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The situation is serious
Posted August 14th, 2009 - 12:03 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Dear all,

It's getting more and more obvious with every month that CS so-called 'security measures' are totally insufficient.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1205794/Rape-horror-tourist-used-couchsurfing-website-aimed-travellers.html

This is only one case, I know. What's important, is:

1. CS leadership didn't alert the members, they made an announcement only after the story got out. And the announcement is in usual style 'everybody is responsible for oneself; it's nowhere safe blah-blah-blah...

2. 99,99% sexual molestation cases are not reported, why? Because:
- girls on't want such announcement to stay on their profile
- they victims feel embarrassed
- they took on pity after getting a number of begging messages from the offender
- they felt partially responsible
- they got drunk and they don't remember


Just as in my story:
When I traveled through Turkey with my female friend (not gf), we encountered similar kind of man, who was molesting her in Istanbul (after long night of partying got to her bed, and unzipped her sleeping bag), but I woke up and stopped him. We didn't alert the police but we managed to get him out of CS and HC. But CS women usually don't even post negative references in such cases 'cause they feel embarrassed, think that it was their fault, don't remember exact details or just... don't want to announce on their profile that they experienced sth like this!!! I heard about 4 similar cases (mostly molesting, not rape) and only once ONCE the victim posted negative reference!!!

And the offenders are sometimes well-known in CS community - like the guy in Turkey, who had a few hundred positive references on CS and similar number on HC!

I believe that CS community should work on real protective means especially because CS gets more and more popular and for sure some men want to use it as date-or-rape site...


3. And probably also many rapes are not reported, too.

Why I'm creating this group? Because CS leadership cares only about getting donations and increasing the number of members. So called 'security system' is a laugh!

4. Of course no measure is 100% perfect but there are huge problems with safety now. As CS gets more and more publicity for it starts to attract more and more criminals/psychos/not-so-good people, who would see it as a great way to find their victims.

5. What I propose?
Apart from common sense I vote for sth that is not my idea, but I just love it - invitations-only system. It means that the CS community would be so easily accessible. There wouldn't be possibility to become a new member just because "I want to". Just after getting invitation from sb that really knows the given person, this person could get into our community. We can decide that to be able to invite new members would require that you have to have at least 6 months profile and minimum 5 positive references from 5 different people.

6. Examples:

a. Let's say John X is a criminal, he can easily get through verification system because his credit card is on different name. He rents a flat. He is intelligent so he can build his profile carefully and start robbing/cheating/stealing identities from naive CS members. John X may be caught after a few months or his profile would be deleted. But what's done is done. And even if his profile is deleted he can easily start another one as James X1

b. James Y is a psycho. He likes to humiliate/rape/torture/molest his victims. He doesn't have friends, so his need to get into some community is even bigger. What happende? He reads a newspaper (psychos read newspapers and watch TV) about CS. Immediately he starts his computer and starts his profile where he writes about himself that he is 'a rare kind of person who likes...". James Y will also get through so-called "verification system" and will have a chance to host/surf some couches. And after 2-3 hostings sth bad will happen. CS leadership will tell us (only after the message will get out to the newspapers) that everybody has to use his own common sense and it's a tragedy, but it could happen everywhere. Really??? Or rather would happen definitely in the community where there is no entry security system and where everybody can get his/her profile started in a few minutes??? Without ANY problems?

c. Anna Q is a cheat. She looks sexy steals information/money/identities from people who can't even immediately realize it. She, as John X or James Y doesn't know anybody who is CS member, but she can read newspapers and watch TV. She sees a report about CS and there is an idea that comes immediately to her head. A few hours later Anna Q is already after verification process (that she got through as Margot L) and after getting positive answers from some CSers about hosting here in next few days. She won't get caught. The story will eventually gets out but only after several months as CS doesn't want to blacklist any potential client.

d. Adam A is not-so-good man. He also doesn't know anybody from CS but after getting news about it from TV or magazine he decides that this is a great way to find some bed-partners. As he doesn't have to know anybody from CS to get in, it takes him a few minutes to get in and through the verification process. He is likable and he also can camouflage himself. He doesn't act openly, only after the girl has a few drinks he started to be touchy. And sometimes he manages to get his way. He is described in references as "party man, that knows how to enjoy life" and he really knows. Oh yes... And he never gets caught. And even using a good sense is useless 'cause he has already a few hundred positive references. Why not negtive ones? Because the girls who were molested by him were drunk, didn't remembered carefully, thought it was their fault or they just didn't want to announce it on their profile that they were harmed like this.

As you can see non-limited access to our community while CS gets more and more publicity is more and more people such as John X, James Y, Anna Q or Adam A get the news. Even they don't know anyone from the community they don't have problem to get in. And afterwards it's much more difficult to avoid the danger, 'cause they are intelligent an they work on their profiles to get their victims (often naive enthusiast who are just starting to come).

Please let's make CS leadership to introduce real safety measures even if this way CS won't be getting new member as fast as it is getting now. I prefer our community to develop not so fast but much more safely...

I would also like you to inform your CS friends about this and ask their support. This group has to be not only active but above all very numerous to make the leadership hear us!


Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:21 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Thanks for creating this group, Wojciech.

I agree that CS could and should do more to make the community safer and give priority to quality over quantity.

Not sure we should go as far as requiring an invitation to join, but we should certainly stop chasing new members with stupid events such as the "Million Member March".

I also agree that credit card verification is not the best solution and that the way the reference system is presented and used, as a kind of guest book for saying nice things about each other, and especially the reluctance of many to leave "negative references" is a major issue.

Here are 10 ways in which CS could encourage honest reporting of negative experiences which others should know about:

1. Stop pretending verification is the ultimate safety feature by placing green "ok" ticks on profile pictures for money and making references look secondary.

2. Bring up a clearly visible text/screen every time someone clicks to leave a reference, insisting on the importance of honesty in reference writing especially when an experience has been unpleasant.

3. Use a similar screen at registration and educate new members regularly about the importance of honest references.

4. Educate members that reporting a negative experience is not the end of the world, that it is normal that not everybody gets along fine and that you are describing your experience for the benefit of others, not judging a person.

5. Change the title "neutral" to "mixed" for the third reference type, because neutral means nothing and what we need is a way to talk about less positive points also when overall the experience has not been entirely negative.

6. Stop pretending 99.9% of all experiences are actually positive. Knowing how difficult it is for many to leave negative or even neutral references, I am convinced this is not the real figure. More honesty here would make the person reporting a negative experience look less like the odd outsider spoiling the fun.

7. Be less protective of the member accused of having created a negative experience and stop encouraging the removal of negative references.

8. Reassure members that retaliatory negative references will be removed, that doing the right thing in reporting a negative experience honestly will not create insurmountable problems, and that the clean conscience of not being responsible for seriously bad things happening to other members by far outweighs any inconvenience.

9. Not as good as warning others via a reference, but better than nothing: Inform members that if they still don't have the courage to report a negative experience in the references because they don't want to have it on their profile, at least they need to report it to MDST who can keep a record and start to detect a pattern if more complaints come in.

10. Publish the news release sent to the media http://www.couchsurfing.org/news.html?id=269 on the home page of Couchsurfing.org, in the general news and in the safety news.

I am sure there are other things CS could and should do, but these would be a good start, and if CS wanted they could be implemented and effective very fast.

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 3:29 am from Milton, United States
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 3:38 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Well, this group as I said, is not only about ideas but also how to push them efficiently enough, so as CS leadership would listen to us...

My type is - big number of members who would be in this group and support at least general trend towards increaing safety measures.

I'm fed up with hearing 'use your own common sense" mantra from CS ambassadors, etc

The truth common sense sometimes just doesn't work, especially in some cases described above. And Couchsurfing community irrevocably is built rather on trust, friendship, openness to other people and cultures and willing to trust other people and NOT on common sense that says, to be honest, "don't go to the apartments of the people you don't know in the foreign country". That's really what common sense tells us, isn't it?

If we all use common sense we shouldn't trust anyone!!! And the Couchsurfing community consists on credit of trust towards other people!
So we should restrict access to other community especially now, that its existence is becoming quite well-known (books, articles, programs about CS!) to so many people (including psychos, criminal and just no-so-good kind of normal people).

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 6:05 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
I would also like to point out another aspects of invitations-only system:

1. Right now new-comers have problems because even if they have well-filled profiles and photos many people won't accept them without references. In the result such people may see no choice but accept the guest/host without any references either, so as to get their first positive reference. This way they are:
a. most likely to get somehow assaulted/cheated/abused
b. at the same moment most likely not to leave negative reference, and, even (if they weren't seriously hurt) leave a positive one!
c. This way rogue host may get positive reference and the almost-victim would be silent...

2. If the invitations-only security measures go into life, the new-comers would be more trusted (because sb had to take responsibility for inviting them - and such a decision would be taken very easily - so sb from CS (6 months profile and 5 different positive references at least) really trusted them.

This way they would have better chance to find the couch. Don't you think so? So paradoxically more rigorous safety measures would result in better inner development of the Couchsurfing community.

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 5:38 pm from Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 5:43 pm from Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 7:18 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Some confidentiality is probably part of the solution Fernanda. I have commented on it here further below:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=22156&post=3596170#post3602734

Let's keep the comments on that idea together there to prevent it from beocming unreadable.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 2:41 am from Toronto, Canada
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 2:48 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Please take a look at other thread in this group - perfect analysis by Maureen why the victim may not report the offence/crime:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=22156&post=3599668


Posted August 15th, 2009 - 2:00 pm from Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 5:46 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 7:29 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
"When I get to a computer to write a negative reference, I see that he already gave me a one first, making up a whole lot of things about how I robbed him or whatever."

I see your concern, Fernanda, and agree it is complex. And that is exactly why it is so vital to solve this one, because as long as people don't come forward for fear of what others may think or of getting a retaliatory reference this gaping security hole will remain open.

