Couchsurfing Encounters: Sociopaths and other Predators
Like other social networking websites, Couchsurfing is a
trend that encourages people to have real life encounters with strangers who
they have met on the internet. Unlike
other websites used for dating and business networking, Couchsurfing is a
cultural phenomena that goes a step further by provoking its users to invite
these complete strangers into their very own homes. Given, most of these strangers are innocent
travelers who are looking for nothing more than to make new friends and have
new cultural experiences. However,
hidden between the open minded Au Pairs and wandering backpackers are predators
that are ready to prey on the kindness and open mindedness of their victims.
Up until recently, my experiences
with Couchsurfing have been nothing but incredible. I experienced foreign cultures and made new
friends from all across the globe. Yet,
in recent months, it seems the tides have changed. Perhaps as Couchsurfing increased in
popularity and notoriety, more and more bad guys saw this as an opportunity to
work their black magic.
It all seemed to start in 2009 when
a woman from Hong Kong came out publicly to tell the world how she had been
raped by her Couchsurfing host while traveling within the United Kingdom. According to the Daily UK, this offender took
his unsuspecting surfer back to his home, “threatened to kill her and raped her
twice during a 'degrading and humiliating' ordeal that lasted throughout the
After reading about this, I
posted on my profile that I was an advocate for women’s rights and was proud to
offer women a safe Couchsurfing environment.
After that, female surfers with terrible horror stories about rape and
sexual exploitation began pouring in. I
was proud to be well informed, and confident that nothing like this would ever
happen to me. Then I met Thiago.
This man did not rape me. My heart goes out to those who have suffered such a horrendous experience. Hopefully my attempt at reforming the Couchsurfing safety system will prevent future incidences of ALL types of exploitation and violence in the future. It is not a contest to see who was more victimized. It is about standing together for change.
My story is particularly horrifying
because it turned my life upside down.
Like that brave woman from Hong Kong, and many others, it is important that womankind
becomes active about Couchsurfing safety and that we speak out about our
experiences so that we can learn from each other’s mistakes. We must make the names and images of these
offenders well known so that no one else can fall for their traps. It is pertinent that we pressure the
Couchsurfing website into changing its policies to flag potentially abusive
members and prevent them from creating new profiles where they can restart
their scams. We must also urge
Couchsurfing to provide on and off site moderation to protect the victims of
violent and sexual exploitation from further harassment and humiliation. We might even urge government to pass new
legislation that targets offenders who rape women using less than traditional
definitions and methodology. Only then
can we surf in peace.
In the past two years, I have hosted hundreds of travelers through Couchsurfing, a website used for creating cross cultural connections across the globe. On August 3rd, 2012, I
accepted a Couchsurfing request from a member named Thiago Prado Neri. Thiago claimed to be a Brazilian photographer
who was sent to the United States on assignment. Thiago had come to my city to attend a music festival, but as the time approached for his depature it had become clear that there was a spark between us. He expressed his desire for getting to know me better, and I enjoyed his company so that I invited him to stay indefinitely.
Thiago proceeded to romance me. He won over my
friends, my family, and other couchsurfers who stayed in my home with his
seemingly sincere winning personality and charm. I have dozens of witnesses who watched in awe
as he swept me off my feet. My friend Jenny quotes,
"It seemed like you
had been enchanted by him, like you were under some kind of spell." He seemed to be the man of my dreams.
rooms first emerged as a cultural phenomina, nobody anticipated the
dangers. It took countless victims and
cries for change before laws were passed and safeguards were put in place. Now, chat rooms are largely a thing of the
past, and in our ever evolving internet world, it is important to stay on top
of safety issues and protect ourselves as new trends emerge that can bring
predators knocking at our doors.
Thiago and I at an event for a nonprofit I founded in 2012 - Used with Permission
Everything felt so right when I was with Thiago. I loved the way he held me, and the way he looked deep into my eyes as if he were examining my soul. Thiago was the kind of man that displayed extreme courtesy and manners. He opened car doors for me, he picked flowers for me, he seemed to be the perfect gentlemen I had always hope for in my life. Compared to the brashness of most American men, Thiago seemed like my chivalrous knight in shining armour come to take me away. Thiago knew I was into volunteering and nonprofit work, so he acted like he shared my interests. He accompanied me everywhere: concerts, long walks, social gatherings, he even came to work with me on numerous occasions. Thiago was always by my side.
One of the most incredible things I
noticed about Thiago was his supreme level of intelligence. He seemed able to pick up new words and
concepts with great ease. I taught him
once how to play a basic song progression on the piano and within days he had
turned it into a song. I was attracted
to his intelligence, and never imagined it would someday be used for malicious
Early on, I told Thiago that my last relationship with my college professor had ended badly. Like, restraining order badly. The control that this previous man had tried to take over me and my life was so terrifying that it drove me to leave the country for almost a year. On my own, I proceeded to circumnavigate the globe and traveled twenty countries without ever letting a man succeed in taking advantage of me. I had become very worldly, and developed a high sense of confidence in my ability to read people and weed out wrong-doers.
I had not been with a man for two and half years, but told Thiago that I had taken this time and journey to heal and was finally ready to trust again. I urged him not to proceed with me romantically unless his intentions were genuine and pure. Laying in bed together, surrounded by the comfort and protection of my very own home, I expressed my vulnerability to Thiago. He responded by assuring me that the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt me. So I gave him my trust and my heart.
Then came the first red alert. One night, I was sick in bed, so Thiago stayed up all night hanging out with these Turkish girls who were couchsurfing with me. He convinced me that, as my boyfriend, it was his duty as cohost to entertain them. I suspected that he cheated on me that night, in my very own home, but Thiago assured me that I was just being insecure. He led me to believe that I was imagining things as a result of my cold medicine, and that his friendliness towards them was just cultural. Then, Thiago opened up to me about the death of his father. He told me that the man had been working late at their Sao Paulo family drug store, trying to make an honest living to support his family. That is when Thiago's father was violently murdered at the hands of robbers. I was so touched by Thiago's honesty and openness to share this sensitive and painful memory with me, so I forgot all about the Turkish girls and I consoled him. It felt as if Thiago and I were establishing a deep emotional connection and sense of trust.
