Students
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

Romanian NGO runs DUO scam

Paid for non-existent work

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
A Romanian NGO has been scamming DUO into paying student finances to dozens of Romanian students by providing fake freelance work for them. Their invoices are paid for by mandatory ‘donations’ by their families. ‘I wish I could give my old self a slap, and tell her to never do something so stupid.’
18 October om 11:26 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 October 2023
om 10:28 uur.
October 18 at 11:26 AM.
Last modified on October 25, 2023
at 10:28 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Ingrid Ştefan

18 October om 11:26 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 25 October 2023
om 10:28 uur.
Avatar photo

By Ingrid Ştefan

October 18 at 11:26 AM.
Last modified on October 25, 2023
at 10:28 AM.

‘In a world of endless educational opportunities, have you ever felt lost and discouraged? Imagine your dreams of studying abroad coming true, without the stress and confusion’, the website of the Global Confederation of Romanian Students (GCRS) says.

‘Do you feel like time and money are holding you back? Maybe you’ve been discouraged by the admissions process and the costs of studying abroad? We completely understand these frustrations’, it goes on to say. And: ‘We help Romanian young people to achieve their dream of studying abroad.’

Who wouldn’t want that? Especially as a student from a country like Romania, where the minimum wage is only 466 euros per month. The dream may be to study abroad, but the reality is that most Romanians can’t afford such a luxury. 

So when a Romanian student finds out that this NGO is helping people like them to get around 1,000 euros in student finance every month, and all they have to do is some freelance journalism work, they’re easily sold.  

Dozens of Romanian students from the UG and other universities in the Netherlands sign up, but soon find out they have been caught up in a scam that tricks DUO into paying them student finances, while they themselves are tricked into paying regular ‘donations’ to GCRS.

Scholarships

‘I could sense something was off about it’, says Radu, a Romanian student in Groningen who has worked with GCRS since 2021. ‘But I heard many people say they got student finance through GCRS and it was the only way I could afford to study in the Netherlands, so I fell for it. I was very naive then.’

The scheme, which was first brought to light by Romanian news website PressOne, revolves around the ‘GCRS scholarships’ – a phrase that’s in quotation marks on their website for a reason. Students who apply don’t get a real scholarship, but receive student finance from countries like the Netherlands where an EU student has a right to that if they work a certain amount of hours. It can save them up to 37,000 euros, says GCRS. 

It was the only way I could afford to study in the Netherlands, so I fell for it

Providing students with ‘work’ is what the ‘scholarship’ is all about. Students do minimal journalistic work and the NGO lets them send invoices for worked hours in return.

Bianca, another Groningen student, had no idea what she was getting into when she applied, she says. She had to do a five-minute recorded interview as part of the admission process. ‘The instructions I got seemed very professional. They asked for a certain camera angle, framing, distance between you and the interviewee, and even surrounding décor. So I did everything by the book, only to later realise it was just a formality and they accepted everyone.’

Like the six other students that UKrant spoke with about this, she was then asked to register herself as a freelance journalist as soon as she got to the Netherlands. At that point, she still thought she’d be a professional student journalist; she thought she’d create real content for which she’d get paid.

Donations

But then she got a call from Dragos Henriett Doicu, a Romanian expat living in Sweden who founded the NGO in 2014. ‘He suddenly announced that my family needed to make a periodic donation to the NGO’, Bianca says. ‘He reassured me it would be paid back to me as a “salary” so I could get the DUO money.’

It had to be like this, Doicu explained to Bianca, because the NGO had no funds of its own, and therefore couldn’t pay students unless their family donated. ‘He said it’s like a big soup to which every student adds an ingredient so that the whole community can thrive. He also compared it with the way church donations work.’

The founder said it’s like a big soup to which every student adds an ingredient 

The same happened to NHL Stenden student Maria. She too was confused about the donation and asked if her mother could join the call, since she was more experienced in such matters. ‘But he just told me I’m a big girl and I should already know all this’, she says.

No one from GCRS had told the students about the donation before this stage. ‘They were just not allowed to talk about the procedure, because it was “too complex”’, says UG student Delia. ‘But I just couldn’t understand it. How was I supposed to ask my mom to give me a month’s worth of her salary so I could send it to some strangers on the Internet?’

