About 4 weeks ago I went back to my hometown to stay with my family before going on a bigger trip in the upcoming months. Because I have largely lost connection to my old friends from school, I was randomly searching for people in my hometown to meet up with. I come from Eisleben, which is a 25.000 people town in the heart of Germany. I was really surprised when I checked the host search on Couchsurfing for Eisleben. It lists 8 pages of results with a total of 117 hosts. I had conducted a similar search some years ago, back then it showed about 8 members. All profiles were real. I did not expect any more in this little town, since we have no college or whatever, it is not very attractive to international people.
Almost 100 internationals in and around a countryside town in Germany?
When I checked the 117 hosts it turned out that out of the 117 only 18 had a picture and another handful had actual German names. At the same a lot of profiles had English sounding names like Van Connors or Melissa Galway. That would not be unusual if we wouldn’t be talking about my hometown. There are foreigners here, but they come as tourists (we are the birthplace of Martin Luther) and hardly stay a day in town. The ONLY English speaking person living in Eisleben that I can remember, was the pastor of our local church who came here from Chicago! So a huge number of people with English names is highly unlikely. I did check when the profiles were created: All said that the „Last login“ was „over 2 years ago“. Now that is around 2013 to 2014.
Other destinations show empty profiles too
To countercheck my suspicion I started looking for data that provided similar evidence in random places around the world. While there seem to be 140.000 profiles around New York City I could find pages of profiles with names, no photos, no login, no information and Couch status set to „Maybe accepting guests“ all created between 2 and 4 years ago. Same in towns in Lithuania, Russia etc. Here I could also notice a weird phenomena. In Petropavlosk-Kamchatskiy, a town on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula I found those same 2 year old profiles as empty as the other ones with Russian names transcribed into Latin letters. I also found a large number of empty profiles with typical Lithuanian names in Alytus, Lithuania. Those were the searches that I conducted. I am sure the same would happen elsewhere. While the fact that those profiles exist is nothing strange, the actual number of them is.
Advertising with inflated numbers of fake profiles
Just to check, I also looked at destinations Couchsurfing suggests to me. CS advertises on its page to have 4000 available couches in Gold Coast, Australia. However, if you go to the last pages of the search you already find only those empty profiles as described before. I also started scrolling through the Couchsearch for Gold Coast from the beginning. On page 20 of the results, the fake profiles start to be the majority. There is a total of 231 pages with 20 profiles each. For me profiles are inactive after one week of no login. So I set filters. Since I also do not login sometimes for 2 weeks or even a bit more I set the filter for a Last login to have been within a month, which shows at least a bit of activity on CS. Even with this fair approach the number of available hosts in Gold Coast goes down to 303 members.
Statistics show a huge increase in 2013
While I have met many people in my 10 years using Couchsurfing, some of the people have not logged in a couple of years. They are still in searches too. But they have photos and references. Those profiles in Eisleben or Gold Coast do not. Because I was looking for facts to support this evidence I happened to find a recent blogpost from computer scientist Max Klein from the States who found evidence for the increase of profile creation with no references or verification around the year 2013. He doesn’t say how he gathered the number but I have written to him to confirm it.
He also suggests that those fake profiles were created after Couchsurfing has received investments from several capital firms. All together it was around 22 millions that CS received. Before they had been claiming to found a non-profit but founder Casey Fenton said that the IRS had not approved the 501c(3) non-profit status for Couchsurfing. So he ended up making it a so-called B-Corp that is supposed to be „socially responsible“. He received investments from several capital firms, one being also investors at Airbnb.
Couchsurfing at least tolerates spam profiles and uses them for advertising
I don’t want to suggest that Couchsurfing has created fake profiles to gain attention and attract people to register on the site. It could just have been a spambot who used those profiles to send out automated messages. But it is at least clearly visible that Couchsurfing does tolerate those spam profiles. Couchsurfing also does like to claim a high number of users (currently it advertises 12 million), since this is critical to a service that wants to provide „free accommodation worldwide“. I personally have not seen an increase in the usage of Couchsurfing as well in activity as in personal requests or couches. Activity has rather decreased since the heydays from 2008 to 2011. So has the quality of requests for my couch.
If however evidence suggests that these profiles were even created intentionally, Couchsurfing could face legal trouble. In Germany the founders of the dating app Lovoo have just been busted for supposedly creating fake profiles and even using them to communicate with members and trigger them to use paid services. The founders of Lovoo are now facing a trial for fraud.
Couchsurfing needs to clear it’s database from fake profiles
The least the management of Couchsurfing can finally do, is to clear the Couchsearch and database of all fake profiles. Also people who have not logged in for over 2 or at least 3 years are not very likely to return. I suggest a mailing action to those members to either log in to remain or have their profile suspended and taken out of the search results within a certain period of time. CS also needs to communicate an accurate number of its active members. Couchsurfing owes this to them, the investors and the public sphere. This would be worth the trust that it asks from it’s members.
Disclaimer: Peter Althaus has been a member of Couchsurfing for 10 years and has served as an ambassador to the Couchsurfing community. He was supporting CS to become a non-profit organisation and ceased volunteer work after CS announced to become a B-Corp and received investments.