I believe that in most cases the offender will rather keep a low profile and not provoke a negative reference and draw attention to what he did. Here it would really be helpful to have someone from MDST in the group to participate with their experience. My understanding is that in most cases it becomes obvious quickly which one is the retaliatory reference. If I find the link to that discussion, I'll add it. In any case, if your scenario happens, you have no choice but telling your side of the story or leave CS.

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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 9:05 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 2:30 pm from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:24 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:36 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Well, I'm not saying invitations-only is the best choice, but I think it would be necessary to think about some ways to restrict the inflow of new members after getting such publicity... It's too easy to get in now. We already have so many members, we can switch to invitations-only method...

I think that private detailed questionnaire about experience would be a good idea.

There should be also easily accessible rogue gallery, but CS will never do it because of potential legal issues :(


Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:52 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:55 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Rogue gallery - about the members whose profiles were deleted because of serious reasons. It is too easy to get a new profile under different name...

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:58 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 2:16 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
I think now the most important thing is that we bring to this group as many people concerned with the safety of our community as possible.

And we can discuss along. I just know that only numbers can speak to CS leadership. Otherwise, if we stay only a small group, we can have great ideas, and they will be totally ignored... :(

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 2:47 am by from Porlamar, Venezuela (Permalink)
Hi,
I think this group is a great idea. Since in many ways before something indeed is done at least ideas will appear that will indeed help those (like me) that want to continue with CS and do believe in it. As everybody says you have to be street smart and also as it seems web smart...

I hope many great ideas come from this.

Cri

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 12:07 am from Alicante, Spain
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 1:06 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Jana - very important post about help after the fact :) I think it is worth to discuss it in separate thread :)

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 1:58 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 6:29 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 6:38 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Well, this is some idea... But I still think that restricted access is even better :)

Or perhaps to join these two concepts.

I just now that something has to be done.


Posted August 14th, 2009 - 6:42 am from Manali, India
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 9:02 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
I don't believe it would be right or desirable to prevent new members from surfing, and certainly not from hosting. You have to get started somehow, we need more hosts in many locations, and if you are traveling or live in a location without an active community, you would be seriously disadvantaged for getting friend links and references.

If members without friends and references appear quite high up in the results of a the general couch search, that is rather a good thing, because that is the best way to change that. You can always go to the following page or have your search results sorted by other criteria in Advanced Search. Couch Search is not a popularity contest, but a means to match couch demand with the available offer.

Here are my latest thoughts:

How did the various trust features, notably references, vouches and credit card verification contribute to the two most widely discussed sexual assault cases at the moment?

The names and actual address (not just a postal address used for receiving a verification code) were perfectly known in both cases. In neither case did that prevent the assault nor would it have made any difference in dealing with the consequences if CS had verified these names and addresses by sending a postcard with a verification code.

In Kuala Lumpur, the offender had plenty of positive references, apparently also vouches, and a perfect reputation in the local community. Initally, many local members even doubted the girl's accusations. The reason why the safety system failed seems to be exclusively that previous guests had not left complete and honest references, letting the following guests run into the same trap.

In Leeds, the offender was pretty new with no references, vouches, friends or completely filled profile we are told, and not credit card verified. The reasons why the safety system failed here seems to be that the guest was not aware of the risk she could be running by staying as a single female traveller with a single male host who was new with no references, vouches, friends or satisfactorily filled profile, and perhaps she didn't get the very early signals that something could be wrong enough to trigger her to leave fast. It is possible, although we don't know that, that in addition previous guests had not left honest references.

In this case, CouchSurfing has a responsibility for

- not having communicated the importance of filled profiles and references as strongly as their desire to raise funds via credit card verification

- having encouraged members to withdraw their negative references and to work problems out with another member directly

- pretending that 99.9% of all experiences are positive, after having encouraged members to remove their negative references from the statistics and knowing that many negative experiences don't get reported in the first place, thereby making CouchSurfing knowingly appear much safer than it actually is.

These are some of the accusations I would make if I had to sue CouchSurfing for negligence.

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 9:27 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
But you really don't regard as necessary to restrict access to the CS in view of its recent publicity?

You must be aware and out there are many people who would love to use couchsurfing community which consists of generally trusting, helpful and good-willing people to their own purposes - like crimes, sexual assaults, etc...

If CS wants to be famous and popular so much there is the price for it - safety is going to decreasy dramatically soon - especially when potential wrong-doer needs a few minutes to get into our community. Please, think how to restrict this access. Because I still believe it needs to be restricted.

That's what really bugs me. Or perhaps I am the only one with over-lively imagination?

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 10:02 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
"But you really don't regard as necessary to restrict access to the CS in view of its recent publicity?"

If you could look into the mind of each and every member, agree on quantifiable criteria for access, put into place an extremely reliable system, re-screen all existing 1.200.000 profiles and delete all those not meeting the criteria, why not.

Look at the case of "Bandidleader" in Kuala Lumpur who sexually assaulted several women going unnoticed for a long time. How would you have restricted his access?

Restricted access would in addition carry the risk of giving even more of a false sense of security than the current dishonesty is already giving, making members even more vulnerable to the "skilled" offenders.

So no, I would prefer to focus on some of the other measures I have recommended.

