R E P O R T

Safety in CouchSurfing

M o n i k a   K o z a k

Terms of Reference

This report examines safety in CouchSurfing, from the point of view of both hosts and travelers. The reason for conducting this research was the need to answer numerous, still repeated questions about safety in CouchSurfing from non-participants. Considering the growing popularity of Couchsurfing there is a possibility that the original ethos of Couchsurfing may be forgotten. For this reason finding answer to this question is important, even for members of Couchsurfing. The main issues of this report are:

  • »  What is and how big is the risk of being a Couchsurfer?
  • »  Is Couchsurfing more risky than traditional travel?
  • »  What precautions can be taken to be safe whilst traveling as a Couchsurfer or hosting strangers?
  • »  What to do in a dangerous situation?

The basic aim of this report is to find the safest form of participating in a CouchSurfing network. This will be defined as recommendations.

Research

This report is based on data collected in primary and secondary research carried out in November 2013. Primary research included an analysis of comments issued by Couchsurfers and a questionnaire. The questionnaires were distributed to a total of 50 CouchSurfing members (Appendices, Questionnaire 1) and 50 people who don’t participate in Couchsurfing. Secondary research was based on publications in newspapers and blogs, statistics and case studies conducted at the University of Michigan.

Chapter 'The idea and a brief history of CouchSurfing' explains why, how and when Couchsurfing was created. It gives some details about Couchsurfing’s population – how many people belong to the network and where they can be found. Finally, it tells how to become a Couchsurfer.

Chapter 'Hospitality networks' contains an overview of hospitality networks with a short description of their specificity.

Chapter 'Different styles of participating in CouchSurfing' mentions about some activities that Couchsurfing offers to its members. It also gives a few examples of travelling as Couchsurfers and motivation of doing so.

Chapter 'Security procedures' introduced by administrators of the website points out concerns about personal safety in Couchsurfing. Then, it examines a security policy introduced by site’s administrators and safety rules that they address to members.

Chapter 'Safety concerns and particular cases of abusing of the hospitality' indicates those cases when something wrong happened. It examines why and how it happened, what precautions could prevent those incidents and describes actions taken by Couchsurfing’s administrators.

Chapter 'Conclusion' gives an answer for a question whether Couchsurfing is safe or not.

'Recommendations' give some suggestions how to minimalize risk whilst travelling as a Couchsurfer or inviting strange people and what to do in a dangerous situation.

CouchSurfing is the largest social travel network in the world. Its main idea is to connect travellers with local people or just locals participating in some events. Everything is based on hospitality and is free of charge, as it’s about the exchange of stories, not cash. »

The initiator of the idea was Casey Fenton. » In 1999, after buying cheap tickets to Iceland, he spammed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking for free accommodation, and received about 50 invitations, all from complete strangers. An email to a group of students in Iceland gave birth to the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as we like to call them, friends you haven’t met yet). »

Eventually, Couchsurfing was founded in 2004 by Casey Fenton, Daniel Hoffer, Sebastien Le Tuan and Leonardo Bassani da Silveira. After 10 years, the website www.couchsurfing.org has 6 million members in 100,000 cities, including 14 people in Vatican, 25 on Galapagos, 61 in North Korea and 63 in Antarctica. The average age of members is 28 years, more than a third are between the ages of 18 and 24, 793 members are between 80 and 89 years old.

To become a Couchsurfer you have to set up a profile. It must contain some personal information, like a real name or just an alias, age, gender, education, spoken languages and location but you decide which information will be visible. In the personal description we may describe our interests, philosophy, favourite music, movies and books. There is also place for photos, description of offered accommodation (if any), lists of friends, groups that we participate in and references from other Couchsurfers, both surfers and hosts.

Tradition of hospitality dates back to the oldest times and is common to all cultures in the world. » However, with the expansion of Internet communication which allows anonymity, the risk of being cheated is becoming bigger and our suspiciousness is growing as well. So now we don’t trust strangers as before, but initiatives that are intended to allow a revival of to traditional hospitality still appear.

