Too Good to be True

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Knowing the dangers of the Couchsurfing app and how to navigate it safely

Story by Emily Van de Riet • Photo by Christine Siampos

As college students, wanderlust runs through our blood. We want to travel, explore the world, meet new people—but sometimes it’s hard to find the funds for our aspirations. Maybe that’s why the Couchsurfng app seems so attractive to travelers. Free housing? Sounds like a good deal. But with all great things comes a catch. Just how safe is this service?

DEFINING COUCHSURFING

Couchsurfing is a program founded in 2004 that provides free housing while traveling worldwide. According to the Couchsurfing website, more than 14 million people from more than 200,000 cities worldwide belong to the Couchsurfing community. By signing up on the app or website, you can open your home as a host to potential guests for free, or you can look for places to stay if you are the couchsurfer yourself. You get to know potential hosts and surfers by messaging them via the app. Read their personal profiles and reviews before deciding if you want to stay.

SAFETY INFORMATION

When looking at the website’s safety information, it is clear there is no background check service for Couchsurfing members. While the company does stress that safety is important, it only gives advice for what to do if you get in an uncomfortable situation.

The website suggests taking your time to thoroughly read profiles and reviews, and to “keep looking” if you feel uncomfortable with someone’s profile.

Trusting your instincts, having a backup plan of a hotel and “knowing your limits” when it comes to alcohol consumption are some of the tips the Couchsurfing website gives to help ensure your safety. The website even mentions to be informed about the culture of the area where you are traveling.

Users are able to report “negative” experiences and safety concerns to the service’s Trust and Safety Team. The website states that if you are in any immediate risk to get yourself to a safe place and call the police, then report safety-related incidents to the company.

Reviews play an important role in choosing a host to stay with or a surfer to fill your empty couch. The company website states that no one will be deleted from the service just because of negative reviews. The site states: “Couchsurfing is a self-moderating community, and we believe that each member of our community has the ability and the responsibility to make decisions about who they would like to meet. References, even negative ones, share information with the community.”

Although reviews can be helpful, just remember—someone always has to be a host’s frst customer.

REAL-WORLD CONSEQUENCES

A Facebook page titled “Couchsurfing Horror Stories” is dedicated to sharing users’ experiences with the app. The page has hundreds of posts from users all over the world who have been in situations ranging from uncomfortable to downright life-threatening. There is also a Reddit page dedicated to the same type of conversation.

But it’s not just Facebook and Reddit that are bringing attention to negative Couchsurfing experiences. New York Daily News reported in December that a Canadian woman alleged her Couchsurfing host in Brooklyn attempted to rape her, and she fended him of with a knife. The suspect was arrested but charges were later dismissed.

Foreign Policy Magazine dives into a long feature titled “The Disappearance of Dahlia Yehia.” Yehia was a 25-year-old American who traveled to Nepal in 2015 to volunteer for earthquake relief. She was staying with a Couchsurfing host and was never heard from again. Her body was later found, and police confirmed her Couchsurfing host admitted to murdering her, according to CNN.

Both Business Insider and The Huffington Post have reported that Couchsurfing is a useful service for dating. Business Insider calls it the “greatest hook-up app ever devised.”

They might not be far of from guessing at some couchsurfers’ intentions. With a blog floating online titled “How to Bang Couchsurfing Girls: The Complete Guide” (yes, it exists), it’s not hard to imagine there are plenty of people using the service for… other things.

So next time you are traveling anywhere in the world, Couchsurfing might sound appealing and cheap (seriously, it’s free). But keep in mind all of your options, and make sure you do some serious research before putting yourself in a situation you may not be able to get out of. Dahlia Yehia didn’t.

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