Despite my criticisms of CouchSurfing I have had absolutely amazing experiences through the site and have met terrific people through there. It’s a certain subset of the community I have a problem with, and to a far larger extent the actions of Casey and the organization itself. While I may not be able to stand Super-Hippies, I can always ignore them. I can’t ignore watching people think they are paying for a service and giving to a good cause and just watch them be taken advantage of. Due to the lack of transparency and legal questionability it is hard to recommend CouchSurfing at this time. Unfortunately sometimes that is hard to do because the massive user base is just too attractive. In which case at least be careful how you use it. If at all possible, use the other sites until the numerous issues that plague CouchSurfing are resolved. I really hope that it won’t be too long before I can make a follow on post celebrating the fact that all of the issues have been resolved, and I can happily recommend the site to everyone.
From an experienced traveller and the author “All that is wrong with the world” blog, this substantial critique was last updated May 2010 (excerpts):
“The CouchSurfing service is plagued by problems that most people are perhaps not aware of. These problems range from defrauding and scamming users, illegal behavior, gross violations of privacy, a complete lack of any real appeals or dispute resolution process and censorship. Many of the members were so frustrated that the OpenCouchSurfing was started as a result. A plea for an open and transparent organization without all of the secrecy and deception that plagues the current incarnation of CouchSurfing. Also interesting is a small list of people stating why they refuse to volunteer for CouchSurfing. Searching around the web will yield many stories of negatives experiences with CouchSurfing, not with bad hosts or guests but with CouchSurfing directly such as deleting peoples accounts for no reasons while silencing critics and illegal behavior. One interesting question to ask of those who advocate the CouchSurfing Spirit – do you think the following behaviors and actions of the organization what the community believes to be the spirit? Please keep that question in mind while reading ahead. There seems to be a very large gap between what the users know and understand and the organization itself. This has to stop.
Fraud and illegal behavior
CouchSurfing have engaged in much questionable behavior almost since their inception as an organization. The most obvious and perhaps controversial of these behaviors is their management of donation money, and the fact that they have referred to themselves as both a charity and as a non-profit organization in the past misleading many people. They state that being a non-profit is essential to their mission and guiding principles, and that they rely entirely on the voluntary donations of members. I have no issue with them being a non-profit, but for them to have received charity status is crap. CouchSurfing is not a charity, in any sense of the word except legally. They do not directly provide any services or do any charitable actions; they merely offer a service so people can offer charity to each other. They are the enabler for people to provide charitable services, they do not provide any charitable services themselves. CouchSurfing should have their charity status revoked after a full investigation of what the charitable services they actually provide is performed and they are shown to only offer a website, and use donation money to pay for rent and food of staff members.
A problem at the moment is that CouchSurfing is a currently registered charity organization and they may have obtained this status status on false grounds by misrepresenting the organizations role in the community, and that the organization is not compliant with the various reporting and disclosure requirements for charities. As per a message on a CouchSurfing mailing list, CouchSurfing was due to file a tax return in 2009 along with an independently conducted financial audit. This is required to be made public yet four months later nothing has been released. The problem with CouchSurfing not releasing the information as they are required to is it becomes difficult for people and organizations to verify that the donation money that people give in good faith is being used in a responsible way. Given that all of CouchSurfing’s behavior indicates they have something to hide and the fact that the organization can not be said to do any charitable work I think this is the most likely situation. In which case as above I think a full investigation should be conducted before the organization is allowed to continue soliciting donations. Later on in the same CouchSurfing thread I linked to above, a rough analysis of CouchSurfing’s legitimacy as a charity organization is performed by Margaret using the Charity Navigator methodology as a guide. According to Margaret’s calculations 69.87% of the donation money CouchSurfing receives allegedly goes to administrative costs involved with running the website (suuuure) which going by Charity Navigator’s guidelines would place CouchSurfing squarely in the runaway category.