We dated for three
months, during which Thiago lived in my home for free. He was so kind, helped with the housework,
and fixed things around the house that were broken, so at first I didn't feel
bad about footing all the bills. Thiago claimed that he was on a budget, and as
a traveler myself I understood, assuming that it would be my turn to live the
easy life when we went to visit his family in Brazil. Whenever we went out, I paid for it. In the three months we dated, I think I
recall him buying me ice cream once, and twice he bought me a single beer after
my insistence that my man should buy me a drink. He never hesitated to share the drinks I
purchased, or to accept drinks given to him by my friends.
our first month anniversary, I had a custom made Led Zeppelin t-shirt made for
Thiago because I knew it was his favorite band.
He loved it. There was never any
kind of return gift for me. A few weeks
later, we went on a weekend road trip in my car, and he got irritated when I
suggested that it was his turn to fill the tank. For a while, I ignored these red flags, only
because love goggles blinded me.
Thiago would sometimes do photo shoots with female models when I wasn't home. One night, while Thiago was out at the bar, I couldn't find my favorite jacket. It was a long, black Express coat that laced up in the back. I searched the house top to bottom. As a last resort, I looked into Thiago's suitcase, only to find that it was loaded up with my nicest and sexiest articles of clothing. When I confronted him about this, Thiago said that he had helped himself to my clothes for photo shoots and didn't think I would mind. I didn't like this at all. I asked my friends what they thought, but they told me the fact that Thiago was dressing his models up like me should be interpreted as flattery. So I let it go. Thiago never got paid for any of these photo shoots, nor did I ever get to see the pictures he took of other women wearing my clothing.
It got to the point where I started recognizing that Thiago was using me. He
would sit on the computer for hours, saying that he was "working",
but I never saw any output. When I came
home from a long day of work, he would either still be in bed or else wandering
around the apartment in my softest bath robe.
Whenever I questioned him, Thiago responded by calling me “insecure”, even though up until that point
in my life I was more used to receiving compliments on my strength and
independence. He made me feel like my doubts in him were just a result of the emotional baggage I was still carrying from my previous relationship. I now realize that this
was just another one of Thiago's manipulative tactics.
|Photo I took of Thiago at a casino|
One night, we got into a
fight because he wanted to sit in the living room on the computer all night
while I had a female couchsurfer sleeping on the couch. I told him that this was disrespectful to her
and might make her feel unsafe, suggesting that he use his computer from the
bedroom instead. In response to this,
Thiago became incredibly irate with me and failed to recognize how his sitting
up in the same room with her while she slept was inappropriate. He condemned me for my ignorance, calling it a cultural misunderstanding.
Enough was enough. The
following day, I tried to break it off with Thiago and decided to kick him
out. I didn't want to be a jerk by putting him out on the street, so I insisted he sleep in the living room
with another group of couchsurfers. I told him that he needed to leave at the same time that everyone else was leaving because I didn't want him around anymore. I
later found out that at this time, he had asked another female Couchsurfing
host in my city if he could stay with her, but she knew me personally and told him "no way!"
After the other surfers left in
the morning, I hid in my bedroom waiting for Thiago's departure. Instead of leaving, Thiago came to my bedroom door in tears, begging for me to take
him back. It was an emotionally charged plea for forgiveness. Thiago said he wanted to commit, and would do whatever he had to do to keep me in his life. He said that he loved me so much and
that all he wanted was to have a future with me. I wanted to believe him, and I fell for his act.
For the first portion of our relationship, Thiago would express his anxiety about visa expiration and that he would have to leave the country in December. We talked about going to Vegas and getting married by an Elvis impersonator so that he could legally remain in the United States. After our fight, I told him that I would never marry him so quickly because I wouldn't want to feel used just so he could get his greencard. Thiago said that he respected my decision, and since he had to leave anyway, that I should come with him.
made plans to go traveling together. I made him give me his word that he was committed to this plan before I went ahead and rearranged my life. I gave my work notice that I would be leaving, and arranged to sublet my apartment. I was a teacher and was bound to my job until
the holidays, and Thiago wanted to go on a sailing trip while I finished the
session. I trusted him, so I baked him a
batch of cookies for the road and drove him to the Greyhound station where he
gave me one last passionate kiss goodbye.
continued to call and text me most days for the next three weeks to let me know how his sailing trip was going and to tell me that he loved me. He even called me from the bus to Nashville, the day before the following incident happened, to tell me how much he missed me and that he couldn't wait to see me again. Meanwhile, I was working six to seven days a
week in order to save up money for our trip.
|Photo I took of Thiago at a bar|
On our three-month
anniversary, I come home from work to discover a message in my inbox from
Thiago. Out of nowhere, he was breaking
up with me via email (which I'm pretty sure is the most insensitive way to dump
anyone ever). All I could think was,
"What did I do to deserve this?"
He wrote that he had the urge to travel alone and didn't want me to be a
part of his life, after all. I was
completely and utterly caught off guard.
Hadn't I just completely rearranged my life for him? Was he really going to leave me in a
predicament where I was not only dumped, but about to be homeless and jobless
as well? I was shocked at his
inconsideration for my situation. Worse,
I felt sad and worthless that he dragged me along for all this time, and didn't
even respect me enough to return to my city and break up with me in
person. Or even call me! I tried to call him, but his phone was turned
off. I felt silenced. I wasn't going to be allowed the opportunity
to express myself whatsoever.
