Sex surfer hit on me, says S'porean couchsurfer
At first, the friendly Italian seemed genuinely curious about Singaporean culture. But when he began to get physically closer, Chloe realised that learning about other cultures was not on his mind.
The 26-year-old Singaporean, who asked that we not publish her name, was holidaying in the Italian city of Pisa with a female friend and decided to find a local host on the couchsurfing.org website.
Chloe, who works in the education industry, wanted to better understand the local culture and get an insight into a festival that was going on.
The site, popular among young Singaporeans, connects travellers with people to meet with, and even to stay with in their homes.
Chloe and her friend met a fellow couchsurfer at a cafe.
The couchsurfer had good references and reviews and things seemed friendly enough, so when her friend had to return to their hotel to get something, Chloe was comfortable enough to stay with their host.
They were watching the festival from a bridge when he started moving closer to her.
"His face came really close to mine and he moved his whole body towards me," Chloe recalled.
"His legs started touching mine. I was very uncomfortable, but he didn't seem to read my body language," she said.
Her host continued this for at least another 10 minutes.
We tried to contact Chloe's host for his side of the story, but he did not respond.
Her story is not unique and more people are putting up warnings that the site is developing a sub-culture of sexsurfing.
For example, a travel and lifestyle website, Matador Network, published an article in April titled "Using Couchsurfing to hook up: The unspoken culture of Sexsurfing".
Chloe has had other questionable experiences with couchsurfing and one of them took place when she was looking for a local to meet up with in Venice.
She said: "A guy replied saying he loved Asian culture and would love to meet up with me. But then he started sending me photos of himself topless and in his swimming trunks. He also asked me for photos of myself."
She blocked the user and reported him to the couchsurfing safety team.
Various forums also reveal how some people are using the site to hook up.
In December, US-based news portal Business Insider interviewed a couchsurfing member who claimed that he used the website to meet and have sex with women travellers.
The man said he hosts women and accepts them based on how attractive they look in their profile pictures.
He revealed that he learnt not to make a move on his guest too early so that she would not be scared away. He would strike when the visitor is about to sleep by asking her to join him in bed.
He claimed he has slept with five of his guests.
There is also an infamous, now viral, blog post called "8 Signs Of A Slutty Couchsurfer Girl".
In it, the writer describes his moves. He seeks out female couchsurfers who put up multiple photographs of them with their mostly male hosts and who surf their hosts' couches for a week or longer.
He says these are the women who are easier to seduce.
When contacted, a member of the couchsurfing safety team said they do "on many levels work with members (or law enforcement if necessary) to take all the necessary measures in each case".
The administrator of the Couchsurfing Singapore Facebook group, Mr Ummar Hasim, 27, said the safety team and the group administrators do not have the authority to take action against abusive users.
In cases of serious harassment, he said it is more advisable to go straight to the authorities.
He added that the group's administrators do go the extra mile to help Singaporean couchsurfers in trouble.
Mr Hasim recalled an incident a few weeks ago when a solo Singaporean couchsurfer went missing in Cambodia for 10 days.
"I contacted my network of couchsurfers in Cambodia to help keep a lookout for him," he said, adding that the man was soon found receiving treatment at a hospital in Cambodia after a motorcycle accident.
Despite the dodgy encounters she has had, Chloe plans to go couchsurfing again.
She said she would take precautions, such as sending a message to travellers who have stayed with the host before to ask them what their experience was like and meeting her host in a crowded place like a train station.
"You still meet weirdos in any situation, so it's just a matter of how you keep yourself safe."
"His legs started touching mine. I was very uncomfortable, but he didn't seem to read my body language."
- 'Chloe' , on her encounter with a couchsurfing host in Italy's Pisa
STAY SAFE WHILE COUCH SURFING
READ THEIR PROFILE
Before you agree to meet someone, scrutinise his/her profile and the references that other travellers have given to the person. Be wary if there is even one negative reference. Send a message to whoever wrote it to find out more.
Send messages to a few travellers who have previously written references for the person you are about to meet to find out more about their experiences.
GET TO KNOW THEM FIRST
Start a correspondence with the person you intend to meet to get to know him/her better before meeting.
GET THEIR CONTACT
Ask the person for his or her mobile number.
Meet the person in an open public space, such as a train station or a cafe, especially if you are travelling alone.
TELL YOUR FRIENDS
Inform a few friends about your whereabouts in case of an emergency.
Do not hesitate to write a negative reference or report someone who behaves inappropriately with you. This way, future couchsurfers can avoid being caught in a similar situation.
Read through the "Recognising and Reporting Abuse" page on couchsurfing.org. It provides examples of which messages, profiles and posts are considered abusive and which are not.
For instance, those who ask surfers for money in exchange for their hospitality, or send messages that solicit sex, should be reported.
WHAT IS COUCHSURFING?
Couchsurfing founder Casey Fenton came up with the idea for the project in 1999 and launched the official website with co-founders Daniel Hoffer, Sebastien Le Tuan and Leonardo Silveira in 2004.
Couchsurfers get the chance to stay with locals and experience local culture first-hand, without having to spend on hotels or package tours.
In return, surfers write references for their hosts on their profile page, thanking them for their hospitality and vouching for them as reliable hosts.
Surfers can also write negative references for their host if they have an unpleasant experience.
Alternatively, couchsurfers can arrange meet-ups, say over a cup of coffee, to share about each other's cultures.
Couchsurfing has gained nine million members across 120,000 cities worldwide.
Singapore has about 34,000 members who have registered on the website.