In a city with thousands of students and not enough rooms, you are bound to run into problems. UKrant addresses the most common housing troubles and tries to offer some solutions. This week: scammers.
Imagine you have moved across two continents for an exciting semester abroad only to find that your new home doesn’t actually exist.
Zoe Clarke (23), an Australian exchange student, doesn’t have to imagine. On February 1, after a two-day journey to Groningen, she arrived at the address her contract stated to be her home for the next six months to find nothing there.
Zoe, along with many other students, had fallen victim to the plague of the Groningen housing market: scammers. They come in many shapes and sizes, but they all have the same goal: to get your money.
It all started last October, when Zoe, who studies psychology, started looking for a place to live. She was too late to secure a place in one of the UG-sanctioned student accommodations, so she had to navigate the world of Facebook housing groups swarming with scammers. She knew to be careful and never to accept a room without at least having seen it on a video call.
It’s one thing to scam me, but to leave a young woman stranded in a foreign country without a place to stay…
‘Noah’ messaged her and Zoe was alert to signs of a con, but after a live video interview and a tour of the house and its surroundings, she agreed to having a contract drawn up. A relative of hers, a lawyer, looked it over and saw nothing suspicious.
Zoe was even put in touch with her future roommate, ‘Stacey from Sweden’, who seemed like a normal student, exactly like someone you might have as a roommate. Still sceptical, but also scared of being homeless, Zoe signed the contract and sent Noah 1,300 euros as a deposit and first month’s rent.
Noah kept in touch the weeks prior to her departure, arranging things such as a key drop off, and Zoe kept in contact with Stacey as well. It wasn’t until she was at Singapore airport that Noah stopped responding and Zoe’s anxiety reached new heights.
Two days later, she reached Groningen and found her address, but the house wasn’t there. Her first night was spent in a hotel across the street from where she should have been living.
‘It’s one thing to scam me, but to leave a young woman stranded in a foreign country without a place to stay…’, says Zoe. ‘The police said it was one of the most elaborate scams they have ever seen.’
She doubts she will get any of her money back, which is a big blow for a student who had to work four jobs to be able to afford her exchange.
Second-year biology student Andrea (a pseudonym) also fell for a scam, but she took justice into her own hands. She went in search of accommodation in April 2021, during de Covid pandemic. It was a desperate situation, she says. ‘Everyone is looking for a place and everything is so expensive. Anxiety takes over, and you tend to settle for anything.’
So she was relieved when she was approached by a girl who said she was moving out of her room and referred Andrea to her landlord. Phone calls and emails were exchanged, Andrea saw pictures of the house, the contract was credible: everything seemed to be by the book. ‘He even seemed a bit hesitant to give me the place. Why would he act like that, if he just wanted to scam me?’
They agreed on a deposit of one month’s rent and made an appointment for an in-person viewing a week later. Andrea travelled to the Netherlands for it especially. But when she arrived – having already paid the deposit – she found out she had been duped.
Technically, what happened wasn’t illegal. He didn’t make me pay for it
The police couldn’t do anything. ‘Technically, what happened wasn’t illegal’, Andrea explains. ‘Technically, he didn’t make me pay for it. If for example he had asked for my IBAN or made an automatic payment request, it would be a different story.’
Andrea was livid, and not just because of the deposit. ‘He could have just taken the money and ghosted me after that, but he let me make the journey to Groningen.’
But as it happens, Andrea has a friend who is a police officer. Together, they tracked down the scammer’s IP address, which placed him in the south of Germany.
‘So we went there and my friend told him that even though there wasn’t anything legally we could do about his scam, he had probably done something else in the past that was clearly illegal’, Andrea recounts. ‘We said that if he paid me back, we would just go away.’
The scammer, a man in his late thirties, responded with: ‘Just fuck off and I’ll pay you back.’ Which, surprisingly perhaps, is exactly what happened.
Ask for ID
To avoid the situations Zoe and Andrea found themselves in, At Home in Groningen, set up by the UG, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, and municipality to inform international students about housing, advises to always ask for the landlord’s phone number and ID and to google their name in case someone reported them for previous scams. Be aware, though, that a professional scammer might use an ID he got off another fraud victim, and never send a copy of your own ID.
Andrea’s golden advice is to always go view the place in person, if possible. ‘If the person doesn’t let you visit the apartment, it is 1,000 percent a scam’, she says.
At Home in Groningen also cautions students against paying a deposit before viewing a place nd signing the contract. You should certainly never pay in cash, since that can’t be traced, but only use safe payment services like wire transfers to Dutch bank accounts or PayPal.
Also keep in mind that in general, credible landlords in Groningen do not often reach out to students. That’s important to know, because in other countries it does happen. ‘It’s absolutely not strange for a landlord to message a room-seeker in Australia’, says Zoe. At Home in Groningen notes that most scams happen on social networking sites, like Facebook, where fake profiles are easily created.
Andrea suggests people use the Facebook housing pages to warn others about specific scammers. She did that herself, in hopes that others might avoid her fate, but scammers can easily start over again with a new profile, she realises. ‘I don’t know if he is still out there, scamming other people.’
The most important advice Andrea has: ‘Don’t let your desperation to find accommodation blind your judgement. That’s why I fell for that scam.’