I knew that Thiago was staying in Nashville with the
friend of another couchsurfer I had hosted when he was living in my home. I called her up and found out that the
previous evening, Thiago had rummaged through this woman's basement overnight,
while she was at another house with her husband. Thiago had stuffed his bag with her books and
CDs. When she returned to pick him up
and give him a ride the next morning, Thiago asked if he could "borrow"
these items. She thought this was kind
of weird, but figured that he was a nice enough guy and that she wasn't using
This made me reminisce on all the things that Thiago had
borrowed from me that he never gave back.
He had one of my cell phones, a hand held voice recorder, a hand crafted
flask, several items of clothing, and sleeping wares. He had even used my Best Buy gift card. Some of these items he had taken without
asking, and once I discovered they were gone I called him about it. He replied that he thought that these items
were a gift. I'm not sure how something
qualifies as a gift when it is taken without asking. I remembered how he tried to take one of my
bicycles as well, but decided against it at the last minute because it would
have been too much to carry.
I also remembered how a music associate of mine had lent
Thiago several DVDs that had not been returned.
Also, a coworker of mine lent him clothes when they went camping
together, of which I'm not sure were returned either. It occurred to me that Thiago was
"borrowing" items from people without any intention of giving them
Furious, I drove to Nashville to confront him about the
breakup and recover my belongings. My
couchsurfer's friend had dropped him off at another Couchsurfing host earlier
that afternoon and gave me the address.
His email had caused me so much grief that I brought some pain pills I had leftover from a root canal. They had been sitting in my closet, untouched, for over a year and a half. I never felt the urge to use them until this moment. Around midnight, I knocked on the door.
What happened next was overwhelming. Thiago seem to express no concern for me or
my situation, and only anger in my driving down and my asking for my property
to be returned. Thiago scolded me for
"bringing drama" to Nashville.
His expression was very cold. Thiago
looked at me with empty eyes, with not an ounce of semblance for love or
remorse. I’ve had breakups before, and find
they usually feature an exchange of residual feelings between one another. This did not feel like a breakup at all. It felt like I was speaking with a man I
never knew. Thiago watched as I took one of the pain pills. As he sat there and bilittled me, I took another. Then another. He saw me throw the empty pill bottle to the ground.
I was emotional and confused, as any woman who had just
jeopardized her career, home, heart, and body for a man that had lied and
manipulated her would be. Thiago firmly stated that he never cheated on me, which was strange because I wasn't thinking it at the time and hadn't brought it up.
Thiago then went
inside to inform his new Couchsurfing host-- a female -- that I was his crazy
ex-girlfriend there to stalk him and steal his belongings. Thiago looked to her for help with sad, pathetic puppy dog eyes. Being the charismatic man that Thiago is, she
believed him and instantly turned against me.
She aggressively grabbed the car keys from out of my hand and demanded that I stop crying immediately. She tried to get in the way of my retrieving my property. Thiago seemed more concerned about losing his
Led Zeppelin shirt than he was concerned about losing me.
I left feeling used, worthless, abandoned, and
alone. Thiago had never loved me. It was all a scam to take advantage of my
body and of my kind, giving nature. He obviously saw my vulnerability as a woman who had been previously burned by love. He had picked out a girl who lived alone with no one to protect her. Thiago had taken advantage of me.
I knew I had lost my lover. Thanks to him, I also had a month until I
would be jobless and homeless as well. I had been such a strong, independent woman before I met Thiago. How did I end up reduced to such a state of weakness? I
have to say that I am not proud of what I did next. I was already disoriented from the pain medicine. Yet, the feelings I had hurt me so bad deep down
to my core, that no longer wanted to feel anything at all. I just wanted to sleep for days, until the
pain went away. I got myself a hotel
room and downed a handful of sleeping pills.
I don't know if I wanted to die or not, perhaps it was a cry for help. I will be the first to admit that hurting
myself was not the right thing to do. However,
at this point I did not have time to recognize that I had been a victim, only
that I was overcome with feelings of being absolutely worthless. I hated myself for not being loved.
This was no Penny Lane fantasy. There was no champagne and Stevie Wonder, just dead, empty silence and bottle of King Cobra. I could feel my limbs sliding away, like they were
becoming detached from my body. I looked
up at the ceiling and the circular molding filled with bright spots and
patterns that danced and sparkled back at me.
I felt my brain melting into the bed and becoming detached as well when
a thought slipped into my mind: I didn't want to live alone, but I didn't want
to die alone either. That is when my
body started to shake uncontrollable, trying to regain sensation and fight the
fall. I started screaming in agony and
fear. I was terrified and alone.
I somehow managed to drag myself down to the hotel lobby,
where I request to get my stomach pumped. Thiago was the only person who knew I where I was and what I was doing at this time, and he chose to ignore it. So I had to be my own knight in shining armour. I saved myself. The next thing I
knew, on my way to the emergency room, then transfered to a Tennessee stress unit, which was another handful of
hell in itself.
I cannot blame Thiago for my overdose, of course. Although influenced by environmental
determinism, the choice to swallow all of those pills was ultimately mine. Perhaps my response to the situation was
influenced more by values. I could never
be capable of inflicting violence on another human being, so I instead directed
that violence towards myself. I have
come to realize that I am not alone in this response. It is not all that different from how some
like to hurt themselves by resorting to drugs and binge drinking as a method of
numbing the pain. According to the Mayo Clinic:
“There's no one single
or simple cause that leads someone to self-injure. The mix of emotions that
triggers self-injury is complex. In general, self-injury is usually the result
of an inability to cope in healthy ways with deep psychological pain. For
instance, you may have a hard time regulating, expressing or understanding your
emotions. Physical injury distracts you from these painful emotions or helps
you feel a sense of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. When you feel
emotionally empty, self-injury is a way to feel something, anything, even if
it's physical pain. It also offers an external way to express internal
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as
polycystic ovarian syndrome, when I was fifteen years old. It's not exactly something I like to share at
dinner parties or first dates, but for the purposes of this story I must make
it known. I was also in the throes of PMS when this happened, and I know that I am not alone in feeling so emotional. Most artistic people are a little crazy in one way or another. However, I haven't had any major bipolar episodes for
eleven years, but this was stressful enough of a situation to trigger my loss of control. I am not ashamed to share
this personal information about myself; it is truthful and shows the terrible
effects that dating scammers have on their victims. I am relieved that bipolar is not the kind of
personality disorder that encourages a person to go around messing with others'
psyches and intentionally hurting people.