It is also important to to mention that from 2003 – 2007 CouchSurfing’s structure as an organization was illegal. The reason for this is that Casey had himself listed as CEO as well as the chair of the Board of Directors. This arrangement is illegal under New Hampshire law and so any donations taken during this time and any contracts CouchSurfing entered into may not have been valid. If it turns out that charitable donations of time and money made to CouchSurfing when it did not exist in the correct form legal are invalid, then CouchSurfing should be made available for any loss suffered as a result. Based on the evidence I have seen and what is publicly available, it appears the only reason CouchSurfing is looking to be a charity/non-profit org is to get tax exempt status. That’s it. To keep living a certain lifestyle funded by a deceptive verification scheme without ever having to pay taxes. Casey Fenton (the founder and leader of CouchSurfing) has to either clear up these misconceptions or be held accountable.
Regardless of the credibility of CouchSurfing’s charity status it appears that the legal requirements have not always been met, and were even knowingly and willing broken. Quoted from a message by user Pickwick : “New Hampshire law does not allow the chairman/president of a charity to be an employee at the same time. So when Casey as chairman/president signed his own employment contract he violated that law, and for this reason alone the contract may be invalid.“. There is no question that Casey is an employee of CouchSurfing, receiving a salary of some $70k per year. Casey also seems to be without a doubt the leader and president of CouchSurfing. When Casey was on the Board of Directors and also an employee, then this was illegal. Not only was this a violation of law this would also be a case of Casey committing perjury. The implications of this are significant, as all employment contracts would be invalid, all contracts and legal agreements would be invalid, further laws would have been violated etc…
Of note are the application forms originally submitted by Casey to get nonprofit status. It is evident in the original filing (the first link) that Casey was listed as the President, Treasurer, Secretary and head of the Board of Directions in violation of NH law. I don’t believe that their have been any ramifications for CouchSurfing having an illegal structure for four years. The second link shows the reasons CouchSurfing used to obtain charity status. CouchSurfing is organized exclusively for charitable, religious, educational and scientific purposes? I think not. To internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding? This is more acceptable, however out of those that are actually obtainable CouchSurfing is not the facilitator. They offer a website which enables others to organize such exchanges and offer charity without having any direct involvement themselves. Looking at the CouchSurfing Terms of Service, they state that “Many in-person meetings are held by groups of interested members and are not sponsored or organized by us.”. If RedCross ran a website that enabled volunteers to help those in need without doing charity work themselves or putting their donation money to good use, would people still support them and give donations so readily? Lastly the second form states that “No part of the net earnings of the organization shall inure to the benefit, of or be distributable to its members, trustees, officers, or other private persons…”. Well a quick look at CouchSurfing’s financial information shows that not being honored.
This really needs to be properly and thoroughly investigated. There are some very serious and obvious discrepancies that need to be sorted out. The financial statements and registration information made available through the organization and the website do not match those provided to the New Hampshire authorities. What exactly is going on? The most recent financial information has not been made available when it should have been and it is now almost a quarter later. At least some people before have been disillusioned, with CouchSurfing even being reported to the New Hampshire District Attorney in 2007. I am unclear what the outcome of this was, and suspect the investigation is ongoing.
Now, to examine the financial information. It is important to note here that despite a legal obligation to do so, the financial records for 2009 have not been released, so I will be going by the records for 2008. The net income for 2008 was $ 128,455.55. The total income was $788,297.70, with $783,977.23 coming from contributed donations. This can be read as the income from the verification process. Somehow, a not for profit organization that boasts about having a virtual office managed to spend the majority of this income, despite not paying to organize events(the members organize these out of pocket) and not having an office. Looking at the expense, the aside from salaries, the majority of the rest of the money goes towards travel, rent and food. Those four expenses account for more than a third of the total income, with nothing to show for it.
