In 2019, the Couchsurfing Trust and Safety team is putting a strong focus on what’s commonly known as a “Romance Scam”. It’s a well-known scam, but unfortunately, we find that there are still people who fall victims to these scams. This encourages them to continue and work harder to find new victims. Romance scammers typically target people who are vulnerable and often at a difficult time in their life. They abuse the trust of honest people, like Couchsurfers, in order to enrich themselves with their victim’s money. It’s no surprise that the Couchsurfing platform is not immune to these scammers but there is a lot that can be done to stop them.
Below is a Q&A with Couchsurfing’s Trust and Safety Manager, Florian, on what Couchsurfing does to keep you safe as well as how you can help Couchsurfing’s mission of beating the scammers.
Florian, what is a romance scam exactly?
A romance scammer is someone who creates a fake online persona in order to gain your trust with the goal of asking you for money. The scammers’ fake persona can be male or female, they often present themselves as middle-aged western (Caucasian) males and often claim that they are recently divorced, or sometimes widowed, looking for a new long-term partner. They’ll initially engage in a normal conversation with you and you’ll find that their language skills are quite strong. This is something that we observed has changed over time. A few years ago, you could easily tell that it was a scammer just after reading a couple of sentences. Nowadays we observe that romance scammers not only improved their English skills but they even started contacting our members in multiple languages. I’ve seen them use Korean, Dutch, German and Spanish, just to name a few.
Once a romance scammer has gained your trust, they’ll usually find some type of excuse for you to send them money. Initially they might only ask for a small amount but they’ll come back and ask for more and more. Reasons that they make up may be a sick family member, the need for a travel visa, flight tickets, you name it. We often see that they impersonate doctors or army officers in order to appear more trustworthy and to make up excuses for their different time zones. They’d tell you that they are on an assignment in Africa or in the Middle East which is why they message you during unusual hours.
The way they ask you to transfer money for their bills/flights/visas etc. are typically via wire transfer, visa gift cards and other forms of gift cards (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.) We observe that they often target profiles in their own age range. So, if they impersonate a middle-aged white male, they’ll most likely only target middle-aged females. If you are in a busy city and within that group of people then, unfortunately, chances are you know what I’m talking about.
How often do you see those romance scammers online?
Florian: The reason why we are making this a priority in 2019 is that we have noticed an increased activity in these scams. As mentioned before, some of our members have unfortunately received messages from those scammers and it’s important to us that we spread the word.
In the US, the FTC says that in 2018 they received reports from people who have lost a total of $143 million to romance scams, and that’s only the officially reported figure. The median loss is only reported at $2,600 which shows that the scammers specifically go for lower amounts as you’ll be more likely to make such a transfer. Imagine being asked to pay someone $20k… you’d be a lot less likely to be able to afford that compared to a couple of thousand.
So, this number is across the entire United States. How about Couchsurfing?
We can’t disclose specific incidents in order to protect the privacy of our members but we do get reports from people who either identified an account as a scam or had interactions with them. Couchsurfing has a very active user base with a lot of people across all ages and cultures and this is something the fraudsters are aware which is why we are making a specific effort in 2019 to fight back.
What can be done about the scammers?
The most important things that anyone can do is spread awareness. It’s all about education. The more people know what a romance scam is, the harder it will be for the scammers to find victims.
We always make a point of telling everyone to keep their interactions within our system. This is the best way to stay protected and it also gives us the chance to intervene when something goes wrong. This rule, by the way, doesn’t only apply to romance scammers. This is a good rule to abide by for any type of situation – even when setting up a genuine hosting/surfing arrangement.
Now we don’t only rely on reports from our users. We have a number of very smart tools that we utilize in the background to track down those scammers. We’ve recently made some significant changes to the way these tools are configured which allows us to react even faster and ideally catch the fraudsters before they manage to reach out to any of our members. In the meantime, though, I’d encourage anyone who sees a suspicious message or profile on our platform to please contact the Trust and Safety team.
Find out more about what the FTC says about Romance Scams here.