Airbnb's Secret Safety Team Is Truly Something Out of a Spy Thriller

The company reportedly spends $50 million annually to maintain the idea that renting a house from strangers is a safe and normal thing to do

Airbnb's Secret Safety Team Is Truly Something Out of a Spy Thriller
Image:Carl Court (Getty Images)

In the Bourne film franchise, Julia Styles plays a high-level cleaner of sorts. Her character silently walks into a room where an outlandish fight has just taken place and, with just a few words, activates a team of people to erase any evidence from the scene, be it the smallest fiber on a surface, security footage, or even killing possible witnesses. While this is an extreme dramatization of CIA-esque activity (or is it?), the latest report from Bloomberg reveals that Airbnb has been taking a page from Jason Bourne for years, but without the whole memory-erasing government program.

Olivia Carville reports for Bloomberg on the shadow clean-up crew that is apparently called in to respond in the most extreme scenarios, like when a woman was raped in 2015 after a stranger accessed the New York Airbnb where she was staying by simply using his spare key and attacked her at knifepoint. Carville’s piece reveals that this event was handled by the company’s crisis manager at the time, Nick Shapiro—who had previously worked at, of all places, the CIA. “This brought me back to feelings of confronting truly horrific matters at Langley and in the situation room at the White House,” Shapiro told Bloomberg of his time working at Airbnb.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of this team or even this particular event, that’s by design. The rape, which occurred on New Year’s Eve, wasn’t widely reported by media outlets in New York. Shapiro and his team launched an investigation into how the attacker came into possession of duplicate keys for the apartment, the woman was moved to a hotel, the company brought her mother in from Australia, paid for her medical needs, and paid for the woman and her mother to travel back home. The monetary cherry on top of this shit cake came two years later, when “Airbnb wrote the woman a check for $7 million, one of the biggest payouts the company has ever made.” Part of the settlement was that the woman could not place blame for the attack on the company, though an Airbnb spokesperson denied it to Bloomberg.

The secret safety team is its own small private army of about 100 or so people, who “have the autonomy to spend whatever it takes to make a victim feel supported, including paying for flights, accommodation, food, counseling, health costs, and sexually transmitted disease testing for rape survivors.” One former team member referred to their approach as “shooting the money cannon” at problems and not worrying about protecting the actual brand, because “if you do the right thing” everything else sorts itself out.

But that idea appears to be contradictory to the reported policy of getting victims to sign payout agreements as quickly as possible, agreements that cost the company huge sums of money, but in the long term create a cone of silence that allows Airbnb to continue operating. What’s a few million when a single summer season can bring the company close to a billion in revenue?

Up until 2017, Bloomberg reports that Airbnb was using a standard NDA that barred victims from talking about what happened to them, suing the company, or asking for more money. They have reportedly since changed this portion of the agreement to merely bar a victim from discussing the terms of their specific settlement or “imply that it’s an admission of wrongdoing” on behalf of the company.

The safety team is also responsible for the physical clean-up of any crises, which can include anything from getting blood out of fabrics to covering up bulletholes in a wall. Think Sunshine Cleaning but without the sunshine. Former team members told Bloomberg that the hardest part of the job was “keeping cases quiet.” If they’d watched any of the Bourne movies they’d know silence is exactly what gets you caught up in a global spy scandal and on the hit list of a vengeful assassin. But then again, should anything go wrong, Airbnb can always just write another check.

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