A not for profit organization or charity should not be using income to provide food and rent for its members, and doing so does not qualify them as a charity. Since CouchSurfing provides the food and rent expenses for members, their salaries should be adjusted accordingly to reflect they have no cost of living. There are numerous messages on the CouchSurfing mailing lists pointing out that the income has not been reported as is legally required, and that the income seems to be used for alcohol and drugs and not anything of actual value or related to work. Almost every way you look at it, it appears the contributed income is being used to perpetuate the lifestyle of Casey and friends rather than being put back into the organization. In fact at the moment Casey and his friends are all living in a sharehouse in Istanbul with the donation money paying for their food and travel. They don’t do any work, at least not that anyone has ever seen evidence off and get to lay around each do doing what they like. Clearly this is not how the people who donated money to CouchSurfing expected their donations to be used. There have been several allegations by volunteers and members that at collectives and CouchSurfing meetings there are dedicated “sex rooms”, something that was also mentioned in Bryan’s resignation letter. It is worth mentioning here the leaked minutes from a 2009 meeting of the CS staff. Nothing pertaining to CouchSurfing is discussed or how things could be improved. Instead ways to have more fun are discussed and given a priority. The suggestions for improvement include more pillow fights and to give each other more massages. The general managers only goal is to “find knobs to twiddle”. This is where people donation money is going. A search through the CourchSurfing mailing lists(as well as some of the discussions I have linked to) will show discussions on this point. Given how they conduct their meetings I don’t find that idea hard to believe, when in fact the notion should be absurd. To quote from the CouchSurfing About page: “CouchSurfing’s non-profit status legally mandates that all resources must be spent directly on achieving the mission”. This does not seem to be the case and I doubt that anyone who made a donation would approve of this.
Even so, the remaining net income does not seem to be being used in any meaningful way. Having it as an emergency fund is not good enough. There are problems that could be fixed, and this is where the money should be going. The rest of the expenses are dubious as well. The salaries for staff in 2008 more than doubled than the amount in 2007, despite the amount of staff not increasing. What did increase was the amount of contributed income which was also more than double than the amount in 2007. The greatly increased salaries for staff seem to correlate with this. Somehow the verification and postage expenses are more than $34,000. In 2007 the expense was only $10,000. Considering the user base has not tripled from 2007, and the costs of postcard production and mailing have not tripled, why have the expenses tripled? The cost for servers is some $50k, while hosting is a separate some $20k. Both of these expenses are not necessary…it does not cost $50k for servers where you would not have to pay for hosting, and it is doubtful the cost for hosting is $20k. Given how closely the expenses seem to use up the total income, I genuinely believe that these financials are doctored. I would expect expenses to increase somewhat with a user base, but not by the shown percentage when there has not been any additional work or staff intake. How can this not be considered suspicious?
Much of the material on the website appears to be written generically to satisfy authorities or investors without having any real relevant to how the organization actually works or what it is said to represent. No heart has gone into writing these texts and it is quite likely most people never read them. They have not been updated in a long time and no not reflect reality, but boy do they look good on paper.
The CouchSurfing Staff page(now mysteriously removed..) stated that “large salaries aren’t what it takes to find and retain talented team members. Instead, we’ve designed a system that gives our staff intangible rewards that can’t be found elsewhere”. Yet, the salaries are large, and they get salaries in addition to free rent, food and travel. There are numerous reports on the CS mailing lists that states that no works seems to be done at collectives. Nevertheless, this is the official development process of CouchSurfing, i.e. there isn’t one. Another point to consider is the treatment of volunteers. Again, there are many, many messages on the mailing lists with volunteers resigning because of the poor treatment they receive. CouchSurfing seems to recruit people with a genuine enthusiasm for the ideal, and secure in the knowledge that there seems to be a near infinite pool of volunteers to recruit from has no motivation to reward them or treat them with a basic level of respect. These are the people who mostly make CouchSurfing function, and they receive absolutely nothing for their work. Which is fine, it’s kind of what being a volunteer means, but they certainly should not have to put up with being dismissed and disrespected for all the hard work they put in. I have not talked about CouchSurfing’s treatment of volunteers in detail here but a cursory search will reveal many stories of woe which fit a recurring pattern. Another point that is quite interesting is that CouchSurfing was pretending to be a charitable organization, a 501(c)(3) back in 2004. 501(c)(3) status is important for many reasons. It is what all charity organizations should eventually seek and shows that the charity has been vetted by the IRS and has been audited. CouchSurfing has already been rejected in their application for 501(c)(3) status, if and they do not gain this status soon they will be unable to remain as a charity in North Hampshire. This means CouchSurfing will no longer be able to accept donations or sponsor volunteers as they current do. There is a good discussion of CouchSurfing’s 501(c)(3) status on the Brainstorm: Redefined group. CouchSurfing claiming to be a 501(c)(3) was originally pointed out on the OpenCouchSurfing website which linked to archive.org. Now, for some reason, CouchSurfing has denied archive.org to archive the contents of the CouchSurfing website. There is absolutely no sound reason for CouchSurfing to do this, as archive.org is a free service and actually benefits the internet community in many ways. The only reason to do this, is because they do not want people to see what they used to say on their site, before the project was more famous. We can just add this to the pile of actions taken by CouchSurfing showing them to be deceitful and untrustworthy.
