At the end of the Dordtselaan, 18 year-old student Hillary Zhang from China sits on a bench in the sun. It’s in the middle of the summer and she has just arrived in Rotterdam. While still in Peking, she was looking for accommodations in Rotterdam and she made an appointment for the handover of keys to a house at Dordtselaan 245b. She signed a contract, transferred a 1,200 euro deposit and received an official receipt. But in the end, the landlord didn’t show up for the appointment. She emailed him, telephoned and sent Facebook messages. No response. It turns out Dordtselaan 245b doesn’t exist.

Luckily, Hillary didn’t really lose her 1,200 euro. Because she doesn’t exist. We created her persona to investigate how swindlers operate in Rotterdam’s student housing market. This type of fraud is common and it’s usually international students who are the victims.

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Feba/Hillary calls the man who rented her a non-existent house, to no avail. Image credit: Tim Ficheroux
woningnood special september 2017 unit 20

part of special

Housing shortage

Housing shortage for Rotterdam students seems to be bigger than ever. Read everything…

Jimmy’s story is a good example. He was waiting for the keys to be handed over at the end of June. He had paid two month’s rent and a deposit in advance: around 1,500 euro. At the time the meeting was supposed to take place, there were nine people waiting for a key. All of them had paid 1,500 euro in advance. None of them got a key. And we spoke with Taufiq. While still in Indonesia, he paid a 1,000 euro deposit fee. He filled in a registration form, signed a contract, and never heard anything afterwards about the house. The 1,000 euro was gone, but what was even worse, he still didn’t have a place to live just before he moved to Rotterdam.

It’s not hard to imagine that international students fall for this type of fraud. Rotterdam’s housing market has picked up considerably in recent years with an explosive increase in the number of international students. A toxic combination and a fertile breeding ground for swindlers. Student housing is scarce in Rotterdam and the university only reserves enough housing for a small fraction of international students, and the housing corporations have waiting lists. The fact that Dutch students aren’t always keen on having a housemate from abroad, and that it’s very difficult to view a house or be interviewed for a room in a student residence while still living in Canada, China or Indonesia, only adds to their difficulties. To make matters worse, the fake ads are found in the same place as legitimate ads.

It started in June of this year: desperate international students looking for student housing through various Facebook groups. These same Facebook groups are full of ads for rental housing, but the majority look quite shady. Advertisers don’t state the prices or addresses, there are no photographs, and the messages are full of spelling mistakes. If you dig a bit deeper, you’ll come across what appear to be fake profiles without friends in Rotterdam. Despite all this, there are responses under the messages such as ‘interested’, ‘pm’, ‘still available?’ left by prospective students.

Dozens of swindlers

In just a few days we find dozens of these dubious ads. And this isn’t even the high point of the hysteria yet. Even more desperate students will appear in July, along with even more of these types of suspect ads. In order to find out how the swindlers operate, we decided to pretend to be an international student looking for a place to live in Rotterdam: she is 18, from Peking, and her name is Hillary Zhang. We create a corresponding email address and Facebook profile to use in our communications with the deceitful advertisers.

We discover at least 10 advertisers offering the exact same advertisement in university cities all over the world. For example, take the ad from ‘Meyer M Babs’. This profile places identical advertisements in Facebook groups for people seeking accommodations in Amsterdam, Toronto, San Diego, Maastricht, London, Dublin, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, Brussels, New York and Houston.

Facebookadvertenties van Meyer M Babs

Viewing

An advertisement from Angela B Moore is similar. We encounter her in Facebook groups for people seeking housing in Groningen, Tilburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Copenhagen, Dublin, Liège, Brussels and Prague. Each time with exactly the same ads.

