements are standard practices within the industry.

One man, who was recorded having sex with his wife at an Airbnb rental and received a financial settlement from the company, said he felt “dirty” signing a confidentiality agreement. “We were gagged,” he said.

01:29

– Source:
CNN

Last year’s court-ordered deposition, which was part of an ongoing case against Airbnb and has not previously been reported, should have detailed the scope of the company’s hidden camera problem.

The company, through its representative, was supposed to comply with a court order to quantify how many complaints or reports had been made to Airbnb by people who had been recorded by surveillance devices since December 1, 2013.

The Airbnb representative came to the table with a number. Her testimony revealed the company generated 35,000 customer support tickets about surveillance devices in the preceding decade.

In the deposition, the Airbnb representative sought to downplay the significance of the number of tickets, testifying they could reflect instances such as a malfunctioning doorbell camera or a tablet with recording capabilities left out on a coffee table. The representative did not provide any statistics detailing the number of claims she suggested were innocuous among the 35,000 tickets.

The Airbnb spokesperson told CNN that a single report could create multiple tickets. The company declined to specify how many unique complaints there have been.

CNN reached out to more than 130 former employees who handled safety issues or fielded security concerns for Airbnb’s support line. Of the 24 who responded, nearly half said they couldn’t speak about their experience due to non-disclosure agreements with the company. The few who agreed to be interviewed said one of the most common concerns they heard came from guests who feared they were being surreptitiously recorded.

“I’ve never received a call about a doorbell,” one former employee said.

David Wyzynajtys and his girlfriend had never used Airbnb before booking a romantic weekend away in July 2021. When the couple spotted a remote property in Texas Hill Country with numerous positive reviews and a host who had earned Airbnb’s coveted “superhost” status, they booked it.

But after the pair arrived at the cottage in Comfort, Texas, and changed for the night, Wyzynajtys noticed something that terrified him: a hidden camera plugged into the wall and pointed directly at the bed.

“The scariest moment of my life,” Wyzynajtys recalled.

Wyzynajtys and his partner frantically left the property and drove nearly 10 miles down a dark, winding road to check into a hotel. Rattled, they reached out to Airbnb via a customer support chat feature asking that someone call them.

No one did.

Instead, the couple received an in-app chat message from Airbnb later that night.

According to court records, an Airbnb representative sought permission to report their complaint to the host, a man named A. Jay Allee. “Do you mind if we contact the host and get his side of the story?” Wyzynajtys recalled the Airbnb representative asking in the message.

The couple was fearful of Allee – they worried he could have been watching them through a livestream as they discovered the device and hurried to leave. Wanting to avoid a confrontation, Wyzynajtys denied Airbnb’s request.

Wyzynajtys said Airbnb was “totally just negligent or didn’t care about it at all.”

The next day, Wyzynajtys contacted law enforcement.

Police obtained a search warrant and raided Allee’s property, confiscating cell phones, computers, and the camera, which Allee had been using to record guests for much of a year. Among the more than 2,000 recovered images, law enforcement identified more than 30 victims, including several children. Many guests – who booked the same property either through Airbnb or Vrbo – were captured in various stages of undress. Some were recorded having sex.

Allee was later charged with 15 counts of invasive visual recording and pleaded guilty to six of them.

Thirteen people who stayed at Allee’s cottage – including two minors – sued Airbnb in California state court in July 2022. Airbnb settled with the plaintiffs six months later. A suit against Vrbo, filed by three couples who stayed at Allee’s property and were all recorded being intimate with their partners, is ongoing.

Allee held Airbnb’s superhost status. The rank, which is granted by the company’s algorithm, provides higher visibility and earning potential, according to Airbnb’s website. On Vrbo’s platform, he was similarly designated as a “premier host.”

One of Allee’s victims said that superhost status was one of the reasons he and his family had chosen the property for their weekend away.

“It kind of infers that a lot of people have good experiences there,” said the victim, who asked not to be named due to privacy concerns.

Some victims who spoke to CNN left positive reviews for stays – thus feeding the algorithm for a host’s elevated status – only to later learn from law enforcement they had been secretly recorded.