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 10:09 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Ok let's stick to the structural approach and keep on discussing the access to the community.

I know that there are many rotten apples in CS community already but we cannot cancel this. And you know very well that screening existing members would be toilsome and of course also wouldn't give you 100% certainty.

The world is not black-and-white. I want to reiterate that you have to take into account that throughout mostly last year Couchsurfing got enormous amount of publicity, mostly positive and it had to get to many not-so-good people outside. I mean we should restrict access now and at least decrease the danger of total contamination this great idea by bad human material, so as to say.

I believe that it won't make us feel much safer, not after recent accidents but perhaps prevent some accidents? And even if it prevents only one rape it's worth it.

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 9:33 am from Milton, United States
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 11:24 am from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 3:51 pm from Milton, United States
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 6:51 pm from Brasilia, Brazil
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 7:12 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Keeping certain sensitive information private is certainly part of the solution to allow victims to come forward and others to be warned.

Let's avoid the term "anonymous reference" however which got us into a big fight in the brainstorm group recently, because it raises a red flag with a lot of people for whom the term "anonymous" is loaded with associations with lies and slander:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=429&post=2899159

Talking about "confidential" rather than "anonymous" can get us out of that gridlock. We are not talking about any kind of wild accusation that we want to allow without knowing where it comes from. We just need to protect the victim, similar to what happens in certain court cases, in order to allow it to testify safely. The member making the accusation will of course be known to CS, just not to everybody accessing her or his profile.

The problem is that when you don't know who is behind a negative reference it limits your ability to decide how believable and serious it is. And not having the details of why a situation was judged unsafe is problematic, too. So we haven't found the ideal solution yet, and it would be nice to be able to brainstorm it here before the trolls and strong opponents to the idea mess up this thread, too (although I hope that now, with knowledge of the two assault cases, they will be able to reflect and refrain).

So, how can we make certain parts of certain sensitive references confidential without devaluing them too much?

Posted August 14th, 2009 - 10:17 pm from Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 7:26 pm from Saint-Brieuc, France
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 9:03 pm from Milton, United States
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Posted August 14th, 2009 - 11:59 pm from Sao Paulo, Brazil
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 2:38 am by from London, England (Permalink)
Idea for detecting problem hosts or suurfers

There seems to be a lot of emphasis on encouraging people to leave honest references. But references seem to be a bit of a one off activity.

How about if people were solicited by follow up emails asking those who had done some surfing a few simple questions regarding about how safe their experience was.

Send an email to each surfer and ask them whether they had any concerns regarding the behaviour of their host.

Make the answers simple yes/no or scale from 1 to 10 to encourage people to reply.

Allow hosts to express the same about recent surfers.

Then analyse the responses. See if some hosts regularly raise concerns with different surfers and vice versa.

If a pattern of concern is reported, then this could be investigated further by another more detailed email.

This might pick up some of the people causing problems. If could all be done by automated emails that can be analysed when the replies are returned.

I suspect that there is probably email survey software out there that does this already.

This might warn of characters like banditleader in Malaysia.




Posted August 15th, 2009 - 3:46 am from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 4:02 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Filmstar, I love your idea, too :) And I agree with Maureen that now it would be good timing to send such poll to all CSers.

And perhaps every three months repeat it. This is the best idea concerning verification existing members of CS so far :)))

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 4:10 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
"Send an email to each surfer and ask them whether they had any concerns regarding the behaviour of their host.
Make the answers simple yes/no or scale from 1 to 10 to encourage people to reply.
Allow hosts to express the same about recent surfers."


Interesting idea. I'll add it to my list as measure #12, expanding it from behaviour to other safety aspects beyond behaviour such as safety of the couch location (the apartment/house & immediate neighborhood).

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 4:30 am from Alicante, Spain
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 6:04 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
"how does the system get to know when and to whom these mails have to be sent?"

It knows when to bring up a screen saying "we are so glad you had a positive experience", so it will know who to send an email to (if a reference is left only, of course).

"and, most importanti still, WHO will check that huge amount of mails, to find out if there're some "uneasy" replies??"

The first analysis/screening has to be quantitative and automatic. The real workload comes after that, when MDST has to address the issues.

"and if whoever checks the mails finds a suspicious one ... what means does he/she have to control if it's true?? even the man taken to Court in Leeds is still considered innocent until proved guilty ..."

The same as MDST has to respond to complaints today (whatever they are), and possibly the additional "references" sent in following the emailed questionaire.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 10:42 am by from London, England (Permalink)
It is best to look at security checks as a series of layers, each designed to highlight particular scenarios that may occur between host and surfer.

Automatic Post reference surveys are intemded to detect consistent patterns of negative behaviour. It may identify characters like banditleader who had managed to manipulate the existing system and his behaviour was getting progressively more dangerous. This guy was drugging his guests, one of them could have died. This measure is intended to overcome the retiscence of victims to report and grant the perpetrator the 'benefit of the doubt'. By picking up on the experience of several surfers of a particular host it provides a more impartial conclusion.

To follow this up, if a name did keep coming up, then an email to all the hosts surfers over the past months might pick up more reports. I wonder if they did this when banditleader's activities were exposed?