The first organization for hospitality exchange was Peace Builders, established in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler, an American living in Denmark. Later it was renamed Servas Open Doors, and eventually shortened to Servas (service in Esperanto). The motto of Servas is Peace and understanding through travel and hosting. »

In 1971 Sue Coppard from UK established WWOOF. It is a non-profit organization connecting farmers and people who want to work on the farm in exchange for food and accommodation. »

The first Internet-based hospitality exchange was Hospex, established in 1992 by Wojtek Sylwestrzak from Poland. Initially it was just a member database accessible via FTP. In 2000 Veit Kühne merged the Hospex database with the Hitch Hiker’s Database from Lithuania, initiating the Hospitality Club. » Currently it has over 328,000 members. In 2001 Adam Staines from Australia launched GlobalFreeloaders, a simple database where you can mail potential hosts. It currently has 60,000 members. » The next was Couchsurfing, launched in USA by Casey Fenton.

In 2007 a few tech volunteers left Hospitality Club and CouchSurfing and established BeWelcome, the first such service with multilingual profiles. It is open-source and the only registered non-profit organization apart from Servas. It currently has over 9,000 members. » One year later Kasper Souren left CouchSurfing and launched Nomadbase. » It’s a different kind of hospitality exchange.

The last was Tripping, launched in 2009 by Jen O’Neal from USA, who earlier hosted over 150 travelers as a member of CouchSurfing. At the moment Tripping is just another vacation rental website. » Evergreen Bed and Breakfast Club is not free - guests have to pay for accommodation and membership is $75 a year, and it’s only for people over 50, but the idea is similar to that of other hospitality networks – to allow travelers contact with locals and exchange experiences. »

Participating in Couchsurfing can take many forms, as it offers many different activities. » The very first and most obvious is, of course, free accommodation or hosting people. The second is meetings. For only one week (17-23 November 2013) some Couchsurfers in Dublin organized a Party, » European & Greek folk Dances, Games and Walking Tour in Dublin » or Belfast. » These activities are targeted at people who live here, study or are just visiting the city. The third possible way of participating in Couchsurfing is joining one of many groups that connect people with common interests, like Photography, Philosophy, Feminism, Anarchy, Cycling, Sailing etc. For those who want to learn there is Language Exchange or Language Teaching for Long Term Accommodation. For city dwellers there is Farm and Ranch Stay around the World, where they can find free accommodation for helping on a farm or being unpaid workers for accommodation. Finally, for those who haven't decided yet what they actually want there is What am I doing with my life? »




Bärbel and Wolfgang from Bavaria

Emily and Chien-Shun Chiu from Taiwan

Luc from Brussels, Belgium

Speaking about particular cases: Luc from Brussels (48) works for European Union. He speaks fluent Dutch, English, French, German and Italian, but still learns Spanish, Polish, Greek and Portuguese. When he organized a political meeting in Dublin, before staying in a hotel on Merrion Street, he visited a Polish Couch surfer for a few days to practise his Polish before an exam and to find, how life is in Ireland from the perspective of ordinary people. His motivation for being a Couchsurfer is to practise languages and to discover something specific and local in other countries and cultures. Bärbel from Bavaria (54) and her husband Wolfgang travel with their children. It is my aim to show them as much from this world as possible either in Germany or abroad. Ebru from Turkey is an English teacher in a university and came to Dublin for a language course. Chien-Shun Chiu from Taiwan (24) and his girlfriend Emily are students. Thanks to Couchsurfing and cheap flight tickets they have already visited 35 countries, and are still travelling. Magalie (34), a teacher from France, just loves to travel and hike, but sometimes (especially in Africa) she also teaches English to local children. Van (45) usually works as a manager for Philadelphia City Council, but often takes a long break and spends a few months abroad, for example a half a year on Galapagos, in China or in Tanzania. She travels with her husband, an artistic photographer and a daughter Sonja, who goes to a local school on each visit and in her free time practises climbing. Melanie, from Australia (30) is a musician. She came to France to record an album, and meanwhile she decided to visit Ireland to play some shows here. She travels with two tiny daughters and a guitar. Rick from United States (53) gave up his job in a university, sold a house and has travelled extensively in the US and Canada and to portions of Europe and Asia, staying in cities, farms, eco-villages, schools and ashrams - from floors in barns to bed and breakfasts... sharing with others, wwoofing, living in community-exchanging and helping out. Guillaume from Annecy (27) in French Alps is a musician who recently decided to spend a few months in South America, with his guitar. Even Julian Assange was once a member of Couchsurfing.

