Illustration by Michelle Urra ​of someone entering a home while being watched by a giant spy glass.
Illustration by Michelle Urra 

Banished for an Unleashed Dog: Airbnb Bans Bewilder Guests and Hosts

Airbnb customers say they are being permanently banned after background checks reveal minor offenses like broken tail lights and old misdemeanors.
This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

Ashley couldn’t believe what she was reading. After she’d booked an Airbnb for a forthcoming trip to Ohio to visit family, the company emailed her in September to tell her she was no longer eligible to use the platform as either a host or a guest. The decision, the company said, was due to a third-party evaluation that had detected a criminal record.

The email confused Ashley. “I was like, wait, I don't have a criminal background,” she said. But when she received and reviewed the evaluation, she realized what had caused the ban. In 2013, Ashley, who is Black, had been reprimanded by a police officer after her dog escaped her house. The local law was that dogs must be registered and leashed, and Ashley’s dog was neither, so she paid a fine. She had signed something quickly from the officer at the scene, and didn’t realize at the time that she had received two misdemeanors. “I thought it was a ticket,” she said. 

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Ashley had long since forgotten the incident as she moved to Chandler, Arizona, and went on to work for financial institutions and even receive security clearance at the Census Bureau. Now 32, she works a job in the IT department at a biomedical engineering firm. None of her employers had seen her dog-related incident as a problem. “This has never popped up as any kind of issue,” she said. 

She has also received positive reviews from her Airbnb hosts when she used the platform in the past. “Ashley was a great guest! We would be happy to host her again,” one host wrote.


The offenses cited as the reason for Ashley's ban.

On Airbnb’s website, Ashley read that she could apply for reinstatement based on “a rigorous, evidence-based approach” that reviewed outside factors like an individual’s age at the time of the incident, subsequent run-ins with the law, and employment history. She emailed Airbnb back asking for a second look, but Airbnb simply told her to address “inaccurate” information with a third-party company called Inflection, which had run her information through its SafeDecision API, an automated background check service. The information in the background check was accurate, however—just not that big a deal. Ashley tried to reason with Airbnb. 

 “This happened 10 yr ago. It was related to my dog being off leash. Surely this falls under circumstances where I’d be reinstated?” she wrote to Airbnb.


Within a few hours, she received a reply.

“We’ve given your case and its details careful consideration and we determined that it won’t be possible to reactivate your account at this time,” an Airbnb representative wrote to her. “We understand that this might not be what you’d hoped for, but we came to this outcome to safeguard the community and protect our policy. Our review is complete now, and we won’t be able to offer additional support on this case at this time.”

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Since 2013, as part of what it claims to be an effort to keep guests and hosts safe, Airbnb has had a third-party service perform automated background checks on hosts and guests alike in the U.S. But as Ashley’s case shows, the prospect of reviewing the backgrounds of millions of people accurately, fairly, and expeditiously can be a difficult and maybe impossible proposition for a tech platform.

After Motherboard brought Ashley’s case to Airbnb’s attention, the company reviewed her appeal once more, this time determining that it was the wrong decision and she should be reinstated. 

“We regret that this happened and appreciate your patience through this process,” a company representative told Ashley over email on Thursday. 

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Criminal records have long had a stigmatizing effect, limiting people’s ability to keep a job and lead a decent life, according to Amy Shlosberg, an associate professor of criminology and chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Fairleigh Dickinson University.


But as more industries that fulfill basic needs—housing, jobs, healthcare—turn to algorithms to uphold standards of safety and determine who is eligible to use them, the consequences of a criminal record are now expanding from housing and job applications out into individual’s social and private lives, “hindering their ability to enjoy the opportunities afforded by modern-day society, such as short-term homestays and vacation rentals,” Shlosberg said.

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Airbnb says it understands its system’s flaws. “We know that no background check system is perfect,” the company told Motherboard—and that it tries to continually make the system “as effective and thoughtful as possible.” Airbnb has stated, for example, that disorderly conduct and marijuana possession are two offenses it does not consider worthy of removal, and that the company considers “evidence of rehabilitation” during the appeals process. The company also reviews published research and works with criminal justice experts, academics, and advocates to improve its policy and appeals process, it says.

Airbnb does not perform the checks itself. Since 2016, those have been done by a company called Inflection, which claims on its site to complete more than 1 million background checks per month at a speed of less than 0.3 seconds on average. (The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Such speed may be efficient considering Airbnb’s size—the site has 6 million active listings—but it also makes mistakes an inevitability.


When users complain about factual inaccuracies or mistaken identities in the reports, Airbnb says it cannot alter the contents of the report and directs them to “initiate any dispute process, as needed” with Inflection, which notifies Airbnb if anything needs to be corrected. But the company also tells banned guests that Inflection can only “correct” errors, and “took no part in making the decision to decline your application and cannot explain why the decision was made.”  

How often such mistakes occur is hard to say with confidence. Airbnb would not tell Motherboard how many of its hosts and guests have had their backgrounds checked, only saying that the rate at which the checks occur has not increased recently and was “in no way tied” to the company’s new “anti-party technology” tests.