At the deserted official GCRS headquarters for the Netherlands – located at the Hereweg in Groningen – no one is available to comment. The visible cobwebs indicate no one has been there for a long time, either. 

In a nutshell

A: A student’s family donates money to GCRS, which the student then receives as payment for their invoice.

B: DUO grants student finance based on the worked hours as claimed.

C: The student returns the GCRS payment to their family, who sends it back to GCRS as a donation; and the process restarts, until at one point GCRS doesn’t pay out.

Good-hearted citizens

But founder Doicu, whom UKrant contacted in Sweden, denies that the donations are mandatory. He claims that random Romanian citizens came up with the 3.5 million worth of donations to help out the three hundred students who are supposedly current GCRS ‘scholars’.

His organisation, however, makes no use of advertising, and its engagement on social media amounts only to about a couple thousand followers, and an average of fewer than ten likes per post. ‘You should investigate how I’m the best salesman in the world’, Doicu says jokingly when asked about that. 

Current GCRS collaborator and UG student Ovidiu backs Doicu. ‘We rely on the donations of good-hearted Romanian citizens’, he says. According to him, the NGO, in which he has a more senior position, is completely above board. Still, he doesn’t want his name mentioned, nor the position he holds. ‘I cannot discuss that, but I can only mention I am one of the guys who do the “clean-up” in the organisation’, he says. ‘It’s not really official.’

I depended on that money and I was already in too deep to give up

The donations are mentioned late in the application process, he admits. ‘Because people get scared when they hear about money.’ 

The students UKrant talked to say the donation was absolutely mandatory, though. ‘The guy [Doicu] called me late at night and explained everything for two to three hours, in metaphors and complex laws I knew nothing about’, says Lidia, a student in Enschede.

She felt she had no choice but to go on, as she had already moved to the Netherlands and registered at the Chamber of Commerce. ‘My family made it clear they couldn’t help me with more than a few hundred euros per month. So I put all my faith in getting the student finance quickly. I depended on that money and I was already in too deep to give up.’

Money cycle

And so her family, like that of others, started donating, transferring 500 to 600 euros to GCRS, which would then send it to the students’ Revolut business account as their ‘payment’ – Revolut is a digital alternative to traditional banking services, based in the UK, and very popular in Romania. From there, the students had to transfer the money to their personal Revolut account and then to their family again, who was to quickly send it back to the NGO. ‘The moment you get the money, they start pressuring you to transfer it back to them again’, says Bianca. 

The donations will trigger the last stage of the admission process, students say. For a short amount of time, there is actually money in the student’s account that looks like it has been paid by GCRS. And so the student can apply for student finance with DUO based on the minimal requirement of 56 hours of work. 

The moment you get the money, they start pressuring you to transfer it back to them

Students don’t actually have that much work to do, though. In theory, they need to produce five videos, one article, one live video, and three pictures, along with some written texts every month. 

But Bianca says the reality is different. ‘I had to do a thirty-minute live video once a month, in which students gathered together to discuss student life in the Netherlands’, she says. ‘Besides that, I had to write an article in English on the same topic and do a reel, but the articles weren’t published anywhere. I definitely didn’t work 56 hours.’

‘I had months in which I didn’t do anything for GCRS’, says Radu. ‘Yet I could still complete an invoice at the end of the month justifying the 56 hours I had worked to DUO.’ 

Pre-made invoices

On the website, students can find pre-made templates of invoices and hours statements, on which they only have to fill out their personal data. The statement would always show at least 56 hours, the minimum amount needed up until this year to get the student finance. ‘I think Dragos relies solely on the fact that journalistic work cannot be quantified’, says recent UG graduate Ana, who was a GCRS freelancer for three years, until 2023.

The articles that the students did write are nowhere to be found. There is a website where they are supposed to be published, but that is still under construction and has been for some time. Only the meta-description reveals that GCRS has anything to do with it.

The articles weren’t published anywhere and I definitely didn’t work 56 hours

Doicu claims stories get published on the NGO’s social media, but are deleted after some time, so as to not overload the platforms. ‘We are not compelled to keep an archive of such articles. So, we care about the environment and delete these posts, because each one generates CO2. Nowadays, we all need to be responsible and eco-friendly.’