Every one has something interesting to share with their hosts: stories about their adventures or their native culture, photos from their journeys, recipes from their nations or just favourite food, sometimes some music and always their experiences and reflections.

Although the idea of Couchsurfing seems to be attractive, most people are reluctant to participate kind of concerns, from the most general suspicions to very specific, about being robbed, beaten, raped or even murdered. » The mater of safety appears in most publication, also administrators of Couchsurfing give to it a lot of attention. They obviously understand, that in the long term this issue can determine the popularity and even the existence of the project, so they emphasize the importance of following the safety rules.

Couchsurfing's website offers three protective measures. The first is verification. Once somebody pays twenty-five dollars using his credit card, his name and address are confirmed. » It means that verified members are not anonymous anymore and can be tracked. The second is the vouch, a special recommendation that can be done only by already vouched members. The third are the references. They give detailed descriptions of experiences with the Couchsurfer – good, bad and neutral.

Below are Safety Basics from www.couchsurfing.org:

Trust your instincts. If a person, situation or profile seems unsafe for any reason, move on. Don’t worry about seeming rude. Communicate clearly with others and take care of yourself. This principle appears also in many Couchsurfers’ blogs and comments, but it is as elusive and indefinite as intuition itself and, most importantly, requires experience and assertiveness, whereas most Couchsurfers can be just too young to have those attributes.

Be informed about the culture where you are traveling. Do your homework, and be sure you’re aware of cultural sensitivities, mores and general safety recommendations for each place that you travel. This advice is reasonable. In fact most people before their trips don’t study local mores, but rather lists of sights to see. Living in global village, they are often willing to forget about subtle cultural differences.

Communicate through Couchsurfing. Don’t give out your phone number and email address until you meet and feel comfortable with a new person. Use the Couchrequest and Messaging systems within the website to communicate. Again – the rule feel comfortable is not reliable and may fail.

Review profiles carefully. Take the time to carefully review member profiles. Read what members say about themselves and what other members have said about them. Give yourself the time to thoroughly read through all the information available. The profile and comments are obviously the source of information about principles and lifestyle. Reading what somebody said and showed on pictures can help with selection of hosts or guests by predicting character and temperament. Comments have the greatest value: the more positive the comments the greater the chance that the request is accepted.

Know your limits and enjoy responsibly. Partying like a rock star might be fun, but it puts your safety and well-being in the hands of others. This rule is particularly suitable for younger people, whose main target in travelling is often partying.

Have a backup plan. Know your options. If something doesn’t work out with your host, make sure you have an alternate place to stay. This is a basic safety rule.

Leave feedback. Let other Couchsurfers know about your experiences with the people you meet. Be honest and clear. You can do this by leaving reviews other members can see. Research shows that a lot of inconveniences are not reported. Many people avoid speaking assertively about unpleasant, uncomfortable situations. »

Report abuse or negative experiences to Couchsurfing. Our Trust and Safety team is here to help build the safest and most trusted community possible. They need your input in order to do their jobs. Daniel Hoffer, the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder, said that statistically speaking, couch surfing is remarkably safe. We have had over six million positive experiences, with only a tiny fraction of one per cent negative.

Tips for Women Travelers: When you’re surfing, consider staying with other women or with families, especially if you’re traveling solo. Be clear about your boundaries and don’t be shy about stating them. Educate yourself about the cultural and religious differences in the places you visit. Gender roles and expectations differ widely. Many people use the Couchsurfing website as a dating site, in the web even appeared a term Sexsurfing. Research shows, that it leads to misunderstandings and embarrassing or even danger situations. To avoid them, women travelers should stay with female hosts or families.

So far the only reported crime in Couchsurfing took place on 5 March 2009 in Leeds, UK. A twenty-nine-year-old woman from Hong Kong was raped by Moroccan Abdelali Nachet. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. It was the only such incident during 10 years of Couchsurfing existence. For comparison, in Ireland (which roughly has the same population as Couchsurfing) in 2009 there were 377 reported rapes, in 2010 – 479, 3172 in total during 6 years (2003-2010). » We have to keep in mind, that even if the population of Ireland is almost the same as that of Couchsurfing, it includes also children and old people, who are less likely perpetrators or victims. The average age of members of Couchsurfing is 28 years. So, the percentage of potential perpetrators or victims in Couchsurfing is much bigger than for Ireland, even though only one rape has happened, comparing to thousands in Ireland. Despite those facts, living in Ireland turns out to be more dangerous » than travelling as a Couchsurfer or hosting Couchsurfers.