But in early September, Airbnb faced growing criticism for its banning process after Bethany Hallam, a councilperson at-large in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, was removed from the platform as a result of a years-old misdemeanor. After the case gained national attention, she was subsequently reinstated.

“I cannot begin to comprehend why they do not have a way to talk to a live person in real time about why these minor incidents of my past are suddenly about to bankrupt me.”


Airbnb told Motherboard that when a report’s accuracy is not in question, only the decision on which it is based, people can appeal directly to Airbnb, But the people who spoke with Motherboard for this story said that appealing to Airbnb seemed to do little to help their cases. It was apparently only after Airbnb learned that these cases would be covered by Motherboard that it was moved to further investigate.

In the case of Ashley’s dogs—and that of others—the available avenues left her with nowhere to turn. Where did she go to just ask a human to be reasonable? When she was still alone, the answer was nowhere. 

“Until an official dispute has been resolved with the consumer reporting agency, we consider our decision final,” Airbnb told her. 

That is, until it wasn’t.

Before his ban, Steven had been a “superhost.'' For about a year, the 30-something IT professional had been carefully building up his reputation on the platform by hosting people in the Southeast U.S. Self-described as Airbnb’s “biggest fan,” he had encouraged everyone he knew with rental properties to try hosting on the platform.  

Then, in August, he received an email from Airbnb stating that he was banned from the platform due to a “criminal records match.” All of his pending guest bookings were immediately canceled, meaning he had lost hundreds of dollars the second Airbnb made its decision, and stood to lose many thousands more in the years ahead.


“This whole situation has been a huge slap in the face,” he told Motherboard. “I've made a large investment in starting this business and I cannot begin to comprehend why they do not have a way to talk to a live person in real time about why these minor incidents of my past are suddenly about to bankrupt me.” 

The email from Airbnb said that he should request the records from Inflection. The records he received, and which Motherboard reviewed, revealed three misdemeanors. Two of these–a public intoxication charge and a first-offense DWI–stemmed from incidents nearly 10 years ago, which Steven said was a result of a bad interaction with medication in his 20s that his doctor has since fixed. The third was a traffic violation for a missing tail light. 

The link that Airbnb sent him to appeal the decision, he said, didn’t work. So he wrote to Airbnb directly. “I've spent a lot of money and effort starting and maintaining an Airbnb unit and strive to provide each guest top notch amenities in an unique setting that no hotel or cookie cutter rental could provide,” he wrote in reply to Airbnb’s message informing him of the ban. “My reviews reflect this effort and show that my hard work provided every guest with a memorable experience that strengthened Airbnbs reputation.” 


After multiple emails with Airbnb support, including Airbnb forwarding his case to another “specialized” support team, the company finally informed him on September 17 that his account would not be reinstated.

“The evasiveness of support to explain what happened or give any kind of recourse other than having these old misdemeanors removed from my record is beyond frustrating,” Steven told Motherboard. 

Lack of human interaction is a recurring frustration for people de-platformed by companies online, including social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In the case of such bans, Airbnb appears no different. Everyone we spoke to for this story reported that reaching out to support resulted in a game of rote, generic messages that did little to help their situations.

In Steven’s case, Airbnb only “overturned” the decision after Motherboard reached out to ask about the particulars of his case. Separately, a representative of Airbnb reached out to Steven to apologize.

“I’m XXX with Airbnb,” the email read (it actually said “XXX”). “As a goodwill gesture, we have issued you a payout of $1,366.07 for compensate for the 4 payouts that you did not receive.”

Airbnb has tried making short-term rentals as safe as possible for guests and hosts alike for years now. But the issues the company faces have been clear at least since 2011, when CEO Brian Chesky wrote an apology after a host’s home was vandalized by a guest. Every year, the company reportedly fields thousands of sexual assault allegations, many of them involving rape, and a 2019 mass shooting led the company to take a hardline stance against parties.


Schlosberg said that while screening hosts and guests is important for safety, these background checks should not be applied too broadly and that after five years a criminal record should “no longer be relevant in most situations.”

“Whether an individual had a misdemeanor or non-violent felony should not be relevant in this situation,” she said. “I would even argue that a blanket statement prohibiting a violent felony background would be too expansive. I have worked with many formerly incarcerated people whose background on paper would likely cause alarm but are people I would open my home to without hesitation.” Instead of relying on one background check service—in Airbnb’s case, Inflection—companies could gather data using a most holistic approach, she said, from other sources or databases. 

If Airbnb is banning people for minor infractions and misdemeanors, these policies are likely impacting Black people, indigenous people, and other people of color disproportionately. These groups are more likely to be targeted by police and charged with misdemeanors, so much so that some offices are experimenting with removing racial information from police reports before prosecutors can see them. Studies have also shown that Airbnb has a long history of enabling discrimination against disabled people, and sex workers have reported for years that the company discriminates against them because of their work and other social media profiles, and not because of any terms they’ve violated on the rental platform itself. 