This must be another kind of crazy referred to as sociopathic.
It is said that sociopathy affects one to four percent of the world's population (Anderson: 2012). According to psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley, the
personality traits of a sociopath include superficial charm and intelligence, unreliability,
pathological lying, no remorse, poor judgment and failure to learn from
experience, inability to love, poor primary experience, feelings, and emotions,
loss of insight, failure to respond in all interpersonal reactions, impersonal
sex lives, and the failure to follow a life plan (What are Sociopathy and Cleckley's List: 2012). I am no doctor, but these behavioral
qualities describe Thiago to a tee.
Dr. Martha Stout described the techniques that sociopaths use on their victims in her book The Sociopath Next Door. "The intense charm of people who have no
conscience, a kind of inexplicable charisma, has been observed and commented on
by countless victims, and by researchers who attempt to catalog the diagnostic
signs of sociopathy". Also utilized is the technique of seduction, because "people without conscience have an uncanny sense of who will be vulnerable to a
sexual overture." (Stout: 2004)
I believe that the author of the article, "Beware the Techniques of the Sociopath," has hit the nail on the head when she described the remaining techniques of projection and gaslighting.
"Sociopaths refuse to be held accountable for their behavior and
often assign their own behavior to their victims. For example, a sociopath
could accuse a victim of stealing when it is the sociopath himself that steals.
Gaslighting is a common practice of abusers who attempt to convince their
victims they are defective for any reason such as making the victim more
emotional, more needy or dependent. For example, if an abusive person says
hurtful things and tries to convince you that you are mentally unstable and
starts recommending that you get professional help, you might be in the
presence of a gaslighter." (Catherine: 2006)
Sociopaths are expert manipulators. Those who are unfortunate enough to get involved with sociopaths are often left with feelings of emotional devastation as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. "The sociopath, in the
meantime, has moved on, and couldn't care less. It's called 'devalue and
discard,' and it crushes [the victim's] sense of self." (Anderson: 2012). In the article "The Sociopathic Style", signs of sociopathic victimation include depression, anxiety, fear of relationships, numbing of feelings, irritability, difficulty falling asleep, fear of being alone, severe mood swings, loss of energy, loss of interest in life, and suicidal thoughts or actions. These are all symptoms that I have manifested in my experience with Thiago.
In the book, Snakes in Suits - When Psychopaths Go To Work
, Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak discuss the three stages of a scam. First comes the assessment phase, where the assailant is "waiting for the
perfect, innocent victim to cross their path. In each case, the psychopath is
constantly sizing up the potential usefulness of an individual as a source of
money, power, sex or influence" (Babiak: 2006). The authors describe how psychopaths seek out victims who were recently victimized or hurt and target their vulnerable weak points as a means for seduction.
Then comes the manipulation phase, where the pschopath creates a persona that seems to reflect the morals and characteristics of his victim. He uses this fake persona to convey three messages:
"1) I like who you
are; 2) I am just like you; 3) Your secrets are safe with me; and 4) I am the
perfect friend or lover or partner for you" (Catherine: 2006).
According to Babiak and Hare, the bond with a psychopath can seem instant. They are often successful at winning over their victims in a matter of hours.
persona of the psychopath-the "personality" the person is bonding
with-does not really exist. It was built on lies, carefully woven together to
entrap you. It is a mask, one of many, custom-made by the psychopath to fit
your particular psychological needs and expectations. It does not reflect the
true personality--the psychopathic personality--that lies beneath. It is a
convenient fabrication. Second, these relationships are not based on informed
choice. The psychopath chooses you and then moves in...Third, because it is faked, it won't last like
genuine relationships. While genuine relationships change over time--love may
turn to hate, marriages end in divorce--the initial starting point was based on
real data, as it was known at the time. People change over time, and sometimes
grow apart. The psychopath, though, will not invest more than minimal energy in
maintaining the relationship unless you can offer something really special,
which is not usually the case. Hence, when the relationship ends, you may be
left wondering what just happened. Fourth, the relationhip is one-sided because
the psychopath has an ulterior--some would say "evil"--and, at the
very least, selfish motive. The victimization goes far beyond trying to take
advantage of someone on a date or during a simple business transaction. The
victimization is predatory in nature; it often leads to severe financial,
physical or emotional harm for the individual. Healthy, real relationships are
built on mutual respect and trust; they are based on sharing honest thoughts
and feelings. The mistaken belief that the psychopathic bond has any of these
characteristics is the reason it is so successful" (Babiak: 2006).
abandonment phase is what I found most shocking with regards to my experience
with Thiago. The manner in which he strung me along for so long, only to drop me on the exact same day that he had moved in on his next victim, is even more disturbing after reading the following excerpt from the article, “Beware
the Techniques of a Sociopath”.
“The abandonment phase begins when the psychopath decides
that their victim is no longer useful. They abandon their vicim and move on to
someone else. In the case of romantic relationshps, a psychopath will usually
seal a relationship with their next target before abandoning their current
victim. Abandonment can happen quickly and can occur without the current victim
knowing that the psychopath was looking for someone new. There will be no
apologies for the hurt and pain they cause because psychopaths do not
appreciate these emotions” (Catherine: 2006).