To be a host seems to be far less risky. Unlike the traveler, he is not under the pressure. Traveler sometimes must compromise, as he has to find a place to sleep, but if host don’t trust enough or are not interested in meeting some person, he just don’t invite him or her. However, the host also risks that the traveler will be inconvenient, oppressive or even boring. A fundamental expectation of both actors is that their relationship should be built upon a foundation of mutual respect, honest interactions, and the exchange of time, company, and dialogue. » Nobody enjoys just provide a free bed and clean towels for strangers. Hosts expect something in return as well, and it is usually dialogue and inspiring company. Florian, a 44 year-old man from Germany, described a situation where he felt uncomfortable with a surfer who stayed a week at his place, but was always out of the house, returning late at night, causing them to have ‘almost no opportunity to eat together or really get to know each other’. In this situation, very little dialogue, personal time, and company was shared between these two parties, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction and discomfort caused by unmet expectations. In the situations mentioned above, the couch surfers had broken the social contract implicit within CouchSurfing. Specifically, they did not behave according to the social expectations of the CouchSurfing community, which regards with utmost importance the pursuit of dialogue, personal engagement, and the building of mutual relationship within CouchSurfing interactions. »

Misunderstanding of mutual intention leads sometimes to awkward and embarrassing situation. Can be annoying but it is not dangerous. »

Travelling has a long tradition and a lot of reasons. Our, modern style of travelling has its origins in the Grand Tour, which was an educational rite of passage for English upper-class since about half of the seventieth century. Nowadays travelling is so accessible and easy, that it became superficial. Most of travellers just take pictures and pass by. In this context, being a Couchsurfer seems to result from the need of a genuine experience of culture.

But there are exceptions from this noble rule and the more popular become Couchsurfing, the more numerous those exceptions are. Research shows, that now many people seek only for a free accommodation or even an erotic adventure, not a cultural experience. One rape and numbers of assaults happened so far, also some people admitted to have unpleasant or embarrassing incidents whilst travelling or hosting travellers. Unfortunately, we may expect more those incidents in the future.

In the light of these facts, Couchsurfing is not perfectly safe, but according to statistics, the risk of being hurt as a Couchsurfer is surprisingly low. Hazard of surfing with strangers or hosting them was compared to having any other relationships, for example in work, school or neighbourhood. The fact, that in Couchsurfing we have relationships with strangers apparently doesn’t matter, as research shows that most crimes are committed not by strangers but by people we know. Besides, all members of the community seem to be perfectly aware how easy is to track them, so crime committed in Couchsurfing would be impossible to hide.

Couchsurfing is a tool, just like the internet, and as every tool can be used in many ways. It is not safe or unsafe itself. The issue of security depends strictly on how people use it.

Safety procedures and policies introduced by Couchsurfing’s administrators can make it a bit safer, but none of rules can substitute common sense. It is left up to the judgment of the Couchsurfers to decide whether to take the risk of surfing with strangers or hosting them.

The judgment should be made upon the careful lecture of members’ profiles. The description, photos and comments (or their lack) can tell a lot about somebody’s character and style life, so we may know more or less what to expect. It is better to avoid people with negative or just neutral comments or no comments at all. It is also good practice to check potential hosts or guests in other social services.

Single women should be especially careful and stay only with families or other women.

Both – traveller and host – should define some rules. Surfer should describe what does he expect, how is he going to spend the time and what can offer. Host also should clearly describe what exactly he can share, what are his expectations, home rules and customs. Both should be assertive and react immediately when somebody crosses those borders.