However, 'gatekeeper' security measures are also important.

I am pretty sure that other hospitality sites and travel sites have come across predators. There should be some information sharing. Does virtualtourist.com know of bandItleaders track record?

I seems rather the same as hostels that might share information about thieves or other bad characters. Hospitality sites will have their own set of predators and need to take steps to protect their membership from them. Some sort if alert system would allow them to be proactive, if the bad character could be properly identified.











Posted August 15th, 2009 - 11:55 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
"To follow this up, if a name did keep coming up, then an email to all the hosts surfers over the past months might pick up more reports. I wonder if they did this when banditleader's activities were exposed?"

Good point, and good question, also for the Leeds rape case.
I fear that in the Kuala Lumpur case, if the rigid policy is being applied, without a police report nothing much has been done to date.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 12:09 pm by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
I like Filmstar's idea really much. I opened a new thread focusing on detecting existing problems with hosts and guests... :)

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 12:29 pm from Bolzano, Italy
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 1:28 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Thanks Cristina for sharing your experience and adding interesting ideas.

One question, how did you manage not only to have the retaliatory reference removed, but also any mention of it? I was convinced normally it is replaced with "This reference is not appropriate. For more information, please refer to the guidelines."

"on top of references, why not write how many negative, mixed and positive references a member has? Or also put a drop down box to easily find them?

That has been suggested many times and is part of the good ideas never implemented by CS. Therefore my friend Carlos has written a Greasemonkey script which you can download here and install easily to display just such a statistic for all profiles viewed with the Firefox browser:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=7621&post=2039754

As for finding negative references easily, you can use your browser's search function. For "neutral" references, you need to install another Greasemonkey script first to have the title "neutral" displayed in order to be able to search for it.

Take into account that due to a programming mistake for several months "neutral" was the default for references and that many people forgot to change it because this title is not displayed on the profile.

Of course it would be much easier and effective if CS could develop this as part of the site for everybody.

"I also find the friend's list quite not useful, as some members have hundreds of "friends" who they have met only a few hours, so I would rename that list with contacts"

Everybody uses the feature differently, and you won't be able to force people to use it one way, especially if that way complicates things and people are used to collecting "friends" on Facebook etc just to keep track of people.

"I often, when receiving requests, look at how many local members one knows..., that gives me the impression I can trust more, as that person is already knows in the local community."

I would not do that. Look at how many friends Bandidleader had and what happened. The number of CS friends is probably among the least reliable trust features.

"I would also put an icon or box or whatever else on each profile with immediate contact to MDST and a sentence to encourage to write in case"

I like this idea. I am adding it to the list of measures I am requesting from CS.

"submit the passport number and full name (ok, I know that it could be a fake as well) when requesting a couch and encouraging the hosts to check passports and identities, of course that could then also be misused and not done, I am fully aware of that..."

This is what Hospitality Club does, but many of the same people who will be afraid to write anything negative in a reference will also be too shy to ask for the passport, and there are a lot of other issues with that solution. But when in doubt, why not. I was once asked for my ID in exchange of a key, and that seemed very reasonable to me.

Let's keep the ideas coming. It is amazing what this brand new group has come up with in such a short time.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 1:34 pm by from Porlamar, Venezuela (Permalink)
It´s great that there are so many suggestions/ideas!!!

Some I like more because they are more inmediate like Flaminia´s (I´ve taken some of your tips - almost all in fact! and posted them on site with others I´ve found surfing other forums, not only for me but also for others to read. I´ve found them very helpfull) because others I feel that would need more time not only to implement but also to have people agree upon them... and I don´t want to put my CS experiencie on hold until that is done.



Posted August 15th, 2009 - 1:28 pm from New York, United States
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 7:32 pm by from London, England (Permalink)

Interesting point of view.


If I understand you correctly you are suggesting that it is wholly unpredictable how people will interact and it may be a positive or negative experience for each party.

Asking people to comment on negative experiences and abstracting misunderstandings to potentially dangerous scenarios can create a paranoid over-reaction.

You suggest that people should be assumed to be mature enough to sort many of these things out themselves and many of the problems and solutions we are discussing grossly oversimplify the issue.

Well....I can see your point.

But this discussion has been brought about by a criminal situation. An extreme. It is not unreasonable to consider how such damaging events can be pro-actively prevented by changes to the system.

If you look at the question from an different angle, it might help. There are some disturbed people out there who exploit and harm others and seek situations where they come across potential victims.

Any sort of trust system like CS may become their hunting ground because it fosters an open and welcoming community.

So how does any community protect itself without destroying the openess that is large part of its appeal?

Place too many restrictions, test behaviours too severely and you will end up with a rigid institution far removed from its original ideals. Do nothing and the organisation can be blamed and pilloried for not exercising diligence and a duty of care.

The precautionary principle seems to be the default position these days, when so many organisations are being held to account by a rabid press feeding on deep insecurities.

So there we have a dichotomy: tighten everything up and you strangle the life out of it, leave it as it is and lay yourself open to accusations of a failure of responsibility.

