HK tourists' nightmare at Italian Couchsurfing host's home shows how travel sites can be a path to danger
Recent cases of sexual assault in different parts of the world highlight the risk of independent travel
More and more Hongkongers are travelling overseas independently, encouraged by the growing popularity of travel websites such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb.
But the rising trend in travellers making their own accommodation and transportation arrangements through the internet can be a double-edged sword. While it can make trips less expensive it can also be fraught with danger.
Recent cases that highlight the inherent risks include a former police officer in Italy who lured more than a dozen young women from around the world - including two from Hong Kong - to his apartment near Venice through the Couchsurfing website before allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting them.
The man, Dino Maglio, is due to appear in court next month on the charges and is currently in detention after he breached bail conditions that banned him from using the site.
It is not the first time Couchsurfing has come under fire over safety concerns. In 2009 a Hong Kong woman, 29, was raped by her host, a Moroccan national, who offered her a room in his apartment in Leeds, England. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.
And last month, a 34-year-old Spanish man was jailed for almost 12 years for raping two American women, both in their mid-20s, who had booked a room at his apartment in Barcelona via Airbnb in 2011.
Jennifer Billock, the chief executive of Couchsurfing, would not disclose how many people had stayed with Maglio, who used his position as a police officer to gain members' trust, or how long he had been a member.
"In the interest of member privacy and in order to minimise [the] risk of abuse of member safety and security, we're not at liberty to discuss further specifics of this incident," Billock told the South China Morning Post.
"These horrific crimes hit close to home on a deeply personal level for everyone at Couchsurfing. We're reminded that these women could have been any of us, our friends or family."
While she would not disclose the number of travellers from Hong Kong and the mainland who have used Couchsurfing to find free accommodation in Italy, it is understood to be in the thousands.
A spokesman for Airbnb said the company was "deeply saddened" by the case of the two American women who were raped in Barcelona.
"We immediately worked to support the guests, cooperated fully with law enforcement, and permanently removed the host from Airbnb," he said.
Airbnb now employs more than 150 people in its "trust and safety" team, but the spokesman would not elaborate on whether this was sufficient to deal with millions of guests who use the site. There is no apparent vetting system for hosts.
Couchsurfing and Airbnb are two of the most popular examples of a trend dubbed the "sharing economy" on the internet.
Interest in the "sharing economy" comes as the number of independent travellers - mostly young people travelling on a budget but seeking adventures off the beaten path - is on the rise, especially from Hong Kong and mainland China.
Expedia.com one of the world's largest travel websites, said that in the past six months, it had seen a 184 per cent growth in independent travellers from Hong Kong going to Europe.
Since 2012, figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation show that Chinese tourists top the list as the biggest group of jetsetters, and industry reports show that many are now spurning package tours.
Last May, a survey commissioned by Hotels.com found that 67 per cent of the 3,000 mainland Chinese travellers who responded said they preferred to "to make their own travel arrangements when travelling abroad, rather than joining an organised group". The survey also found that 60 per cent of 3,000 hoteliers around the world had seen a rise in the number of travellers who booked independently in the last two years.
Accommodation booking sites are riding this wave with Airbnb experiencing record growth. Founded in 2008, Airbnb has had 30 million people book accommodation through its site, of which 29 million stays were made in the past three years. The number of travellers from Hong Kong using the site has more than tripled in the past year.
Airbnb has rooms, flats or homes to suit all budgets while Couchsurfing goes one step further - offering free accommodation. These alternatives give travellers flexibility and ample choice, but such platforms have also led to safety concerns when travellers stay somewhere that bypasses the usual regulations imposed on hotels or licensed guest houses.
Airbnb was a growing part of the sector, said David Fraser, Greater China managing director of Flight Centre travel agency. "There are many people who remain sceptical and are concerned about the risks - quality, safety, and some legal issues," he said.
Couchsurfing started more than a decade ago as a non-profit organisation with just a few thousand members, growing on the premise of people opening up their homes to strangers visiting their cities. It has proved hugely popular and membership has mushroomed to a database of 10 million people, mostly in the 20 to 40 age group. In 2011, it became a for-profit company.
Billock emphasised that safety was a top priority "which is why we have a dedicated trust and safety team that is available to help our users at any time during and after their travel". She would not say how big that team was, but said Couchsurfing employed about 20 people who handle a range of issues including safety.