The psychiatric doctor at the unit I was admitted to
suggested that perhaps Thiago should come in for some group therapy to help me
gain some closure. However, Thiago could
not be bothered to do so. Figuring that
confrontation was an issue, I wrote a letter to him as a part of my therapy
that he was to pick up at the front desk.
This letter has since been returned to me, as he could not be bothered
to this, either. Now, I've experienced
breakups before, but never had I experienced such disconnect from either
party. This lack of participation later
reaffirmed my suspicion that I had been the victim of a sociopath's online
It hurts to know that
you don't care about me or what I am going through still and when you decided
to leave me, you were singularly thinking of yourself and what you wanted to
do. It's almost like you are in this
mindset where just because you are traveling, the people you meet don't really
matter. Like you can just move to the
next town and it's almost like the people you've met didn't really exist. I think this is what you need to learn about
as you "find yourself". You
need to learn to love your fellow man and treat every individual with
compassion and respect. Stop hurting the
people who love you. Call your mom, call
your sister, and let them know what's going on in your life. Don't be afraid to connect with people and
please, don't ever burn someone who loves you again. Having people in our lives that love us is a
gift we should cherish and not take for granted ever. Right now it seems that you have incapacity
to accept love in your life and I hope you can learn from this experience or
else I fear that you will be the one who is forever alone. (Excerpt from my
letter written to Thiago from the hospital, days before I even learned about
the behavior disorder known as sociopathy.)
During those first twenty four hours when I was in the
hospital and unable to contact anyone, my friends got very worried and tried
feverishly to locate me. Knowing that
Thiago was the last person to see me, my friend contacted him using online messaging to ask if he had
any information as to my whereabouts.
Thiago knew exactly what I was doing because I had texted him from the
hotel as I was overdosing. He had responded that I should seek help and that he was turning off his phone.
Thiago refused to tell my friend
anything about this. Instead, he tried to
use the opportunity to convince her that he never did anything wrong to me and
that I had acted immature, irrational, and insecure. My friend replied that she did not care, and
that she only wanted to find out if I was alive and safe. Thiago still wouldn’t tell her anything. He went on and on about how innocent he was
in the whole ordeal. Thiago went out of
his way to contend for himself instead of aiding in the search for a missing
This kind of defensive behavior continued in exchanges between
Thiago and the other people in my life for days to come. On my way home from the hospital, a friend suggested
to me that this might all be part of a dating scam.
I had never known such a thing existed. Upon calling him out on this, Thiago suddenly stopped talking to my
contacts entirely and seemingly disappeared.
According to "Scam Watch", a website for competition and consumer commission:
"Dating and romance scams try to lower
your defenses by appealing to your romantic or compassionate side. They play on
emotional triggers to get you to provide money, gifts or personal details. They
will go to great lengths to gain your interest and trust, such as sharing
personal information. Scammers may take months, to build what seems like the
romance of a lifetime. Once they have gained your trust they will ask you
(either subtly or directly) for money or gifts. They will pretend to need these
for a variety of reasons...You may feel long-lasting emotional betrayal at the
hands of someone who you thought loved you and was trustworthy."
Now that we understand the definition of a dating scam, it is important to convey why this crime is so heinous as well
as the scale of impact made upon the victims.
to scientists at the University of Leicester, online dating
scammers groom their victims by developing 'hyper-personal' relationships which
can leave victims feeling doubly traumatized…The results showed that basic
marketing techniques were used to groom victims, increasing the feelings of a
genuine relationship and leaving victims susceptible to fraud. Professor Whitty said: Our data suggests
that the numbers of victims of this relatively new crime is much higher than
reported incidents show. It also confirms law enforcement suspicions that this
is an underreported crime, and thus more serious than first thought. This is a concern not solely because people
are losing large sums of money to these criminals, but also because of the
psychological impact experienced by victims of this crime. It is our view that
the trauma caused by this scam is worse than any other, because of the 'double
hit' experienced by the victims – loss of money and loss of 'romantic
(British Psychological Society Press Center)
Thiago spent the next month living with the same female
Couchsurfing host in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is likely pulling the same
romantic scam in order to use her for her body and for her assets. He met this girl via Couchsurfing the same day he sent me that fated email. I recall Thiago's claim that, before he came to live with me, he
had spent a significant amount of time living in Connecticut.
When he got to my city, he needed to send an email from my house to break off what he called a work commitment there. Had he played this game on another woman in Connecticut, as well? If he had, I would have appreciated if she
had warned me.Sociopaths exist. They are social predators and they live their lives by exploiting people. They do not feel remorse for their actions, and they will never change.
The sociopath never loved you. You were targeted because you had something he or she wanted. It could have been money, sex, a place to live, business connections or cover for his or her secret life. Or, the sociopath messed with you simply for the fun of it.
There is nothing you could have done to make the sociopath treat you any better. The involvement was always about exploitation. You were probably targeted because you were good, caring, giving, responsible, and in some way, vulnerable.
The blame for what happened rests squarely with the sociopath. This person lied to you, manipulated you and betrayed you. You were guilty only of being human. (Anderson: 2012)
Does this man move from
city to city using Couchsurfing to find women he can leech onto, only to move on to the next town where he can secure his next victim before breaking it off via
email? In this way, Thiago is seemingly protected by distance and has no need to deal with the repercussions of his actions. Meanwhile, I came home to discover I could not have my job back. Did Thiago find it amusing that I lost my job over this ordeal, and did he get off on his power and ability to turn another person's life upside down?
I'm pretty sure I became useless in Thiago's eyes once I told him that I wouldn't marry for a green card. He left for his sailing trip a few days later. I wonder if I appeared useful yet again when he saw me in Nashville, because my debit card was stolen that night. I had last used it at the gas station immediately before I met with Thiago, and realized it was missing shortly after I left him and tried to use it for check in at the hotel. The card had been in the top pocket of my backpack next to where Thiago sat while we conversed.
