All good things can be exploited. Intentional community is no exception. Research shows that one in four Americans doesn’t have even one person they feel they can confide in. More people than ever report feeling lonely. This can leave some people vulnerable to being taken advantage of when they meet people who seem to be generous and caring. Even people with the best of intentions can end up putting you in a difficult situation that they didn’t intend to, sometimes due to unclear communication. This list of safety precautions for intentional community is meant to help you take care who you put your trust in. Many idealists think that where many others have failed, they will succeed purely on the strength of their conviction and passion. These can just as quickly become disillusioned with the movement when communities don’t live up to their aspirations. We support the movement, and it needs accountability. Please read this page, but don’t lose hope. Our free matching services are meant to help you find the truly trustworthy.

Avoiding Scammers

  • Many people interested in living in community are generous and trusting. If you are that type, check in with some street-savvy family members or friends who can help you evaluate any offers you may receive or offers you may want to extend. We all have blind spots. 
  • Use the chat function on this website until you feel comfortable sharing other information such as your profile on social media sites. 
  • Checking a Facebook page can help you verify that the other has a long history of relationships, not a made-up persona. 
  • Make sure the information sharing happens on both sides.
  • If and when you decide to share contact information, offer and ask for references. Get a friend to help you contact references if you feel nervous about it. Do an online search to see if the references seem to be reputable.
  • Keep yourself safe by taking it slow to build trust gradually.
  • When joining an ICmatch group, make sure that at some point, after a vetting process that seems fair, you are allowed to be part of decision-making processes.
  • Sometimes even well-intentioned people can set up unfair situations. Some can be unconscious that they are taking advantage of the vulnerability of people with little recourse when informal agreements are not honored. Sometimes community mediators will take on a pro-bono case. If those you are dealing with are not willing to meet with a free or low-cost mediator to work out a disagreement, it’s probably best to cut your losses and move on.
  • Read up on narcissistic behavior. Remember that no one is all bad or all good. Even well-meaning people can display these attributes at times.
  • Read about scammers and the dark triad

How Intentional Communities Get a Bad Reputation

There are longstanding intentional communities whose clear and fair governance allows them to practice their mission with conviction, without becoming cult-like. Unfortunately, intentional communities are often judged by their worst examples. Many people expect that intentional communities are cultish, because many have been. What are the biggest similarities between healthy intentional communities and cults or “scams”?

  • Both have idealism around shared values that are held as a cause worth sacrificing for, but in cults, people are pressured and manipulated to act against their individual best interests.
  • Both have members that are generous and don’t expect an exact reciprocal exchange for each contribution, but in healthy ICs, the expectations and rules around finances are agreed to up front.
  • Both have members that make financial contributions based on lofty visions, but in healthy ICs, there are clear and legally binding contracts, while members of cultish groups often trust blindly that it will all work out based on good intentions, then feel cheated and disillusioned later.

See also the section Toxic Workplaces or Groups in our page on Leadership Skills and Principles.

9 Ways to Identify a Cult-like Situation

To be fair, some ICs do meet all the criteria used to describe cults, but their members experience them as benign and less problematic than the larger society is. To be clear at the outset, there are longstanding intentional communities with unconventional beliefs that have clear and fair governance. Some practice their mission with conviction but without becoming exploitative. Intentional communities are often judged by their worst examples.

Still, there is reason to be cautious. Talk to current members, and especially past members, to feel out the vibe of a community. Be careful to distinguish between ideals and claims of the current members versus what is observable and reported by past members. The idealists attracted to intentional communities can be slow to recognize how they might be taken advantage of, perhaps even unintentionally. Intentional communities often have an idealism around shared values that are held as a cause worth sacrificing for. This attitude can prompt more generosity than would be offered in an expected reciprocal exchange. Some have loose rules around money exchange or even share finances. Some new members are lured into financial contributions by lofty visions, only to feel cheated and disillusioned later. Community leaders can be unconscious that they are abusing the trust of hopefuls and the vulnerability of people with little recourse when informal agreements are not honored.

The following questions can help you get clear on the expectations of a group and steer clear of cultish groups. These are based largely on Lalich’s (2020) more comprehensive list online.

  1. How are people who left the group treated? What is said about them? Will the group give you names of people who left?
  2. Are former members willing to speak about their experiences? How do they evaluate their time with the group and leader?
  3. What is the process for filing complaints? Is there a feedback process that is honored?
  4. Is there a fair process for managing financial transactions? Are there lawsuits?
  5. Are your questions answered directly? Are you told to listen to your heart and not your head? Are you told that you are too new, too uninformed, too nosy, or there isn’t time to answer?
  6. Is there a leader who appears to be the ultimate authority and spokesperson? Are there checks and balances to hold the leader accountable? Are other points of view seen as invalid?
  7. What kind of commitment is expected in time, money, and lifestyle changes?
  8. Is there some information that you are told not to share with outsiders?
  9. Is there information that you’re told you can’t get until you’re a member of the group or reached a certain level? (para. 2)

Reference: Lalich, J. (2020). Characteristics associated with cults. http://cultresearch.org/help/characteristics-associated-with-cults/

Recommended Reading About Cults

Examples From Past Community Members

Identify Unhealthy Relationships

While developing new friendships can bring a lot of joy and new experiences to your life, it’s important that if you feel something’s a little off about a relationship, don’t ignore the feeling. There are many resources that discuss how to recognize emotional manipulation, gaslighting, and other controlling behaviors. Talk it over with someone you trust, a therapist possibly. Consider talking to someone who doesn’t know the person you’re concerned about, because if you’re complaining about someone in your group, it might not be fair to be talking behind the other person’s back. However, if there is a power difference and you feel threatened, do find a powerful ally who you believe can help. Someone in your group may be able to understand your situation better. It would be potentially most helpful if that person can see both sides of the situation. Alternatively, you might seek a mediator’s help. One of the best ways to protect yourself from emotionally unhealthy relationships is to recognize where you might have some past trauma or mistaken perspectives that need healing. See the related pages The Importance of Boundaries and Kindness Together.

Avoid Professional Tenants

A professional tenant is someone who understands legal loopholes and technicalities and uses these to avoid paying rent. Typical behaviors are refusing to pay rent until a repair is made (to a problem they may have caused), dragging an eviction process out while they refuse to pay rent, and then getting the eviction expunged from their record. It’s sad to need to give a warning about this, but it’s better to be cautious than to learn the hard way. The following links have important information about how some people unscrupulously try to take advantage of laws that are meant to protect tenants.

  • Airbnb has a good overview of what you need to consider for short-term rentals.
  • This law firm discusses options for when a guest refuses to leave. This is rare, but someone with an antisocial personality disorder simply won’t care that what they are doing is illegal and unfair. One potential recourse this source doesn’t mention is, you can simply invite over 50 other friends to live in the same place for a week, or in some other legal way make it uncomfortable for the disinvited person to stay. If they don’t have a written legal tenancy agreement with you, this can prevent them from forcing you into an expensive and lengthy tenancy dispute.
  • This law firm helps you identify common tactics of people who game the system. Your invitation for a trial run as a community member is not a tenant-landlord agreement. Still, your trusting nature can make you vulnerable. Get your most no-nonsense skeptical ally to make sure you have an out if you find you are being set up for what might turn into an unfair situation. Don’t let your own sense of fair play cost you thousands in lost rental income or property damage.

See also these related pages: Safety Precautions for Intentional Community, Keep Rental Terms and Rules Fair, and Fake Community: What Community is Not.