CouchSurfing as a charity organization should be working to further its cause, and doing charitable things(of which feeding its employees does not count). As a charity they have certain legal obligations which have apparently thus far not been met and may have been willfully violated. More than this they have a duty to the tens of thousands of people who gave donations and became verified in good faith not to abuse their donations. The organization has a duty to responsibly disclose its financial information and to ensure that its organizational structure including the board of directors meets the legal requirements. This may mean Casey and friends have to sacrifice their lifestyle of no work and travel, but it is the ethical and legal thing to do. I genuinely hope that a lot of the accusations that have been made are wrong and that there are perfectly good explanations for everything. Personally I think this is unlikely, and I hope to see the Organization and Casey be made accountable for their illegal actions and failing the community.
The Verification Scam
The CouchSurfing verification system is a scam and nothing more. It is fraud – plain and simple, and CouchSurfing should be held accountable for this. Both BeWelcome and Hospitality Club provides verification of all user accounts for free, and actually verify that users are real people (although not that they are trustworthy, which is impossible). There have been many untrustworthy people on the site who use the faulty verification system to their advantage to pose as trustworthy individuals. One recent and extreme example of this is the rape incident that occurred via CouchSurfing. Now obviously this is a problem that could affect any of the sites. The difference here though is how the other sites would react to the problem and how CouchSurfing reacted to the problem. It seems that the victim reported the offender to CouchSurfing in March, who chose not to react and left the profile enabled for many months until August. That really is unacceptable, and at the least an investigation should have been conducted. I am aware that the offenders profile was not verified, however if CouchSurfing cannot bother to remove the offenders when people actually report issues then how can they be trusted to vet new members of the community? There is an interesting discussion with more links on the OpenCouchSurfing website.
The verification system is completely useless as all it does is process a credit card payment and send a postcard. There is absolutely nothing stopping me from staying at someone’s house and using a stolen credit card sent to my hosts address. Unless that $25 charge is reported as fraudulent I will have been considered verified. Otherwise I could legally use a prepaid credit card at an address I was staying at and be considered verified? The system verifies nothing and scams users, however since it makes money for CouchSurfing it is treated as a priority. To quote from a volunteer who felt he had to resign because of the dishonesty: “The push to hit up members within their first few hours of joining is an attempt to raise funds, not to make the system safer. Period. It’s for money.” Casey wrote a statement as a follow up to Bryan’s resignation letter, a copy of which and subsequent discussion can be read here. To then quote from the CouchSurfing Terms of Service : “Because user verification on the Internet is difficult, we cannot and do not confirm each user’s purported identity.”. That seems reasonable and may be fine, except for the fact that every new user is pressured after joining and logging in to pay for verification, and informed that “Getting verified means that CouchSurfing has checked your identity and confirmed your location. It allows members of the community to feel more confident hosting you or surfing with you.”. Quite different from the reality and very obviously false and misleading. This is obviously fraud, the only question is whether or not it is intentional.