If we take the safety suggestions that come up and critically examine them, we can make a judgement about how they would affect CS. Whether they would help to prevent predators from exploiting the trust system or whether the cost would be too high because it would undermine the trust on which the whole organisation is based.

Moreover, we have to be aware that CS is an organisation with a large membership and relies on volunteers. Some measures will be impractical because of this.

We need to keep our feet on the ground. A reality check.

But first we need ideas, so we can critically examine them. Some may be useful, others less so. But it is moving forward.


Posted August 15th, 2009 - 7:32 pm by from Wuerzburg, Germany (Permalink)
couchsurfing will always be as dangours as general life is. stop overdoing to security measures to an extent that will kill the fun.
if been a member for some time now and my "stomach" feeling so far always led me to make the right decision. i will not accept rude requests from ppl with comments that seem not too positive, and once upon a time i just wont agree to a request because it simply feels wrong.
but i cant ever have 100% security - which is ok - no matter if i let a cser or a disco pick up stay at my place. that is - thank god - up to my own good judgement!!
ive had the most wonderful, also at times romantic cs acquaintences, and i would have all missed that had there been a by-invitation-only system!!!
had i stuck to the rules (if they were rules and not guidelines) id had to leave a poor polish guy, who got my address wrong by accident, in the hostel- and bus free neighbor town on a cold night. no, i went and picked him up at 11:30 pm. result: positive.
i got two requests from a finish guy (emigrant) and as they seemed fishy i turned him down with the reason that he only had two refrences one of them being neutral-neg. sounding. i got insulted in the reply.

dear wojciech, no matter if i book a hotel or sleep under a bridge, i always stand a chance of getting close to bad people. dont harass the average, 99% content couchsurfer with overly tight security measures and make ppl paranoied. its like driving, the state let ppl have their license even though its dangerous to drive and deaths happen. but the alternative would be a way worse life for all of us. i personally, i'd rather live with the 1% chance of dying a painful death some day then be staying put.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 10:40 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Hi Patricia. If I summarize your post hopefully correctly your point is that CouchSurfing is reasonably safe, about as safe as life in general, and safe enough for you because your "stomach" feeling has always kept you safe. And you are afraid that discussing safety concerns in an alarming way and thinking about controlling the access to the community will take too much fun out of it.

I agree with much of what you say but would like to make these comments:

I believe and hope CouchSurfing is actually safer than life in general. Does that mean that when weaknesses are identified we should not try to address them and make CouchSurfing even safer?

I myself have also been spared negative experiences for more than two years of extensive hosting and surfing now, and I also believe that my "stomach feeling" and life experience have helped with that. I also believe, however, that some luck was involved and that this luck can one day run out. I'd like that day to be later rather than sooner. And many of my guests and hosts who have been less lucky or cautious have shared appalling stories with me, from hosts being completely drunk at arrival with no backup plan for the night over aggressive flirting and aggressive behaviour in general to sexual harrassment. These are first hand accounts by people who I now consider to be good friends and for whom I care. Like Wojciech, I therefore believe that with two very serious abuse cases becoming public in the same week this is the time to reflect seriously on what can be done to take more avoidable risk out of the system and make the more vulnerable members safer.

As a general comment on what I have been reading this past week in numerous groups I find it quite surprising that many of the most ardent supporters of improving safety are men, and some of the strongest opponents are women. I wonder if some women tend to be braver because they have gotten used to unpleasant and dangerous situations or don't want to appear weak while many men discover them via incidents like the ones we are discussing here and are protective for evolutionary or cultural reasons.

Let's assume CouchSurfing is at least as safe as life in general and as staying in a hostel or even a hotel where you don't know anything about anybody and leave your room key at reception, and probably even safer, but not as safe as some younger or less experienced members believe because that is the general tone set by the "we are all a big happy family"/"99.9% of all experiences are positive"/"this member is verified - you can be comfortable that he is who he says he is" messages.

Without going as far as access by invitation only, wouldn't more honesty, realism and education go a long way in making life more difficult for the predators, without necessarily taking too much fun out of CouchSurfing?


Posted August 15th, 2009 - 11:53 pm from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 9:09 pm by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
I find the suggestion of an automatic post reference survey put forward by Filmstar very appealing. I now wonder if there is an advantage compared to the idea put forward by Jaoa and Jana up in this thread to have a list of certain questions in the anonymous part of the reference. If we want to have an anonymous survey then why not in the reference directly?

@Filmstar: You said “references seem to be a bit of a one off activity”. But how often should we have this survey emails? Wouldn’t that be considered kind of spam if you’d find them every now and then in your post box?

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 11:01 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Hi Niels.

"If we want to have an anonymous survey then why not in the reference directly?"

As I see it, one of the objectives of a confidential survey (rather than "anonymous" since the respondent would be known to MDST) is as a first step to detect the serial offenders like BANDIDLEADER who have so far been flying under the radar screen because nobody dared to come forward.

So the survey would only have to be done once, if subsequently each reference triggers a follow-up message asking if there is anything else we should know.