Students, however, say that nobody really cared about what they did or did not do, especially after passing the first stages. GCRS would only get worried when the Dutch tax service announced a checkup on specific students. ‘For two weeks, they would write up articles and create content for that student to show as justification for his stated hours and his invoices’, says Ana.

Because they were registered as freelancers, students also had to pay VAT. ‘I paid around 98 euros per month for an income that was in my bank account for about 30 seconds, or that sometimes didn’t even reach my account’, Bianca says.

No payment

However, legal or not, it did seem to work. GCRS paid back their donations, DUO accepted their request for student finance, and students would play the journalist for a few hours monthly. 

At a certain point, though, GCRS would stop paying their invoices. ‘Dragos used to invoke a reason for failing to pay back the donations in time’, Ana says. ‘It was either that he was being audited by the tax authorities, that he was in over his head because of the number of students, or even because I supposedly hadn’t done my tasks properly. It was always our fault.’

It was always our fault that GCRS didn’t pay back the donations in time

‘He said I’m irresponsible and that because of students like me, his reputation is tainted’, Bianca confirms. Both are still waiting to get donations back. ‘I just accepted I’ll never see that money again’, says Bianca. ‘When I confronted him about the donations, he told me this: if you’d make a soup with multiple ingredients, how would you get just one ingredient out of it?’, adds Ana.

Doicu denies the students’ accusations. ‘The kids have no financial background, and they just don’t understand how these things work’, he says.

According to him, all students would eventually get their money, if they hadn’t left the organisation. Sometimes there might be a delay. ‘But that’s our internal problem, it’s between me and the students’, is his initial response. Later, he goes on to explain that ‘the NGO had to go through multiple audits by the tax authorities last year, as well as deal with a change in the Dutch law from 2021, which requires freelancers to have at least three different collaborators.’

He then had to create two more NGOs for students to still get their money. ‘But the Swedish state wouldn’t allow us to open up bank accounts for them. We’re still figuring that out‘, he claims.  

Suing DUO

If students didn’t get their money back as ‘payment’, they would also lose their student finances. When this happened to Bianca and Ana, Doicu advised them to sue DUO.  ‘The payments are irrelevant, as students still have proof of their work and pay their taxes’, Doicu says. ‘DUO’s procedure is violating Dutch law. Student finance is a social right, just as healthcare allowance is. You still get healthcare allowance without our payments, so why wouldn’t you get the finance?’

However, Ana’s lawyer made it clear from the start that if she didn’t get paid in the next six weeks, there was nothing she could do to win the case. Bianca’s lawyer, too, advised her to drop the case as there was no way to win it without the payments from GCRS. 

Doicu advises students to ‘change their lawyer’ if that happens. ‘There’s no such thing as losing the right to finance. No right is lost as long you’re still in court fighting for it.’ He adds: ‘It’s the students’ fault for dropping the case too soon, and the lawyer’s for advising them to do so.’

Accomplices

Ana still got ‘lucky’, though. Because of a delay in DUO’s reaction to her objection, she got a compensation of 1,400 euros, which, she claims, Doicu now uses to prove to other students that the cause is not lost and they will eventually get their student finance back.

Most students in this article have distanced themselves from GCRS by now. However, no one wants to take legal action against the NGO.  ‘The whole idea of GCRS was created in such a way that only we, students, would get into deep shit’, Lidia explains. 

Radu: ‘Once, when I was talking to him, Doicu mentioned that if he did a legally crazy thing, he would take the students down with him, because they would all be considered accomplices.’

Bianca never wants to have anything to do with GCRS again. ‘Even now, if someone wants to talk to me about it, I get anxious. I wish I could turn back time, give my old self a slap, and tell her to never do something so stupid.’

The names of the students mentioned in this article are aliases, to protect their privacy. Their full names are known to the editorial staff.

Response by DUO

Asked about GCRS by UKrant, DUO said it is aware of the NGO and the questions around its legitimacy, as the Dutch embassy in Romania sent DUO a translated version of the investigation by PressOne this summer. ‘We’re still waiting to see what’s going to happen next. We know a lot of students have problems with GCRS, so we’re waiting to find out whether they’ll sue the NGO or not.’

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