Airbnb claims it is trying to create an empathetic system by considering racially disproportionate arrest rates, individual rehabilitation efforts, and the time since the crimes in question. While the ideal of a nuanced, anti-discriminatory background check is perhaps something worth striving for, the Kafkaesque nature of the process as it stands now can prove baffling and infuriating even when the appeal process proves successful. 

Zach Nusbaum, who is serving active duty in the Air Force and stationed in Germany, was trying to make reservations for himself and his wife on Airbnb in August when he found that he wasn’t able to do so. He contacted support and received a response which referred to a previous message the platform claimed to have sent in August, which he says he never received.

Afterward, he received a message saying that there had been an issue with his “consumer report,” and that he could initiate a dispute. “If you choose to dispute any of the information in the report, you can access your consumer report details and initiate the dispute process on the Inflection SafeDecision API site,” Airbnb told Nusbaum, using the same boilerplate language it had with Ashley to announce that its decision was final.  It included a link to the Airbnb page about background checks, which does not contain information about filing disputes.


Nusbaum replied to Airbnb’s message, asking for more clarity. Then, an email from Airbnb on September 20 informed Nusbaum that he was banned after review. “Upholding the policies and standards that protect our community is very important to us. We’ve given your case and its details careful consideration and we determined that it won’t be possible to reactivate your account at this time,” that message said. Like the others, it directed him to dispute it with Inflection.

Nusbaum hadn’t yet disputed anything, when on September 20, he received another message from Airbnb support, seemingly out of nowhere and unprompted by him: “Thanks for your patience. You now should be able to log in and access your account as usual.” 

The entire experience was baffling to Nusbaum—why had he been banned in the first place? And maybe just as strangely, why had he been unbanned? And by who? “There’s no way to physically talk to a person, just have to continue to email and wait for a response (averaging at least 2 days between responses),” Nusbaum told Motherboard. “Still have no idea what caused it, what the report said, why I was restricted—or anything.” 

Many platforms have confusing moderation practices that are overzealous in the name of safety. But on Airbnb, this process is all the more frustrating given that users regularly spend thousands of dollars in a single transaction, meaning real money can get lost in the shuffle of email conversations with one-name, highly automated Airbnb representatives. 


Earlier this year, Zac Smith booked a honeymoon trip through Airbnb for the first weekend in September. Smith, who runs a cannabis genetics company and works at an after-school program for elementary school students in Washington, had been a frequent user of the platform for years, often receiving five-star reviews from hosts who said he was a standout guest. (“I highly recommend him to all hosts as he left everything in excellent shape and was the perfect guest. 5 stars!!!!”” one host wrote.)

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Over the years, Zac Smith had built up a reputation on Airbnb as a courteous and clean guest. Then without warning, he was permanently banned from the platform.

But about a month before the honeymoon trip, he received an email from Airbnb notifying him he had been banned from the platform and that a refund would be processed. The 37-year-old Smith had had a number of run-ins with the law in the past, which showed up on Inflection’s report. All but one of the offenses listed on had since been dismissed, but the one that hadn’t was for the possession of a controlled substance without a prescription.

“If you have any upcoming reservations, they’ll be canceled for a full refund,” Airbnb told him in an email. But that wasn’t the case. Only $24.10 was returned to Smith, and almost $300, he estimates, was stuck inside his now-unusable Airbnb account in the form of gift cards and coupons. It was a significant amount of money to him, and he reached out asking what he should do.  

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“How do I get this refunded or transferred to another Airbnb account?” he said. An Airbnb representative responded unhelpfully. “Until an official dispute has been resolved with the consumer reporting agency, we consider our decision final,” the representative replied.

“But you guys refunded me in credits that I can not use? I want my money back or transferred to another Airbnb account in my family. I have $300 in credits that have been refunded to me,” Smith replied once more.

He was angry, not only because Airbnb had kicked him off and kept his money, but because they wouldn’t give him much of a reason as to why. Possession of the amount of drugs he had been in trouble over had since been effectively decriminalized in Washington, and Smith hoped to get the felony vacated when he could afford an attorney.

Getting nowhere with Airbnb, Smith contacted Inflection. The company responded soon after saying they would not change their position. 

“We have re-investigated your records and determined they are accurately reported. We are able to report non-convictions up to 7 years unless expunged or sealed,” the company said from a generic customer support email. 

Asked about the case, Airbnb confirmed that it had banned Smith for the drug possession conviction and said it considered the decision “appropriate,” but that if Smith appealed once more the company would “provide the appeal with thoughtful consideration.” Regarding the missing money, an Airbnb representative followed up with Smith to “resolve that issue.”

The question for Smith and the others is whether the system would have worked as well for them had Motherboard, a national news outlet, not approached the company for comment as part of this story. Had they simply done what they were supposed to do, as an unknown number of other people have, would the appeal process have worked? Or would an all but anonymous Airbnb representative have denied their request to continue to host guests, visit family, or even just get their money back? 

In any case, Smith couldn’t help but note that as much as it had inconvenienced him, the policy hadn’t worked as intended, either. Since the ban, his wife has simply booked the trips instead. 

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.