Both Couchsurfing and Airbnb rely heavily on a ratings and review model - similar to platforms such as taxi booking service Uber or travel forum Tripadvisor - which asks users to post positive or negative reports.
These reports are crucial for travellers to assess who they may choose to stay with and are equally important for the host who will get shunned if he or she were to receive a negative review.
Last month, an Indian woman filed a lawsuit against Uber in the United States, accusing the company of failing to ensure her safety after she was raped by a taxi driver in Delhi. The case prompted Delhi authorities to temporarily ban the service for failing to conduct adequate background checks on its drivers. Uber, which has since been reinstated, did not respond to questions.
In the case of Maglio, when one of the victims posted a negative review, he threatened her saying that as a police officer he could report her to authorities and impose travel restrictions across Europe.
Billock declined to detail Couchsurfing's vetting measures for members as it "would give potential system abusers knowledge to better infiltrate the system and would be detrimental to the safety of the community".
Instead, she said members should follow a number of safety procedures. At the top of the list, she urged members to seek host profiles that had been verified.
But the only requirement for a verified account on the site is to make a credit card or Paypal payment of about HK$230.
The Post managed to create a profile with a fake name, paid for the verification with a credit card with a different name and was instantly given a "verified" account that comes with a green tick next to the profile.
Billock refused to answer questions about how this process made a profile superior to one that was not verified.
"It's important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Couchsurfing experiences are positive ones, which we believe reflects the good intentions of the vast majority of our growing community," she said.
Verified accounts were important for Venus Chiu, a jewellery designer who lives in Hong Kong. She joined Couchsurfing in 2013 after hearing about it through a friend.
Last year, the 31-year-old quit her job and set off on a solo three-month trip across Europe, using accommodation she found on Couchsurfing eight times.
She specifically sought accounts that were verified as she regarded these as more trustworthy. "I checked the host profile carefully each time and only took the hosts with positive references," she said.
Chiu stayed with male hosts in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Britain. "It was really awesome because they were so nice, so friendly and all are my friends now," she said. "You know the truth of the country that's not just from visiting the famous sights and the real culture you can't get from books."
Chiu was aware of cases of women being sexually assaulted when they stayed with a Couchsurfing host but it did not put her off using the site. "Everything can be dangerous, it depends on how alert you are," she said.
In recent years, there has been growing concern within the Couchsurfing community about members using the platform like a dating site or for casual sex.
A quick search on the site for groups relating to "sex" revealed dozens of results ranging from swingers to "sexsurfing"(this group was removed from the site this week) while another group openly states that it is for single members looking to host single members of the opposite sex.
Conversely, groups titled "Couch surfing, not couch sex" and "Couch surfers against rape" were created to promote awareness and prevention of sexual assault and violence.
While the internet has given sexual predators a new platform to find victims, it has also played a part in catching the perpetrators, with Maglio's alleged victims using sites such as Facebook to find other women who had suffered similar experiences.
The two Hong Kong women involved in the Maglio case are understood to be back in Hong Kong. Police say they have not received any reports about sexual assault cases involving Couchsurfing in Hong Kong.
2009 Leeds, UK
In March, a 34-year-old Moroccan national raped and threatened to kill a 29-year-old Hong Kong woman who was staying with him via Couchsurfing. He was jailed for 10 years.
2012 Marseille, France
In July 2012, a 33-year-old man was indicted for sexual offences after he spied on women through a peephole while they showered. He laced their food with sedatives before sexually assaulting them.
2013 Chicago, US
A man was removed from the site after a number of complaints by women about his inappropriate behaviour.
2013 Beijing and Shanghai
In December, a foreigner was arrested for stealing items worth more than 10,000 yuan (HK$12,600) from his hosts.
2013 Oslo, Norway
A British woman was drugged and raped while staying with a male host, 37, who had been previously convicted of rape.
2013 and 2014 Padua, Italy
Former policeman Dino Maglio will stand trial next month, accused of drugging and raping an Australian girl.
2014 Christchurch, New Zealand
In November, a male host, 35, was charged with sexually violating two male guests.
2015 Barcelona, Spain
A Spanish man, 34, was jailed for almost 12 years for raping two American women in his apartment.