Undercover as Hillary Zhang, we contact both advertisers. We say that we are looking for housing in Rotterdam and we saw their ad on Facebook. But as we don’t know anything about the apartment yet, we ask for the address, the price and pictures. Angela B Moore responds within 8 hours. She doesn’t send any photographs, but we are given a detailed description of the house. She promises us a fully furnished apartment in Zuid at ‘Dortselaan’ (the correct name should be ‘Dordtselaan’) 245b. The price for this accommodation is 500 euro per month, inclusive.

It sounds good so we ask if we can view the place. That is possible and we are told to come by on Monday 2 July at 19:00. The address seems to be legitimate according to Google Maps. Very close to Zuidplein at the end of the Dordtselaan, though we can’t find it using Google Street View.

Alarm bells should be going off at this point: no pictures of the apartment, a spelling mistake in the address, poor English in her messages. But as a naïve and desperate international student, you might be able to look past all this. And if you hadn’t seen the advertisements in other cities, you might actually think it’s a real apartment. So we confirm the appointment for Monday, 2 July at 19:00 at Dordtselaan 245b.

Now comes the first attempt at getting us to make an advance payment: “I think that will be best for you to secure it otherwise I may not guarantee that the apartment will still be available if you do not secure it first and by the time I get back it can be reserve for you.” What? Angela proposes we contact the landlord by email to reserve the apartment, which would cost us a cool 1,200 euro. She tells us that many people are interested and the landlord will rent to whoever reserves the apartment first. She gives us the email address for one ‘Mr Robert’: berthelmerobertme@gmail.com.

Owner is abroad

In the meantime, ‘Meyer M Babs’ has also responded, saying there is an apartment available for rent at the Beukelsdijk in Rotterdam-West. We say we are interested and the trickery begins almost immediately: “I am glad you are interested in renting my apartment but presently I am not available in Rotterdam for now as i am presently in Massachusetts now to complete my work with my company and i am here with my keys . The main reason why I am renting my apartment because I don’t want it to be dusty and rough whenever I am coming back to Rotterdam.” He promises to send the keys by FedEx as soon as we transfer two month’s rent and a deposit – 1,700 euro in total.1

We pretend that we don’t understand ‘Meyer M Babs’ and during the day we make a few requests for a viewing. But he remains firm. In the meantime we receive an email from him. All of a sudden his name is Meyer Marcelo; meyermarcelo28@gmail.com. ‘Meyer’, the name he uses to sign his emails, asks us for all sorts of personal information so he can draw up a contract. We send him some information belonging to our alter ego Hillary Zhang.

All this excitement was a waste of time…

Now that we have an appointment for a viewing at the Dordtselaan, we email ‘Mr Robert’ that we are very much looking forward to the meeting. ‘Berthelme Robert Friedrich’ replies by email within an hour. He asks if we could provide our personal details so he can draw up a contract. He tells us we don’t have to pay the full rent, just the 1,200 euro deposit to reserve the apartment.

On the morning of the day the meeting will take place, we email ‘the landlord’ to send him ‘Hillary’s’ personal information. Full of excitement we cycle to Dordtselaan: but what if we’re actually going to view a real apartment? What will we do if it’s a real viewing? We discuss and prepare our little charade: Feba is Hillary, the Chinese student looking for a place to live, and Tim will be her buddy from the university.

We arrive at Dordtselaan 15 minutes before our appointment. All the excitement turns out to be for nothing. Dordtselaan 245b doesn’t exist. Just to be sure we walk up the street to the corner and have a look in the alley and at the opposite side of the street. We can’t find the address there either. The pawn shop where the address should be according to Google Maps is already closed. The Indian takeaway restaurant on the corner also doesn’t know where this address is. We send Angela a message through Facebook Messenger. No response. We email the man claiming to be the landlord. We get no response from him either.

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According to Google Maps, Dordtselaan 245b should be here, but the house numbers end at 211. Image credit: Tim Ficheroux

…or was it?

The next morning we suddenly receive an email from ‘Berthelme Robert Friedrich’. He has sent us a contract and a bank account number with an urgent request to return the signed contract and transfer the 1,200 euro deposit. He casually proposes a new time for handing over the keys without giving any explanation as to why he didn’t show up the previous evening.

