Don’t fall for housing scams
Beware of the red flags
Now that Linda Ardenghi looks back on it, the red flags were all there. But back when the master student of law started househunting, she was much more worried about having to couchsurf, she says. ‘I have heard more stories about students failing to find a roof over their heads than getting scammed.’
Desperate, she ended up paying 1,200 euros for a room that never existed.
Linda is not new to Groningen. As a UCG student, she had been living in the Frascati building for two years when the pandemic caused her to move back home to Italy. When it was time for her to come back to the Netherlands, she started looking for a room in housing groups on Facebook.
Just like many other househunters, she was rejected many times. ‘Now matter how quickly I replied to the adverts, they all had had enough applicants already.’ So when someone called Alan Diaz texted her they were moving out and there was a possibility to share an apartment in the Billitonstraat, Linda got excited. A fully furnished apartment in the city centre seemed to be a dream deal.
If the place’s description sounds too good to be true – spacious, centrally located and relatively cheap – it probably doesn’t exist. Real adverts don’t usually feature a detailed list of all the appliances and furniture, either. Do they mention that pillows, blankets and even bed linen will also be included? You better stop wasting your time.
Just to be careful, Linda checked the address on the Google street view ‘It was a real house, so I was like, that’s a good sign already.’ When ‘the former tenant’ suggested that Linda should contact the landlord, because she was currently with her parents due to the pandemic, Linda took it at face value, when alarm bells should have been going off.
If you are immediately referred to contact a landlord by email or WhatsApp, stay alert and watch for other red flags: that’s a common practice used by swindlers.
Since Linda was staying with her parents for the exact same reason at the time, she emailed the landlord, Christian Beller. He urged her to sign a rental contract and transfer a deposit as soon as possible to secure their agreement. ‘He told me to hurry up, that there were so many students applying for this room. I was like, sure, I’ll take it.’
Be extremely careful about signing a contract for a room you haven’t seen. If you are abroad and have no friends to check the property for you, you can ask for a virtual viewing. If your future landlord pressures you by telling you they have other interested applicants, pushing you into signing a contract, then you need to take a deep breath and think calmly. Would a real landlord act so impatiently?
At this stage, Linda’s parents joined to check the landlord’s name and his French bank account – which had been opened with an online bank that doesn’t require a permanent address – but ‘nothing specific came up’.
Be critical of the bank account you are going to transfer your money to. If it isn’t a Dutch bank account, then your chances of being scammed skyrocket. Especially if the name of the landlord isn’t connected to the bank account.
After the three-page contract was signed, it was Linda’s turn to transfer the one-time deposit of 800 euros together with the first month’s rent of 400 euros. Since the landlord promised to give her the keys when she returned to Groningen, Linda went ahead. ‘So I transferred 1,200 euros.’
Don’t buy the promise that as soon as you transfer the deposit and first month’s payment, they will send you the keys by DHL or you will be able to get them when you get back to the country. You are clearly being conned.
Linda would have blissfully awaited the move to a non-existent room if the landlord had not asked her to send him even more money, claiming that the municipality changed the rental regulations. ‘That’s when I finally got suspicious’, says Linda. At last, she asked friends of hers to check the house. Unfortunately, her fears were confirmed:the place was occupied by someone else. ‘Your have been scammed’, said the resident.
Linda is not the only one who was taken in by a rental swindler. Maria Abdurashitova, a student of international relations and organisations from Russia, was about to transfer 2,500 euros to Jennifer, a British woman renting out her apartment on Rooming.nl. ‘She told me this whole story about how she bought this apartment for her daughter who had moved back to England.’
Maria, desperate to find a place to live, fell for it. Even when Jennifer suddenly changed her mind and asked her to pay through Airbnb, Maria didn’t really question it ‘because it is a trusted website.’
Scammers often request that you pay via Airbnb or Booking websites, among others. Even if a link to their property seems legit, it can be an imitation of popular websites that are not safe for payments: unsecured websites are usually indicated by an unlocked padlock icon before or after the website URL.
But then something went wrong and Jennifer disappeared for a week, only to return to ask Maria to pay two months worth of rent and 1,000 euros deposit via a direct bank transfer. That’s when Maria’s parents grew suspicious. They also noticed that the bank transfer details didn’t match at all: ‘It was Jose from Spain, and not Jennifer from England.’
Just to double check it was a scam, Maria’s parents suggested that she inquire if she could pay through Airbnb – as agreed before – and justified it that it was a better option for Russian banks. But the British lady became very insistent that Maria should pay immediately and through a certain link: a TransferWise knock-off. Convinced, Maria called it a day, saying that she’d found a better offer.
The only thing she regrets now is that she sent a scan of her passport at the very beginning. ‘I didn’t see any issue with someone trying to verify that I actually exist.’ Even though she backtracked and deleted it from the thread, she is not sure if they still have it. ‘Hopefully not.’
Never send any proof of identification before you are absolutely sure you’re not talking to a scammer as it may be used to commit identity fraud later. If nothing else, do mark the copy with the date and address of the property to make it harder to misuse it.
Although Maria didn’t lose any money, the whole situation was deeply upsetting for her, especially considering the time pressure, she says. ‘I finally felt at peace because I had somewhere to live, but then I was back at square one.’ She takes comfort in the fact that she did manage to put a roof over her head with the help of a rental agency.
Linda is doing her best to stay positive, too. ‘At least, I paid the money that I earned from my side jobs, so my parents didn’t lose anything.’