This is clearly wrong as CouchSurfing is charging for this service they should actually have a responsibility to provide a service. I genuinely hope they get taken to court at some point. Their verification system is nothing more than a way to enforce a mandatory donation veiled hidden under a false sense of security to suck in new users who are excited by the idea of hospitality exchange. People who don’t know any better will assume the CouchSurfing staff have actually done some verification, when all they have done is successfully process a credit card payment. I think the vouching system CouchSurfing has is far superior to their verification system and should be expanded, rather than defrauding naive users out of their money. It costs nothing ans is far more reliable than the verification system they try to push on everyone. Unfortunately at the moment it is very limited given the amount of members CouchSurfing has. It is also interesting to note the the verification fee is charged on a sliding scale. Oddly enough this does seem to have good intentions behind it, with the only problem being it is treated exactly like a donation rather than the safety measure it purports to be. If verification is going to be charged on a sliding scale then it should be based on the incident rate of countries that would affect travelers, not the countries PPP which is meaningless to individuals.
It is also prevalent on CS that some younger people will only host people of the same sex. This can be quite frustrating when someone agrees to host you and then has to rescind that offer because their roommate won’t host people of the opposite gender. There is nothing open minded or inviting about such a backwards attitude and it has no doubt developed because of the people that try to use CouchSurfing just as a dating or sex site. If the verification or reference system were worth anything, this attitude would probably not have developed on CouchSurfing, going by the fact it seems almost non-existent on the other hospitality exchange sites.
What is more is that you have no ability to remove content once it is uploaded. There is absolutely no way to permanently delete messages sent on the site. People may have every expectation of privacy, when sending private messages to other members, yet there is no way to delete these messages and ensure that they remain private. It may be acceptable to retain messages for a fixed amount of time for legal reasons, but there is no reason CouchSurfing needs to retain your messages from 5 years ago. I have to wonder with all the financial fraud going on with CouchSurfing, if data is being collected just so it can be sold at a decent price. I am aware of at least one instance where this became a problem. There was a user accused of stealing from a host who may or may not have done so. This user had a great many positive references and just this one negative reference. Despite no police report being filed, this user’s account was deleted. There was no right of appeal; the word of the user who made the claim was accepted regardless of any evidence. Now this user was left with his photo and name appearing in search engines accusing him of a crime, with no recourse to defend themselves. It was only by making legal threats under the DMCA and contacting CouchSurfing’s hosting provider that the damaging material was able to be removed.
If people have a problem with a user breaking the law they should go to the authorities, not sully their reputation with lies on a social networking site. I don’t blame CouchSurfing for the fact that some people will do this, however I do blame them for condoning and allowing this behavior. If CouchSurfing deletes a profile, then they should delete the profile in its entirety. Simply barring access to it and allowing for people to leave whatever references they likes is bad situation which basically amounts to slander. I have heard of many variations of this happening and it needs to stop.
When a user on the site who does not know any better uses the site to send or delete a message, or upload a photo, they have a reasonable expectation that their message will be deleted or their photo will not be abused. I’m sure many people would be surprised and rightfully angered if they realized they had no way to delete messages, and that any photo they uploaded could be used any way CouchSurfing desired, against their wishes. At least a warning that you sacrifice all control when uploading a photo would be nice.
References and the lack of a dispute resolution process
Another large problem is the current referencing system. If it were left alone then it would be useful, as people would be able to judge a person based on the references left to them. As it stands however it is all but useless, as the ambassadors and volunteers will remove the negative references that any of their friends ask them to. Likewise if you are a new member with none or very few references and wish to leave a negative reference for an established member, it is almost a certainty that your reference will be removed while their negative reference will be allowed to remain. Despite all the talk of an open community this is the exact type of behavior that keeps it closed and untrustworthy.
There is a quite recent example of the problem I am describing here. In this situation a user with many positive references and an excellent track histories profile was deleted without any chance for appeal, and without bothering to hear both sides of the story. There is one idiot ambassador in New York, Rachel, who tends to delete profiles of anyone her friends ask her to, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she was at fault here as well. There is also a good example here as well as an interesting discussion about account deletions on CS. Basically the policy CS has in place is not to delete an account unless they have some notification from the police. To quote from the FAQ on member disputes: “?If we receive a police report about another member, we are obligated to remove them from the community.”. This does not have to be a police report nor does there have to have been an actual investigation – all they require is that the authorities were contacted in some form. This policy shows all signs of being in place to protect CouchSurfing, not the members who invest time and money in the site. With the current policy anyone could go to the authority’s and file a complaint, true or not and this would be sufficient to have their account removed. There are a great many users who have almost all negative references and are a bane on the community, but people with many good refereces can be removed simply because someone made a nonsense complain to a police mediator? This is not acceptable – a community as large and dedicated as CouchSurfing’s deserves a proper dispute resolution process with a right of appeal.
