Airbnb can ban you for having a criminal record. This Pennsylvania councilwoman found out the hard way
Bethany Hallam had her account reinstated, but her case wasn’t the first time Airbnb’s background checks have come under scrutiny, and it likely won’t be the last.
Bethany Hallam, a self-described “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 group.
That’s why the councilwoman at-large in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, was stunned when, after booking a stay for a birthday trip to Miami for a Steelers game with her boyfriend and best friend on Sept. 12, she received an email from Airbnb ABNB, -3.72% informing her that she’d been banned from hosting or booking reservations on the platform. Her reservation was canceled.
As both a person in recovery from a substance-use disorder and an advocate for criminal-justice reform Hallam has been open about her past criminal record involving misdemeanor and summary convictions but it came up during a recent background check, Airbnb told her. She tweeted about her experience Monday evening, which went viral. Airbnb reversed the decision Tuesday.
“100 million people in this country have criminal charges on their records,” Hallam told MarketWatch. “Every person that I did hear from was in the same situation as me, where they were years-old convictions and they have paid their debt to society — either they were incarcerated, or they paid a fine, or they did probation or community service — all of the debts to society were paid. And yet Airbnb still banned them.”
A spokesperson for Airbnb said Hallam’s ban was never intended to be for a lifetime. The email she received from Airbnb, which she shared with MarketWatch, is ambiguous and does not say how long she would be unable to use the platform, just that she couldn’t book or host — nor does it explain what specific conviction or convictions might have led to the ban.
“For the safety of our community, Airbnb runs background checks in the U.S. and may take action to remove people with certain convictions, or who have multiple prior convictions,” Ben Breit, a spokesperson for the company, said in a statement to MarketWatch. “We understand that there may be a number of reasons why someone may have a criminal conviction on their record, so we developed an evidence-based appeals process that takes into account the type of crime and evidence of rehabilitation when considering reinstatement.”
“We’ve now reinstated Councilperson Hallam’s account based on this process,” Breit said. “We appreciate her patience, and we hope to support her during her future travels.”
Still, Hallam wasn’t quite satisfied, she told MarketWatch. Airbnb has been screening and banning customers for years. She wanted to know why her record, which includes convictions for drug possession and driving under the influence, became an issue now, when she had 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 have not had a conviction since I started using Airbnb,” Hallam said. “The entire time I’ve been on their platform, I’ve had the same criminal record. Nothing has changed.”
She wanted to know what the company’s policy was and to be assured “that other people who were similarly banned for unjust reasons will be reinstated.”
Airbnb says that it checks terrorist designations and “certain databases” of criminal records and sex offender registries for U.S.-based customers, as well as international versions of background or registered sex offender checks for people living outside the U.S., depending on availability and what’s permitted by applicable laws.
The company on its website says that people aren’t banned for “lesser” offenses, such as marijuana possession or disorderly conduct, but might receive a lifetime ban for murder, terrorism, rape, or child molestation. Other crimes can result in a removal, a period of ineligibility, or review depending on when they occurred, like a felony burglary or case of property damage, the website says.
On its website, Airbnb says that it submits basic information about users who live in the U.S. to “our approved background check providers.” In Hallam’s case, information about her record 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.
It’s not hard to find anecdotes – like this one from 2018 – from people who say they were unfairly barred from using Airbnb due to Inflection’s API misrepresenting their previous convictions. Last year, one man who was permanently banned from Airbnb over one such background check ended up filing a class-action suit against Inflection for incorrectly classifying a years-old misdemeanor charge as a violent felony. Inflection settled those charges this past 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 materials, Inflection says that the API it provides to customers can pull up a history of a person’s previous offenses using nothing more than a person’s name, and the state that they’re living in. The materials don’t describe where this information comes from beyond noting that the company has access to “thousands of trusted government sources.”
From those sources, Inflection’s “Trust and Safety” API — which was named in the class-action case as being the source of these bans — will classify a person’s offense into one of 10 categories such as “property,” “financial,” or “traffic,” according to Inflection’s own documentation.
According to this same documentation, Inflection offers customers like Airbnb access to the date when a person’s “offense” was committed, and details about how severe the offense was, or the degree of a particular crime. Inflection notes that this information “[is] not consistent across jurisdictions or sources,” nor is it standardized in any particular way.
Inflection’s documents also explain that the company will “algorithmically determine” the so-called “offense level” of a particular offense alongside the aforementioned details. “FELONY,” is for felony offenses, “MISDEMEANOR,” is for misdemeanors, “INFRACTION,” is for minor infractions and traffic violations, and “UNKNOWN” is how Inflection lumps together offenses that it “cannot determine,” or whose levels it “[does] not understand.”
The aforementioned class-action attempt specifically calls out this “offense level” algorithm, which listed a past conviction as a “felony,” when in fact it had been reclassified as a misdemeanor by local courts. Since that settlement, Inflection scrapped the “violent” label for a person’s offenses, as well.
This past April, Inflection was acquired by a competing background-check behemoth, Checkr Inc., which offers background checks for gig workers at companies including Uber Technologies Inc. UBER, -5.47% and Instacart, for an estimated $400 million. Checkr has raised nearly $600 million in venture capital from big-name investors including Accel Parnets, Y Combinator and Khosla Ventures, according to FactSet, which reports that the company was valued at $4.6 billion late last year, before acquiring Inflection.
Checkr’s portfolio of background check companies has been subject to its own scrutiny; one of these companies, RapidCourt — which was recently dissolved into a new Checkr subsidiary called Tessera Data — had been subject to multiple class-action lawsuits over allegations that its criminal reports included outdated or outright incorrect details about people’s past convictions. Checkr itself has battled about 80 class-action suits as of this writing, most dealing with its own record of providing prospective employers outdated information about prospective employees.
Checkr did not respond immediately to emails seeking comment.
Almost one-third of America’s working-age population has a criminal record, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the FBI had 77.7 million people on file in its master criminal database. Nearly half of Black men and almost 40% of white men are arrested by the time they turn 23, the Brennan Center says.
The barriers those records pose are numerous: people with past criminal histories might struggle to get a job, housing, or loan. Hallam said that when she was a renter, she had difficulty getting a place to stay without a cosigner. And as background checks become more routine, so do the potential obstacles for those involved or once involved in America’s criminal justice system, which disproportionately punishes Black people.
Because of that lopsided treatment, some lawmakers have pushed to automatically seal or expunge certain criminal records, or ban landlords from disqualifying people solely based on their criminal history.
Hallam, who said she has “a lot of privilege” as a white woman who grew up with a great support system, said she realizes “that I have certain advantages in life that lots of other folks in this country, and also in my community, don’t have,” even though she has still faced myriad challenges.
“I have seen how people treat folks who have been in the criminal legal system, and it breaks my heart every day,” she said.