“Thank you for sharing your beautiful ranch with us,” one of Allee’s victims, who was recorded having sex with his partner, wrote in a Vrbo review after their stay in 2020. “We had an amazing time for our anniversary. We enjoyed feeding the animals and sitting by the fire at night just enjoying the silence. We will stay here again!”

A Vrbo spokesperson noted the company prohibits any cameras that capture the inside of a property and that “trust and safety are part of Vrbo’s legacy.” Vrbo didn’t respond to questions about Allee or its policies.

Lt. Butch Matjeka of the Kendall County Sheriff’s Office notified Airbnb of his investigation into Allee in October 2021, police records show. Almost two months later – and five months after Wyzynajtys found the camera – Allee’s listing remained active on Airbnb’s site, according to a lawsuit against the company.

“From a law enforcement perspective, if I tell you that I’m investigating then you should stop hosting that individual on your site until the outcome of my investigation,” Matjeka said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in the European Union agreed to groundbreaking regulations governing the short-term rental industry. The new rules will require host registration, data sharing by the company and quality control of listings. Airbnb hailed the regulations as a “watershed moment” for the industry and praised the EU-wide approach.

Its public praise belies the fact that Airbnb has fought European cities for attempting to regulate the industry, said Kim van Sparrentak, a member of the European Parliament, who steered the legislation through the governing body.

“Airbnb is similar to other sharing economy companies – on a municipal level that means filing lawsuits as soon as any regulation is proposed,” she said, referring to the company’s strategy of fighting regulations in court.

There are no similar federal regulations in the United States.

Instead, local municipalities have been left to govern the fast-growing industry. In the cities that have been successful in introducing regulations – such as requiring hosts to register with local authorities – it has, at times, been difficult to get Airbnb to comply. Some of those regulations could assist with criminal investigations.

When the city of New York enacted a law last year that requires hosts to register with the city and prohibits platforms from processing transactions for hosts that fail to comply, Airbnb responded by filing a lawsuit calling the measures “extreme and oppressive” and said the restrictions would cause the company “irreparable harm.”

00:55

– Source:
CNN

“It’s bad for business for them to follow regulations,” said Murray Cox, who runs the nonprofit watchdog organization Inside Airbnb. Complying with rules, he said, often means excluding business from Airbnb’s platform, which cuts into the company’s bottom line. “It’s about corporate greed.”

Airbnb’s legal weapon of choice in its fight against regulations – and in at least one case against a guest who claimed she was injured while staying at an Airbnb rental – stems from a decades-old law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The law, often propped up as a defense by tech giants such as Facebook and X, states the platforms cannot be held responsible for user-posted content.

But for Airbnb, the argument has not always been successful. The judge presiding over the New York case, for example, pointed out that this legal protection didn’t apply to Airbnb because the company makes money on booking transactions.

“They say that if you’re going to participate in the transaction, then (Section 230) is off the table,” said Cox.

To Shannon Schott, a Florida-based attorney who settled with Airbnb after her client said he found a hidden camera at his rental, Airbnb’s use of Section 230 should be concerning to users who value their privacy and safety.

“They’re not arguing: This didn’t happen, your client isn’t injured. They’re arguing: We aren’t responsible,” Schott said.

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who has introduced legislation that aims to curb big technology companies’ use of Section 230, argued that the platform would be safer if Airbnb were forced to take responsibility for what happens at its listings.

Right now, Section 230 is used as a “get out of jail free card,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

Less than 20 miles from Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters, a 2019 Halloween party turned deadly at a rental property in California’s wealthy Orinda community. People fled as shots rang out, and when the dust had settled, five people were dead. The crime remains unsolved.

The carnage prompted Airbnb to re-examine parts of its business model, cracking down on party homes and vowing to verify all listings and user identities.

“Every home and every host on Airbnb will be reviewed with the objective of 100% verification” by the end of 2020, Chesky, the company’s CEO, promised after the shooting.