Another good example of this is Thomas the Australian who was based in Edinburgh for a while who I am sure many people are familiar with. Thomas was verified and had many positive references. Thomas would tell anyone and everyone they could stay, because he was hoping to get many good references for an upcoming trip around Europe. When these people turned up and were turned away because he had nowhere for them to stay, or every girl got sick of him trying to have sex with them, they rightfully left a negative reference. However because Thomas was verified, and had positive references he managed to get these negative references removed. Here this faulty cash based verification has replaced the more natural and accurate personal reference validation system. If Thomas’ many, many negative references had rightfully remained then people would have stopped wanting to stay with him and having their trips ruined as a result. The cash verification system would have shown to be as useless as it is. This behavior is just unacceptable. How can anyone trust this site if all it takes is a convincing lie to get someone’s profile removed? How can anyone expect to take the site seriously without any kind of appeals or dispute resolution process? For a site with almost 2 million users that really is unacceptable, especially when many of them have probably paid something towards the site. The most recent example is from the 30th April. A female CouchSurfing member in Iceland had her profile deleted due to a misunderstanding, despite being verified and having a great many positive references and being vouched for. I contacted Sabrina who confirmed that she was not contacted or given any warning, and given no opportunity to give her side of the story and try to resolve any misunderstandings. To be so invested in a community to just be removed at a moments notice without any sort of due cause should not be acceptable. Sabrina’s account has actually been restored a few days later, in large part I believe because of the pressure my article has generated.
I also hate the hypocrisy of the current reference system that exists in part. Such a huge emphasis has been placed on the current reference system that people are encouraged to leave overly positive references for each other, even if they only talk for a few minutes. Collecting positive references has become some sort of obsession for a lot of users on the site. With positive references being handed out freely just for saying hello, and negative references removed as long as you know the right people how is the current system to be trusted at all?
There is no avenue of appeal. It is completely CouchSurfing’s right to run their website and community however they like. However simply kicking people out of the community for no other reason than because a high ranking member dislikes someone is just lame. This has happened in many instances, with accounts being instantly deleted without explanation, without any avenue for people to defend themselves or tell their side of the story. All it takes is one member to be friends with any of the volunteer admins and an account can be removed. Any community as large as CouchSurfing should have some sort of decision checking in place rather than simply allowing people to be kicked out for no reason. If I put time and effort into a community and get attached to some of the members of that community, I would like to think that my position is somewhat safe – which is reasonable.
Much of the community feels the same way and there have been calls for a long time now for a transparent and democratic organization. I don’t think that the organization has to be democratic to work but it certainly should be open and transparent, even more so if it is allegedly operating as a charity. A necessary part of having an open and transparent organization would be a trustworthy dispute resolution process. The current system of one person make an emotional opinion after hearing one side of the story isn’t sufficient, not for an organization approaching two million members. All parties must have the opportunity to present their case and the opportunity for appeal. However, CouchSurfing has consistently ignored the calls for these or similar measures to be implemented, which is another reason the alternative sites are so much more attractive.
Recently in December 2009 one of the prominent CouchSurfing ambassadors decided to resign, citing many of the problems and dishonesty of the organization as reasons he felt he could not continue. In his original post he outlines many of the problems with the volunteer system, the abuse of funds, the useless verification system and the reference bias that exists.
This post above was basically deleted, with people being told it was moved to the Ambassadors Private section of the site while Ambassadors were unable to access the message. Only due to people’s outcry and the damage already done was the message restored. It is however a fantastic example of the organizations behavior. A great many more messages and people are removed if the organization does not like what they have to say, and all too often they get away with it.”