I can see the concern about too many messages. I guess the details of that and if it should be possible to opt out of receiving them are up for debate.

It has also been suggested that there should be a direct link to the Member Dispute and Safety team on the page we use to write references and/or on every profile. It is true that today few members will have heard of MDST and the way to contact CouchSurfing before running into a problem and it should be made clearer what they can and should do when this happens. A "report a problem with this member" button on every profile seems like a good idea to me, both in terms of a deterrent for misconduct and a way to ensure serious problems are reported.

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 11:08 pm by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Two more things Nils:

Sorry for having mispelled your name, and the reason why probably the confidential option should not be offered right on the reference page is that it could results in even fewer negative comments being left publicly which could be counterproductive, depending on how much we can trust MDST to act on these comments.

Posted August 16th, 2009 - 9:05 am by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
Hi Polyglot,

that is a good point. Haven’t thought about that. Some people might refrain from leaving a negative reference, when they could also chicken out and give an confidential complaint. The amount lost in this way could be nevertheless be marginal, since these people would not have left a reference in the past:

An important counter-argument you forget is that many people with bad experiences won’t leave any reference at all and consequently won’t get any survey message.

The idea of ‘follow up emails’ wasn’t very clear, as far as I see, in the respect of WHAT should be followed up. Maybe not leaving a reference as I took the idea, but every CS request should be followed up. Then you will have to answer many more emails for nothing but clicking on ‘no surfing came off’. That is a disadvantage - yet not outweighing the advantages, I'd say.

So, having considered this I think, we should have a more precise confidential part in the reference themselves and additionally a email survey for every CS request.

Posted August 16th, 2009 - 9:34 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Hi :)

MODERATOR COMMENT:

@Polyglot, Nils, I like your discussion, but can you take the ideas about follow-up confidential references etc to the thread "Detecting problems with hosts/guests"?

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=22156&post=3606715

Just let's try to be more organized :) Thank you :)

Posted August 15th, 2009 - 7:50 pm from Leipzig, Germany
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Posted August 15th, 2009 - 7:59 pm by from London, England (Permalink)
IP addresses can also be disguised quite easily if you know how to use public proxies and private proxies are commonly used in the work place where everyone accessing the Internet would appear to have the same IP address. In that case you can have huge numbers of people using the same IP address.


Posted August 16th, 2009 - 1:19 am from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 16th, 2009 - 3:14 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
People, I really appreciate you activity, but

MODERATOR'S COMMENT!

Please, don't be lazy and if there are other threads on a given topic, PLEASE, publish post your opinions/ideas/comments in the other threads, ok?

If there is no specific thread and you want to address one specific aspect of safety, PLEASE, feel free to create a new thread.

Already here recently were posted numerous opinions that should have been posted in other, already existing threads.

Don't be lazy, if we are expecting MDST to get busy with our ideas... ok? :)

@Patricia - you addressed me personally so I would love to respond you that I know that life isn't safe. But CS is very special community.

And really, be serious, how much of a common sense do you expect from inexperienced travelers that register in the CS mostly in order to sleep in strangers' houses/apartments??? As I already mentioned in other thread, CS is not really a community driven by 'common sense'. Most of the people outside would tell you that their 'common sense' tell them not to go to the strangers' houses in unfamiliar city/country in order to spend the night there!

And I'm agreeing that 99% or even 99.9% percent of CS are generally good people, but if you take 0.1% from the number 1.2 million, you still get 1.200 rotten apples out there!

Giving advices like 'use your common sense' is useful for people who anyway are using their common sense. But you need experience or instinct for this. And what about the people who don't have such experience???

And it's not only about sleeping in other people houses. Even meeting with the predator in public place may be hard if the predator doesn't want to leave. Some people are not assertive enough to tell sb frankly "go away", they want to be polite and they end up with not very nice experience.

So let's work on safety so as not to take fun from CS :)

Posted August 16th, 2009 - 3:46 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
I found this interesting thread about the guy in Birmingham:

http://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=639&post=3582966

Posted August 16th, 2009 - 11:29 am by from London, England (Permalink)
Well this raises an interesting point.

Any steps that can be taken to increase the safety have to consider who you are trying to protect.

Couchsurfing is a 'broad church'.

There are experienced travelers who have visited many countries, are well read, self reliant and wise enough to perceive of dangers and avoid them.

At the opposite extreme there are people who love the idea of couchsurfing but really do not have a clue. They may be quite immature, just want to party and a bit of an adventure. In the UK we have 'gap year kids' who take a year off before or after university. Generally they have had protected childhoods provided by well meaning parents and this may not have provided them with much equipment to deal with the tribulations of traveling and dealing with situations and different cultures.

CS is becoming very popular with these younger surfers going through this kind of 'right of passage'. I remember well my first steps traveling alone, learning how to hitch hike and find your way around a strange place. It gave me so much confidence and a sense of freedom.

CS is pretty similar to hitch hiking in many ways, it is an exchange, based on a trust in strangers. Somewhat more extreme, because there are absolutely no checks on anyone. I worked for me very well. Hardly a problem over several years of thumbing lifts.