00:30

– Source:
CNN

In March, Airbnb disclosed only about 20% of its property listings worldwide had been verified. However, the company has boasted that every host, co-host and booking guest is identity-verified. That accomplishment comes with a big disclaimer: Its identity verification badge “does not guarantee that someone is who they claim to be,” the company’s website states.

Nor does Airbnb’s identify verification process necessarily uncover a user’s criminal history. Earlier this year, Airbnb guests in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia, were shocked to learn their host, with whom they shared their rental home, was a registered sex offender. According to a local news report that reviewed the listing at the time, Airbnb had verified the identity of the host. However, the identification process didn’t appear to surface the 11 charges of sexual assault on a mentally disabled person – for which the host spent more than four years in prison. Airbnb told the news outlet it suspended the host’s account after it learned of the criminal conviction.

Background checks appear to go beyond identity verification and involve searching public databases for users’ information. The checks, which Airbnb says are conducted by a third party, could notify the company of users’ criminal histories. However, the company makes no guarantees to perform them on every user worldwide. On its website, Airbnb says it may run a background check if it has at least a first name, last name and date of birth for US-based users who create listings.

Still, the company warns travelers they shouldn’t rely on its background checks to uncover all convictions, sex offender registrations or other red flags for its users.

‘Digital content is forever’

Allee was released from jail in February following a one-year sentence. His attorney didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Police identified more than 30 suspected victims who stayed at Allee’s cottage but could only file charges in connection with 15.

To some of those victims, his brief stint behind bars didn’t suit the crime.

“Less than a month for every victim,” said Wyzynajtys, the guest who found Allee’s hidden camera.

However, Allee’s lenient sentence was not unusual. In most states, and on the federal level, video voyeurism is a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year behind bars.

In 2022, Airbnb superhost Peter Madden pleaded guilty to seven counts of violation of privacy in connection with recording five guests at his property in Maine, according to the Cumberland County District Attorney.

During an interview with police, Madden initially denied ownership of the camera, which was concealed in a clock radio and pointed at his guests’ bed. Then, he said he put it there for security reasons. Ultimately, Madden, whose attorney didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment, admitted he’d been recording guests engaged in sexual activity.

“There’s stuff of a couple of couples playing around or getting changed,” he conceded when pressed by an officer about what images the camera captured.

“Are you a voyeur?” the officer asked, according to a recording obtained by CNN. In response, Madden laughed.

“I’m an artist,” he said. “I look at everything, I study everything.”

Madden served 14 days behind bars.

Victims, on the other hand, suffer lengthier consequences.

All of Allee’s victims who spoke with CNN, seven in total, said they suffered long-term trauma due to Allee’s actions. They also detailed the crippling fear that their images – or those of their kids – will one day end up online, if they haven’t already.

“What is made into digital content is forever,” said the woman who was secretly recorded having sex with her husband at Allee’s cottage.

An intensive care nurse who visited Allee’s property at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to suffer from “social distress around the personal nature of the recordings and the possibility that they will become public,” according to the lawsuit she filed against Vrbo. Several images on Allee’s computer showed the nurse undressed and being intimate with her husband. Others captured her infant son, police records show. Vrbo didn’t respond to CNN’s inquiries about the case.

One couple – who stayed there to celebrate an anniversary – said they felt “shocked and appalled” by the experience and worried that strangers had seen images of their private moments. One woman said she now takes medication to treat feelings of paranoia.

“It’s violating,” she told CNN. “Who knows where that footage went and who saw that?”

Credits

Senior Investigative Correspondent: Kyung LahExecutive Producer: Patricia DiCarloManaging Editor: Matt LaitDeputy Managing Editor: Samira JafariVideo Producer: John GeneralSupervising Producer: Logan WhitesidePhoto Editor: Austin SteeleContributor: Yahya Abou-Ghazala

  Read More

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Our Company

Welcome to Gotcha News Daily, your premier destination for insightful commentary and analysis on a wide array of topics including politics, news, business, technology, and culture. Established in our digital form

Newsletter

Subscribe my Newsletter for new blog posts, tips & new photos. Let's stay updated!

Laest News

@2024 – All Right Reserved. Designed and Developed by Gotcha Media Group llc