The next day, while I was in the emergency room, someone tried to withdraw a great deal of cash from my bank account. First, a thousand dollars, and then they tried to take out another five hundred dollars. I figured I had misplaced the card, or perhaps left it at the gas station. I didn't even learn about the charges to my bank account until after I left the hospital. I was in complete denial that Thiago, a man who I thought had loved me, would ever be so cold as to steal from my bank account while I was fighting for my life. Talk about opportunistic! As of now, I have no proof that Thiago had anything to do with this banking fraud, or the ATM withdrawals, however, I do find it awfully coincidental.
According to Donna Anderson, the author of Lovefraud, the key concepts to understanding sociopaths and accepting what happened so that you can move on are as follows:
My therapist, as well as my friends, family, and support network, have all encouraged me to write and release this article. My doctor told me that my willingness to speak out shows strength in the face of victimization and means that I am on a healthy path to recovery. It is a matter of taking a negative experience and transforming it into something good that is useful to mankind.
That is why I want my story to be heard. In my travels, I have spent a lot of time observing parts of the world where victims of sexual exploitation are stigmitized by the belief that they brought the crime on themselves. I am grateful to live in a culture where I do not have to feel ashamed and am allowed the freedom to speak up about my story in order to create awareness. I hope to create a discussion that could help potential victims, as well as comfort those who have already suffered. I want to warn all women across America of
the intentions of Thiago Prado Neri, and other predators and sociopaths who abuse the
Couchsurfing network for either direct criminal activity or else for taking advantage of honest men and women.
Couchsurfing has a system where members can reference
other members based on their experiences.
However, this system does NOT moderate any of these interactions nor punish
or ban members who have been particularly abusive. This is the review I wrote for Thiago when I was released from the hospital (although I believe I have since changed it to be more direct):
I am pretty sure Thiago is a con artist. He stays with female
hosts and wins them over with his charm and polite demeanor. He takes advantage
of their bodies and their assets. He makes his host pay for everything, then
"borrows" their belongings without any intention of giving them back.
He does the borrowing thing to everyone; in fact, one person he stayed with
discovered that Thiago had rummaged through her entire basement while she was
sleeping looking for books and CDs that he wanted to "borrow". For
three months Thiago lived with me and said that he loved me and wanted a future
with me. I gave notice to my work that I would leaving and found someone to
sublet my apartment so that I could travel with him. Then, he skipped town and
broke up with me via email. I found him already living with another female
couchsurfing host. I totally had an emotional breakdown. I want to warn all
future female hosts about Thiago. Hopefully, the girl he is staying with now
heeds this warning as well.
I really do care for this woman who Thiago is now taking
advantage of. Even though she was
incredibly rude to me, I believe she was only misinformed and under Thiago's
spell. I wrote her a Couchsurfing
message explaining his history and warning her of his behavior, because I think
that women need to stand together and protect one another from scammers and
predators. Especially in a time when we
are meeting strange men on the Internet.
Who knows really knows when a man we meet online is telling us the
truth? According to Venture Beat, and
online news magazine for executives, one in ten online profiles are scams. It is far too easy to create false identities
in our digital world.
This is not the first abuse I have dealt with through
couchsurfing.org. In July of 2012, I
received a Couchsurfing request from a member named Jay Goldberg. The following happened next, as is reflected
by my Couchsurfing review of this individual:
For Jay Goldberg
I never met Jay in person, but after I didn't respond for a day
(because I was working) he wrote quote "I expect to get laid whether couch
surfing or not!" unquote. Thanks for being honest after the fact, but last
I checked couchsurfing is not a dating service. Perhaps you should mention this
expectation in your profile or initial couchsurfing requests so that the ladies
can know what they are getting themselves into. Rather, what will be getting
In response to my review, Jay sent me a message "I don't know what kind of
sexual abuse you've encountered but...go fuck yourself". If having enough
self-respect to not sleep with strangers equals a history of sexual abuse,
well, I guess Jay must know everything. His idea of "joking" is
This member continued to harrass me and I filed a report against him. A few months later, I
encountered this winner.
For Alexandre Rambault
Les Lilas, France
Alexandre spent all day calling and texting me unable to speak
English. I could not understand him, and was not able to give him directions or
coordinate any kind of meet up on account of the fact that we do not have a
common language. His tone turned angry and this made me feel really
uncomfortable. I felt threatened once he started yelling at me in French and I
took back my couchsurfing invitation. Why would I invite someone I've never met
who displayed such bad temper into my home? I still tried my best to
accommodate him and suggested a hostel where the staff spoke French. I'm sorry
that he didn't understand, but I was speaking English and he was yelling in
French so the miscommunication was inevitable. It's not fair to rely on Google
translate when messaging on the Internet, then get mad when people that want to
help you can't understand you in real life. I had a friend translate his text
messages after the fact and his French was very vulgar and quite offensive.
Following this second transgression, I wrote
couchsurfing.org a detailed message expressing my concerns about security for
women who use their website. I included
stories that I had heard about women who attend Couchsurfing "meet
ups", only to be given excessive amounts of alcohol by local hosts who
persuade them to "surf" their couch, where they proceed to sexually
assault these women. I recently hosted a
Hungarian girl who had suffered this experienced firsthand.
It is well known that Justin Velander Holt, also known as the
Couchsurfing Ambassador" has received several negative reviews concerning
unwanted advances on his female surfers.
Justin happens to be the man responsible for arranging a lot of the Couchsurfing meetups in his city. I have heard numerous sources dissent that Justin uses threats and intimidation towards other Couchsurfing members, both male and female, as a means of control. I suspect he stopped inviting me and my friend (another female couchsurfer) to Couchsurfing events when it became clear that we weren't going to sleep with him.
