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Go read this harrowing story about the team cleaning up Airbnb’s biggest disasters

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An experiment in trust, with high consequences for failure

When Airbnb works smoothly, the platform can feel like simply an eclectic hotel chain. But the app is a huge, high-stakes experiment in trusting strangers, and that can come with a heavy price. An article from Bloomberg journalist Olivia Carville makes that price vividly clear, delving into the workings of Airbnb’s safety team — the group that cleans up after Airbnb users’ most horrific experiences, including sexual assaults and murder.

The Bloomberg article cites interviews with current and former Airbnb employees, who describe an intensely stressful balance of helping customers and protecting Airbnb’s public image. It reports that Airbnb spends around $50 million annually in payouts to hosts and guests. Airbnb says most of that money covers property damage claims, but Bloomberg says it also covers cases like a $7 million settlement with a woman who rented a New York apartment and was raped by a stranger who had a set of duplicate keys. After the incident in New York, Airbnb’s now-former crisis management head says he pushed it to ban hosts from leaving keys at local shops — but that he was allegedly overruled in part because it could discourage hosts from continuing to use the platform.

The story notes that conventional hotels aren’t immune to crime. But Bloomberg says that Airbnb has unique issues. It’s harder to implement centralized rules that could make guests safer, like digital keypads that would have prevented duplicating keys. It generally relies on a vetting system rather than direct on-site security. Even if the system works the vast majority of the time, its scale of 5.6 million listings can add up to a lot of bad experiences for individual users.

Meanwhile, Airbnb is fighting long-running regulatory battles that Bloomberg suggests encourages it to sweep problems under the rug, offering payouts for users’ silence. (Airbnb denied that suggestion in a comment to Bloomberg.) “The only thing that really motivates them is the threat or potential threat of bad PR or a nightmare in the press,” complains the lawyer of one person whose son was killed in a shooting at an Airbnb rental. Once an initial crisis is over, “they don’t care anymore, because the news cycle has moved on.”