You probably remember that dark day. In the summer of 2011, an Airbnb host posted about a bad experience, saying his apartment had been ransacked. The story blew up—there was even a Twitter hashtag, #RansackGate, that gained currency—and quickly became a test for the young yet explosively growing startup. Airbnb ultimately recovered quite well from the fallout, impressing users with a $1 million guarantee, among other measures. But damage had certainly been done to the ecosystem of trust on which Airbnb or any sharing economy service relies.
Phillip Cardenas’s job is to make sure this doesn’t happen again—or at least, that it happens as rarely as possible. Cardenas is the manager of Airbnb’s Trust and Safety Team, helping to prevent ransackings or anything resembling them, and making right when things do go awry. Fast Company caught up with Cardenas, a former military intelligence officer, to learn more about how Airbnb is like Baghdad, how to sniff out fraud online, and the lengths one will go to to save a beloved coffee mug.
FAST COMPANY: So your unit is like Airbnb’s "Minority Report"?
PHILLIP CARDENAS: I don’t have any precogs at my disposal, unfortunately, but I do have a great team with diverse backgrounds in risk and fraud detection. We believe trust is a pivotal aspect of Airbnb, foundational to the collaborative consumption economy. My background is in dealing with intelligence operations in the military, so I’ve experienced a lot of this stuff. At Airbnb, we’re acutely aware of potential signals that could be identifiers of wrongdoing.
When were you in Baghdad?
About two years ago. Being in Baghdad gave me an interesting viewpoint on trust and safety, and on risk as a whole. Most people view the military as a large governmental bureaucratic organization, but for me, in that environment, deployed in combat, working at such a high level, it was very much like a startup environment. It taught me to be a jack of all trades and to be able to learn something extremely quickly.
What’s an example of when you caught a bad guy at Airbnb?
The Trust and Safety team does continuous fraud monitoring, targeted sweeps of the platform that look for odd activity or suspicious account activity. A few months back, one of my officers found some suspicious characteristics on an account. The host’s listed country of origin and location was different than the country location of their Airbnb listing.
Through extensive research, our team was able to link this account to a few other accounts that had very similar profiles and similar suspicious characteristics. All of the accounts, it turned out, were linked together, and also shared similar information to some scammers that had attempted to use other vacation rental sites in the past. Further investigation revealed that they were scammers, not legitimate Airbnb users. None of their Airbnb listings had been booked and we were able to quickly remove their accounts from Airbnb permanently.
Have you had any funny complaints about guests or hosts—has anyone broken someone's shark tank, or anything like that?
There was one example. The guest was leaving the host’s property early in the morning. The host had a coffee mug, and the guest was having morning coffee and was running late, and accidentally took the mug. You wouldn’t think that was that important, but the host found it extremely important, and wrote in to us. It took quite a bit of time, but we were able to reunite the host with the mug. The mug was probably a $5 mug, but sentimentally it meant so much to the host.
[Inset image: Celeste Noche. Coffee Mug Image: Andrei Kuzmik via Shutterstock]