When I left a voicemail confronting him about this, Justin immediately blew up my phone with about five calls and fourteen text messages in a row. His texts were highly aggressive and accusatory. That is when I ceased communication with Velander Holt. It is unacceptable that someone who exhibits this kind of behavior is allowed to be a Couchsurfing administrator and ambassador. Since releasing this article, Justin has been trolling numerous public forums in hopes of publicly abusing me. Here are some reviews left by OTHER women for this
particular Couchsurfing member:
Justin is a generous host - and likes to point this out to you
before you can ("did I not give you my keys? did I not give you my
bed?"). His indulgence in what he likes to frame as hospitality, however,
has a down side: whenever Justin is in the room, so is an insatiable hunger for
compensation and LOVE. "Please love me" vibes are everywhere. This
somehow awkward impression first showed itself in one of our first
conversations, in which he asked me about my sexual preferences... well, not
that I have none, but, c'mon, this is not what couch surfing should be about.
When he takes you to "his" events, his so-called friends express
their sympathy for you - who landed at a guy that thinks of himself as
"the fucking couchsurfing police". Well, for me it was Justin - just
out. I wished I could say something more positive, as I think deep in his heart
he is a generous, lovable person. But not under the circumstances I
experienced, nope. To stay safe I recommend surfing other places!
After (previous reviewer) spoke up, I had 2 write this to back her up. Put
2 and 2 together when you read J's profile - his first listed interest: Sex.
I'd call it an obsession. Talks about it non stop, tells stories about girls
he's hosted 'n banged, and - according to himself - shares it on his radio
show. He made a pass at me the 1st night I surfed. Wrestled me down on the bed
(not brutally, in a playful way), and stayed on top of me way 2 close 2 my
face. I firmly said I'm tired, and he jumped off. So; nothing happened. It
wasn't threatening to me, I'm extremely confident in myself. My Q is: Why did
he even make this approach? I didn't flirt with him, his antennas are on the
wrong frequency! I could've been SO uncomfortable. Even more after he came back
2 the bed 5min later (I'd already said good night, was in my underwear), laid
next to me and complained that "he hadn't had his daily dose of
affection" (or something). He's hosted about 90 girls. So yeah, I agree:
Make your intentions clear!
If you are a single female traveler I would not recommend
staying with Justin, because you might get lured into situations you might
regret afterwards. Though Justin is a charming, giving person who is willing to
share Chicago with you, if you want to stay with him be prepared to make your
Have more women had negative experiences with this moderator? According to Bitch Media:
"It's hard to take these safety measures seriously when some of the men who are accused of attempted or completed sexual assault are actually well-known in CS community and have hundreds of positive references and when they require a woman to go public with information that is humiliating and traumatizing." (Van Deven: 2009)
After posting this article, I received not one...not two...but twenty-four complaints concerning the behavior of Justin Velander Holt.
Moving on to the next individual. One girl I hosted,
from New Jersey, told me a very scary and dramatic story about a Couchsurfing
incident where her host attempted to rape her, chasing her around the house and
screaming at her to cooperate.
For Redouane El Aloui
I am afraid that Redouane does not understand the meaning of the
word NO. He made me very uncomfortable and insisted that we sleep in the same
bed together. I said no, but he would not take that for an answer. I told him I
was uncomfortable and wanted to leave but he would not listen to me. Then he
started to yell and bang his fist on the table. I was afraid he would harm me.
His behavior was completely inappropriate and does not reflect the spirit of
couchsurfing.I was only able to make my escape while he was in the bathroom. I
let myself out and made him bring all my stuff outside to me. I did not dare go
back in. I do not recommend him at all.
The question I beg to ask is, what security measures are there to prevent Couchsurfing predators from creating new, clean profiles that do not include these referencs? Since my letter,
Couchsurfing.org has neglected to make any changes in policy or apply any sort of moderation that might help protect female
members. They responded to my latest
report by saying:
situations where members have had experiences off of the website (face to face,
or through phone calls or other websites), Couchsurfing is required to remain
neutral. It is not because we do not believe you, it's simply because we are
not able to say what happened exactly if we were not there, and we are only
able to prove information that we can verify within our own systems." (Email received November 8th, 2012)
isn't the whole point of Couchsurfing to have experiences off the website? For those who are less familiar with this
website, their mission statement is as follows:
Couchsurfing, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create
meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building
meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to differences
with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads
tolerance and creates a global community." (Couchsurfing: 2012)
Diversity and tolerance does not equal the exploitation
I am not the first woman to speak about about the safety issues of Couchsurfing. After experiencing verbal assault and harrassment at the hands of her Couchsurfing hosts, member Melissa Ulto started an online petition "for the website to take more responsibility for the
safety of its users and demands the introduction of a range of measures to
improve safety for users" (Cheverton: 2010). In response to this woman's brave attempt to transform a negative experience into a positive one by helping others, Ulto's attacker publicly abused her and labeled her as a "psycho".
It was discovered that a 33 year old Couchsurfing host from Marseille was drugging his unsuspecting Couchsurfers, sexually molesting them, and capturing it on film. The incident was reported to law authorities, as opposed to reporting it to Couchsurfing. Authorities took these women seriously and, unlike Couchsurfing, hid their idenities to prevent further victimization.
"The engineer poured a few drops of hydrochloric acid on the soap, so that young guests would feel a
tickling and scrub themselves. Their underwear was also impregnated. The man also poisoned girls food with
anxiolytics, and then assaulted them while they slept, but didn’t go as far as
raping them. The next day they did not remember anything, and just had a dizzy
feeling and heavy legs." (An Engineer: 2012)
There even exists a Facebook group, entitled "Bad Experinces with Couchsurfing: The Dark Side". In this forum, all kinds of Couchsurfing victims are able to connect with one another and stand together for a safer community. However, most victims are afraid to share their experiences for fear of stigmatization since Couchsurfing does not moderate nor protect victim's identities.