But others....my goodness, the scrapes they got themselves into. One fellow was always getting having to fend off sexual approaches from men. One guy insisted on paying each driver something, he really thought this was the only way to make what he thought was a fair transaction. Others never really understood that people stop because they want company and it is a good idea to be a good travel companion. Engaging the driver in conversation is good start and becoming adept at keeping the conversation open and good natured. Heading off 'situations' is another key skill. I was appalled to learn from one friend that her opening conversation on getting a lift by herself was 'I hope you are not going to try to rape me, are you?' I believe that was the first and last time she ever tried to hitch hike.

CS is like that, some people are naturals, others need some tips on how to behave. For some, they should forget the whole idea completely, because they simply do not have the social skills.

So, how to make it more secure? Well, do we contrive a set of measures aimed at the totally clueless or assume people are confident enough deal with social situations? Too secure and you patronise people who are adult enough to make their own assessments of risk.

Extending the 'duty of care' to deal with the foolhardy, is, I believe, beyond the resources of a volunteer organisation like this and CS emphasises that people are responsible for their own safety, I don't think it could do otherwise. It can give few guarantees without asking for payment from members or finding some other revenue.

However, it can take steps to educate. If CS hosts meet other hosts, then they might get a good idea of what is expected, same for the surfers. The welcoming procedure for new hosts could be given some attention.

How about if an ambassador or another host couchsurfed with a new host? Show them the ropes?

The Leeds incident might have been prevented, that way.

Or maybe there should be some ambassadors who's job it is to go around surfing with a critical eye for warning signs regarding a hosts behaviour.

Like a mystery shopper, a mystery surfer.

I would also educate surfers about their responsibilities. How to be a good guest. At the moment everything is buried in web pages on the site. There is not knowing whether any of these messages are taken in.


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Posted August 16th, 2009 - 11:50 am by from Berlin, Germany (Permalink)
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 12:48 am from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 1:32 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Hi Maureen. Sorry but completely disagree with the idea of making it more difficult to host and especially of introducing a waiting period.

Most people sign up to surf for free. We already lack hosts in many locations, putting surfers at the mercy of the few available hosts and encouraging them to be less selective. If the number of hosts doesn't keep up with the number of guests, it will only make the problems bigger.

When I surf, I often consciously stay with relatively new hosts without references if their profile is well filled in and suits me. They are happy to get started and to get explanations and advice from someone experienced, and I get an enthusiastic host and the satisfaction of having helped.

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 1:54 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
But think about this scenario:

1. New CSer doesn't have any references.

2. Many experienced hosts don't want to host him/her because it's not safe in their opinion

3. The inexperienced CSers ends up surfing the couch of equally inexperienced host, who is also looking for references... or victims...

4. With such an easiness in creating new profiles offenders easily can delete their profile and create the new one, again waiting for new CSers without references who may be pretty desperate (especially if they live on a shoestring and registered to surf for free) and not too picky about hosts...

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 11:46 am by from Paris, France (Permalink)
Sure, but how is it going to help if you make everybody including the majority of good and willing hosts wait for 3 or 6 months hoping to weed out some bad ones?

If anything, new members could be required to host or meet for coffee or a drink before being allowed to surf. But even that I wouldn't support.

We have to be careful that any measures we introduce actually improve safety rather than give the impression that they do that, thereby making the system appear to be safer than it is.

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 5:17 am from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 5:33 am by from Mexico City, Mexico (Permalink)
I thing we just need to be more careful about who are we hosting or who is hosting us. Eliminate last-minute-requests, cause you dont know who is hosting you and can be a bad person. I also thing that you have to meet the person first before hosting him/her and if you dont like the person you can show him an hostal.
As a recomendation, ask for couch to the most active persons of the grupo of the city you are passing by, not randomly.
Greetings from México

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 6:13 am by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
Well, I think it can't be done because there are usually fewer hosts than guests - especially in tourist spots.

And the more active persons are usually fully booked. The problem is that inexperienced CSer who wants to save money will try everyone. And may encounter rogue host :(

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 9:57 am by from London, England (Permalink)
Eliminate last minute couches?

Some hosts and some surfers ONLY use this service.

I met one lady living in central London who ignored all couchsurf requests and just looked at 'nearby travellers' and decided from their profile if they seemed interesting and offered a personal invitation to meet or be her guest.

Hosts and surfers find each other in different ways for the best of intentions.



Posted August 17th, 2009 - 3:11 pm from New Territories East, China
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 4:00 pm by from Shenzhen, China (Permalink)
I agree :)

BTW, we have guidelines from today :) Please, take a look :)

Posted August 17th, 2009 - 4:56 pm from Brighton, England
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 12:34 pm from Paris, France
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Posted August 17th, 2009 - 4:43 pm by from London, England (Permalink)
I get the impression from your observations that Parisians are pretty inhospitable.

I have heard that flat sharing is uncommon and personal space is guarded jealously. Invitations are only extended to prospective partners.

Is this true? Is CS Paris supported mainly by non-Parisians?

And what of the rest of France?

Posted August 18th, 2009 - 7:15 am from New Territories East, China
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