It's tough out there in recession land. You know who has lots of disposable money? Complete strangers from out of town who you meet on the Internet. Matching guests and hosts has been the successful premise of the online short-term rental marketplace, Airbnb.
The service allows users to "effortlessly" rent out their unused apartments, back rooms, or abandoned castles. The whole Airbnb concept was built on a foundation of trust as to the relative safety of letting a complete stranger stay in your residence (or vice versa, as a traveler staying in some complete stranger's house). Unfortunately, this trust in people whose only verifiable quality is the ability to connect to the Internet, hasn't always worked out. In one well-publicized case from 2011, an Airbnb host from Oakland, California rented his house out to a drug addict who "did thousands of dollars of bizarre damage to my rented home and left it littered with meth pipes."
The resulting negative publicity forced the Airbnb to implement a $1 million guarantee backed by Lloyd's of London to cover "the rare event of guest damages." Further towards the concept of security, the website has just implemented a Verified ID system, which will provide "a connection between the online and offline spaces." The system works by asking users to provide a viable online identity via existing Airbnb reviews, LinkedIn, or Facebook and matching it to offline identification by confirming personal information or scanning in a photo ID.
Any Airbnb host can require a prospective guest to have a Verified ID before booking, but any host who requires this must be willing be verified themselves.
According to the Airbnb blog, the site "will require a random 25% of users in the USA to go through the Verified ID process," and will soon expand the requirement around the world.
Bugs in the system
I whipped through most of the verification in less than 10 minutes via my Facebook account and without scanning in my identification. It asked me to verify my email address and then asked multi-choice questions based on information culled from my Facebook account--though I'm still trying to figure out how it would know to ask for the last four digits of my social security number or how it would verify my previous street address because FB does not have that information.
It may be an early bug, but I was not able to verify my phone number--the last part of verification. I entered my cell phone number and had a choice of prompts for either SMS verification or for an automated phone call. Whenever I pushed either button, the website did not appear to verify that the information was entered and no phone call or SMS ever arrived. So, as of writing this, I remain unverified.
Overall, we put a lot of trust in corporations and fellow users in the Internet marketplace. And the vast majority of the time, there is no problem. However, once it functions properly, a simple identification verification system such as this will make a lot of guests and hosts sleep better at night.