One of my readers responded to this article by sharing with me a heart wrenching story about being raped by her Couchsurfing host while traveling in Europe. She never left him a reference, because she was extremely concerned that he would blame her for what happened. She was afraid that people would say it was her fault, and that she was asking for it because she was under the influence of alcohol. Those who are victimized at the hands of other couchsurfers are often too traumatized to deal with the public backlash and abuse that is bound to occur. Meanwhile, this man is free to continue using Couchsurfing to lure women into his secluded home where he can tell them to "loosen up" by drinking with him, only to take advantage of them.
Perhaps it is awfully late for me to make this statement,
but I want to mention that I have met hundreds of absolutely amazing,
interesting, and fantastic human beings from all around the world through
couchsurfing.org. This website has
allowed me to explore other cultures from the comfort of my own home, as well
as provided a less touristy, more realistic cultural experience whenever I
travel abroad. My recent trip to
Colombia was incredible due to the fact that I was able to live and play with
locals, who not only partied with me but protected me, as opposed to my having
to wander dangerous tourist areas.
As a single woman traveler, I have found that the
Couchsurfing system has provided a safety net of new friends, both male and
female, whom consistently checked in on me and had my best interests in mind
when I was traveling alone. I have had a
lot of really great, totally respectful men surf in my own home and I feel
because, thanks to these few bad apples, I am now afraid to host any more males. Some of my greatest Couchsurfing experiences
have been with men. I am regretful that
in the future, I will have to discriminate against males and probably miss out
on meeting some really wonderful people.
I believe that Couchsurfing is an excellent concept and
one of the most open-minded networks on the Internet. I am also an advocate for women's rights, and a strong believer that women should be able to wander the world as
they please without a chaperone. I cannot postulate enough that there is a need
for some major changes with regards to safety within the Couchsurfing
system. There needs to be a way to weed
out these malicious individuals and prevent them from creating new
accounts. Potentially dangerous members
should be flagged, and moderators should be employed for conflict resolution so
that victims do not ever have to feel like they are being further
victimized. I want to share my story not
only to spread awareness for the specific predators who have targeted me, but
so that women are protected from all predators across the globe. Happy (and safe) surfing!
UPDATE: The response to this article has been overwhelming! Thank you everyone for your feedback, which has been for the most part very constructive. Since first publishing this, I have made several edits to this article based on your suggestions. Keep them coming because I am listening! I am also touched by those of you who, in response to reading my story, have confided in me your own personal trauma involving Couchsurfing, self medicating, and other forms of abuse. I have been contacted by literally hundreds of people who shared my story in one way or another. It is good to know that we are not alone and that honest people are often opportunist targets. So keep on doing good in the world, because we can be an inspiration to one another!
Also, some of you have gotten the impression that I am anti-Couchsurfing and trying to bring down the establishment. This is entirely not true, in fact, I am hosting two very kind Couchsurfers from Germany as I publish this article. Couchsurfing is great, however, the need for safety reforms is entirely valid. I have found this opinion is shared among the majority of Couchsurfers with which I have spoken. Not surprisingly, the only individuals who have contacted me in objection to increased safety measures have done so in a very aggressive and contentious manner. In other words, the people who are adverse to increased Couchsurfing safety seem to be the same people we are trying to protect ourselves from in the first place!
After more than ten thousand hits on this story (wow!), I had not been contacted by Thiago Prado Neri. This was not surprising considering he completely disappeared the moment we suggested that he was a dating scammer. As the number was approaching eleven thousand, I recieved an email from Thiago that featured heavy projection and gaslighting techniques. Thiago stated that he hadn't "disappeared", and that it was MY fault for not contacting him. Thiago accused me of acting on "fear, selfishness, and desperation" and urged me to "seek for professional help". Remember this quote? "If an abusive person says hurtful things and tries to convince you that you are mentally unstable and starts recommending that you get professional help, you might be in the presence of a gaslighter"
(Catherine: 2006). It was uncanny. This email could not have been written better by Martha Stout, the author of The Sociopath Next Door
Following this email, I received a negative Couchsurfing reference, as well as highly aggressive private messages, from the Nashville woman who I tried to help by warning her about Thiago. It seems that he has deluded her into attacking me. I have reported her messages to Couchsurfing under the request that any further communication from her be considered harassment and abuse. However, my feelings of concern for her situation now overshadow any other emotions. It sickens me that Thiago is using his manipulating scheme all over again on another innocent woman. I'm sure she will not be the last of his victims, either, but so long as this article stands I know others will benefit from my warning.
Thiago's host has accused me of libel, a claim that does not threaten me seeing that every word I have written is one hundred percent true. I have numerous witnesses, emails, and phone records to attest to the factuality of my tale. My theories and conclusions are backed by multiple sources as cited below and are meant to be weighed by the reader. The sheer amount of people I have helped by speaking out about my experience has made the persecution worth while, but I am stating right here and now that if this man or his host contacts me again then I will interpret it as a threat and seek a restraining order. This is their public warning notification to cease all communication with me immediately.
I have also been contacted by Justin Holt, repeatedly. I still refuse to respond. I work with children, and do not want them to google my name only to be exposed to the horrors of sexual exploitation. However, I interpret Justin's barrage of messages, as well as his aggressive trolling of message boards in attempt to proclaim my identity, as an intimidation tactic pressuring me into taking this article down. Harrassment will not stop me from doing what is right and just. I am woman, hear me roar!
Finally, for those of you who are concerned about my wellbeing, please know that I am much better now! I like to think that everything happens for a reason. This whole ordeal has made me realize that this is a time in my life for me to reflect upon the last few years and to write about my experiences. It is comforting to find peace in my art and use my words for helping others. I am empowered by my strength, confidence, and morals. Never again will I let someone else manipulate me into thinking otherwise. Best wishes to you all!
*name changed to protect victim's identity
Over eighteen thousand people have read this article and the number keeps growing. Want to know how Couchsuring responded? It's pretty shocking. Please read: