The Indian CouchSurfing Scam

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Antonia and Kim CouchSurfing - Jaipur, India

India is synonymous with scam. Wherever you go, you are squeezed for every rupee. Luckily, even if you pay triple the normal price for a bus ticket, it’s still only $5. I know this sounds very cynical, but unfortunately, we have had our fair share of hassle on the subcontinent. After a few days of hustling, we were ready for a more authentic and hassle-free experience.

We were eager to taste some of the “Indian hospitality” that the guidebooks and other travelers talk about while avoiding the pricey home stays. What better way than to CouchSurf…or so we thought.

We had surfed six times before on this trip, and we’ve only had great experiences. We still keep in touch with most of our hosts, and we look forward to hosting them when we resettle in the United States. We had no reason to believe Jaipur, India would be any different. Before you assume we were robbed or tortured, know that nothing all that bad happened. We don’t even regret surfing in India, but we are compelled to share these warning signs.

Here are a few things we found suspicious about our CS experience in India:

1. Incomplete Profiles

Many of the Indian profiles are incomplete, don’t have a pictures, and seem a little off. It was hard to find a handful of people that we were comfortable sending a request to.

2. Fast Responses…a little too fast.

We only sent two requests to two families for a last minute couch for four people. The other couple didn’t have a profile, but we vouched for them and hoped it wouldn’t turn off a host. Both responded with a “yes” very quickly. In the past, we’ve sent out dozens of requests for just the two of us and still had trouble getting hosted.

3. Cab drivers knew our host by name

When we got off the bus in Jaipur, the usual group of taxi and rickshaw drivers were crowding around us and yelling prices at us. We picked one and showed him the address. He said, “Oh, CouchSurfing! Yes, I know this man. I take his people.” Okay…a little weird, but he knew where to take us at least.

4. Warning from the driver

The taxi driver was very friendly and told us that he doesn’t force people to go shopping or visit restaurants. He is against taking commission for things like that. Sure, buddy. He chatted for a little bit about his painting and tabla playing hobbies. Then, he said he felt he should tell us that in India there is a CS scam going on. Hosts will be very friendly and hospitable and offer to drive you to the sights.

Then, they will tell you they need to stop to pick something up at a store. They tell you how good the quality is and that the prices are very fair, not touristy. You end up buying something and your CS host secretly gets commission. He told us some stories about our specific host that he had learned from other guests and begged us not to tell our host so that he told on him. Do we trust a taxi driver of all people? Hard to say, but we tried to keep an open mind about our host.

5. Details not disclosed

The house had one spare room for guests and it was taken by another CSer, which we were not aware of. Instead of sleeping in the main house, we slept in the basement and had to use the toilet and shower built just for CS guests on the roof. That is fine, we were last minute guests, but we weren’t told about the other guest ahead of time and the facilities seemed a bit off. It felt like checking into an hostel instead of coming into someone’s home. Our host barely asked us a single question about ourselves.

6. Let’s go shopping!

As we got to talking to the other guest, we found out that he had gone shopping with our host that day. Convenient.

Our host was taking him around to some temples and said he needed to stop in to a new shop to look at bedspreads. He also showed him a nice suit jacket that he had purchased there for a very good price. The guest ended up spending $700 on two suits and a handful of dress shirts when he planned on buying nothing at all. Shouldn’t he have gotten more for his money in India? He also mentioned that the people seemed to know our host pretty well, but attributed that to him having just purchased the jacket there a few weeks before. Hmm…a little suspicious.

7. Tall tales

Our host liked to entertain. He did some card tricks and told lots of jokes and stories. He also told us about some negative CS experiences he had. His stories were very elaborate and somewhat unbelievable. Conveniently, his wife felt guilty for leaving negative feedback, so there is no record of these guests on his profile.

We were also warned about the taxi scams, shopping, restaurants, gems, etc. He even went so far as to mention our specific taxi driver (the same one who had secretly warned us about him) and said he wasn’t sure if he could be trusted. It seems like they were playing a game with each other. Do we trust the driver, our host, both, neither?

A few other little details about his life also seemed fishy. His three Masters Degrees, insanely high salary (for India), and family history stand out. He told us he hoped to have a daughter someday because he had no sisters. Later, his wife showed us their wedding photos and pointed out his sisters to us. We clarified to make sure something wasn’t lost in translation, but she knew English well enough and confirmed that those were his sisters.

8. Pressure to stay longer

He wanted us to stay and “chill” with him the next day and he would drive us around, even though he had to work for part of the day and take his wife to the doctor. We didn’t want to be a bother, so we booked a car for our sightseeing. He seemed very put off by this and acted a little cold to us that evening.

He was also very adamant about us staying an extra night to just hang out with him for a day. He asked us to cancel our bus tickets and told us he could get a ride for us to Jaipur, or find us another CS host in Pushkar. He wanted us to stay and hang out with him all day. He told us we should relax. Again, it could have just been him being friendly, but he was very pushy.

9. Internet, phone, and tuk-tuk weirdness

He was very reluctant to let us use his internet or phone even though we needed to book trains and hotels for our next stop. We asked him a few times about the internet and he mentioned something about his office being disturbed and so we just didn’t try again.

The morning we were to leave we asked if we could call a car. His wife called him and he told her that we could just walk to the main road and grab a tuk-tuk. We wanted to call our same driver. Our host called back and said we could all four take one tuk-tuk. We told him no thanks, we’d just get a car. The tuk-tuk driver showed up anyway and hour early. Quite annoying.

So, scam or not?

Not sure, but I know it was a very bizarre CS experience. Our host never specifically asked us to go shopping or recommend we go anywhere, but we didn’t get the usual friendly feeling that CSing brings. Again, the experience really wasn’t all that bad, but I’m convinced it would have been if we were a bit more naive. His wife was actually quite friendly when he wasn’t around, she told us how they met, showed us the wedding album, and gave us henna tattoos. But, we didn’t feel like we were in someones home because it was very business-like. We felt like he was entertaining us more than getting to know us. He asked very few questions about the four of us. He may have been pushing us to stay so he could stop by a shop with us, but we’ll never know.

He has lots of positive reviews, so we aren’t sure what to think. The guy that he took shopping seemed to think nothing of it. He had no clue that our host may have gotten commission from his shopping spree. Can that many CS guests be so naive? Or, did he just begin the scam after his positive profile was built up? Was the taxi driver just out to ruin CS hosts because they are taking profit away from hotels? There are too many possibilities!

We tried to leave Neutral feedback and he bombarded us with messages and had other CS members send us messages as well asking us to remove it. It was quite annoying. Unfortunately, CouchSurfing has some restrictive policies for member reviews, and our review was flagged as “speculation”. Our feedback was removed. Maybe this is why he only has positive remarks.

Scam or not? You decide, but this experience left us wondering if one can do anything in India without being fleased. This is a word of warning to others. I don’t want to discourage people. Just keep your eyes open for suspicious activity! If you’ve had similar experiences or positive ones, please leave a comment!

Posted from: Wang Mai, Pathum Wan, Bangkok, Thailand

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