Paperback

Fleur Britten On the couch. Tales of Couchsurfing a continent London, Collins, 2009   » » »

WWW

Luisa Rollenhagen 8 Dynamic Social Networks to Meet People Abroad Mashable, 21 June 2013
Runa Mukherjee Parikh Making virtual friends real The Times of India, 17 September 2013
Jen Leo The world's your home with Couchsurfing Los Angeles Times, 27 January, 2013
Stephanie Rosenbloom Making Travel Connections Online The New York Times, 17 July, 2013
Alex Pena Couch surfing a cave in southern Jordan CNN, 14 May, 2012
John Wendle Extreme Tourism: Couch Surfing Arrives in Afghanistan TIME, May 01, 2012
Steven Heller The Next Frontier for Touring Musicians: Living Rooms? The Atlantic, 15 November 2012
William Sertl Review for Travelers: The Pros and Cons of Couchsurfing and Airbnb Condé Nast Traveler, September 2012
Juliet Barbara 5 Unconventional Ways to Build Your Network with Social Media Forbes, 28 September 2012
Sarah Mitroff Before Airbnb, There Was CouchSurfing WIRED, 32 September 2013
Christina Farr CouchSurfing, now a ‘social travel network’, gets a $15M boost VentureBeat, 22 August 2012
Billy Gallagher CouchSurfing Raises $15 Million Series B TechCrunch, 22 August 2012
Patricia Marx You’re Welcome The New Yorker, 16 April 2012
Alex Pendleton 4 Tips for Safe Couchsurfing Pink Pangea, 8 April 2013
Overcome Your Fear: how to practice safe Couchsurfing Solo Traveler, 19 October 2010
Agness Walewinder Couchsurfing or Sexsurfing? What is the Difference Nowadays? eTramping.com, 17 March 2013
Inma How Safe is Couchsurfing? A World to Travel, 14 January 2013
Mandy Van Deven On the Map: Is CouchSurfing.org Safe for Women? Bitch Media, 16 August 2009 (+ comments!)
Couchsurfing: Safety Travelettes, 7 May 2010

Blogs

Ryan Gargiulo Is Couchsurfing Safe? Pause The Moment
Backpacking Diplomacy Is Couchsurfing Safe?
Christopher O'Toole How Safe is CouchSurfing? Encyclopædia Britannica Blog, January 6, 2010
Roy Marvelous CouchSurfing Is Not Free Nor Safe! 27 January 2011
Kouchcultur
3 years of CouchSurfing: safety, creepiness and the power of virtual rituals philosopher bagpiper 15 August 2011

YouTube

Couchsurfing Safety
Channel of Couchsurfing on YouTube
Couch Surfing Report - BBC News
Nightmare Couch Surfer

Questionnaire 1

Respondents: Couchsurfers
Channel of distribution: email

This survey is a part of a study on safety in Couchsurfing.
It is anonymous and will take you about five minutes to complete.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.

1
   How many times have you traveled as a Couchsurfer?

2
   How do you choose your hosts, what factors are important for you when you decide to send a couch request to somebody?
Profile
Comments
Verification
Vouching
Gender
Age
Location and availability


3
   How many times have you had bad experiences as a Couchsurfer?

4
   Did you report it to the administrators of Couchsurfing?
 Yes     No

5
   How many times have you hosted Couchsurfers?

6
   How do you choose your guests, what factors are important for you when you decide to invite somebody to your house?
Profile
Comments
Verification
Vouching
Gender
Age
Location and availability


7
   How many times have you had bad experiences as a host?


8
   Did you report it to the administrators of Couchsurfing?
 Yes     No


  

Violent Crimes – Reports

Report Violent Crime by Strangers and Non-strangers
by A.D. Timrots and M.R. Rand

Bureau of Justice Statistics
US Dept of Justice
Office of Justice Programs

1987

National Crime Survey data for 1982-1984 indicate that 46 percent of violent crimes (rape, robbery, and assault) were committed by total strangers, 11 percent were committed by those known to the victim by sight only, 13 percent were committed by friends and acquaintances, and 8 percent were committed by relatives.


Report Murder in Families
by J.M. Dawson and P.A. Langan, Ph.D.

Bureau of Justice Statistics
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs

1994

A survey of murder cases disposed in 1988 in the courts of large urban counties indicated that 16% of murder victims were members of the defendant's family. The remainders were murdered by friends or acquaintances (64%) or by strangers (20%). These findings are drawn from a representative sample survey of State and county prosecutors' records. The survey covered disposed charges against nearly 10,000 murder defendants, whose murder cases accounted for over 8,000 victims