We email him back asking for directions to the address and say we would prefer to view the apartment before signing a contract. We also suggest paying him upon receiving the keys. Robert doesn’t agree with our proposal and stresses we really must pay today or else he will rent the apartment to another interested party.

Because Hillary ‘is desperately looking’ for a place to live in Rotterdam, she agrees. We send the signed contract and say we have transferred the money. But ‘Berthelme Robert Friedrich’ wants to see proof. So we Photoshop a bank statement with a fake account number to convince him. And we make a new appointment for the handover of the keys. The appointment is in two days and we are interested in how the confrontation with this swindler will play out.

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The photograph

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Our scammer sent this picture. Signature, date of birth, address and license number have been made unrecognisable by ourselves.

By this time, ‘Meyer Marcelo’ is also insisting on payment. To spur us on he sends us the addresses of various MoneyGram offices in Rotterdam.2

In an attempt to win our trust, he sends us a positively poetic dissertation on trust, the subconscious, and the good inherent in mankind. We can’t make head or tail of it. He also emails us a photograph of someone holding a driver’s license belonging to a Marcelo Meyer in front of his forehead to prove he really exists.

Marcelo Meyer turns out to be a forty-something who actually does live in Massachusetts. Oddly enough, we are asked to transfer the money not to ‘Meyer M Babs/Meyer Marcelo/Marcelo Meyer’, but to a ‘Roger Newton’ in Cortland, Ohio, a good 12 hour drive from Massachusetts. It turns out to be much more difficult to pretend that we have made a payment through MoneyGram, so we spend some time negotiating. At some point our swindler realises that he’s not going to be able to trick Hillary into parting with her money, so he terminates contact with us.

Return to Dordtselaan

Two days later we once again cycle to Dordtselaan. This time we have agreed to meet at a bench on the square at the corner. ‘Berthelme Robert Friedrich’ has also sent us proof of identity belonging to a Robert Friedrich Barthelmess. We have also acquired his telephone number as well as the telephone number of Angela B Moore, with German and Irish country codes.

Once again, no one shows up at Dordtselaan. Using Robert Friedrich Barthelmess’ passport photo, we canvas the neighbourhood, but no one recognises him.

That evening we receive another mail from ‘the landlord’. “Sorry i was busy just check email, I will suggest we schedule to meet by weekend.” We let him stew for a couple of days and then send an angry email that we transferred the money days ago and we now want our keys. Robert responds with a few emails stating he still hasn’t received the money.

While we expect that by now the swindlers are aware that they won’t be able to cheat us out of our money, Angela B Moore persists in contacting us through Facebook Messenger. She tries to once again convince us to transfer the money. For the entire week she proposes different amounts, different types of payment methods and sends us multiple bank account numbers.

We also speak to the swindlers on the telephone. In the same week we receive calls from four different people. These are puzzling conversations in which they ask why the money hasn’t been transferred yet. They are often unintelligible and as soon as we ask questions, they promise to call us back and hang up. Since we haven’t unearthed any new details or encountered any new persuasion tactics after three weeks of communicating with them, we decide to end all contact.

Read more about scams on the housing market in the coming weeks.

Are you a victim of this type of fraud and do you want to participate in a scientific research on rental scams? You can contact editor Tim Ficheroux of ESE-researcher Sophie van der Zee.

  1. This is a strategy we encountered with multiple swindlers this summer. An ‘owner’ claims to be abroad with the house keys and doesn’t want to fly back and forth to the Netherlands for no good reason. They all have more or less the same story: they’ve previously had problems with a tenant or friend who was managing the apartment and have thus decided they will be very cautious before giving anyone the keys. They all say they are trustworthy. It’s not about the money, they say. It’s about finding someone to look after the house and keep it clean while they’re away. Right from the start, they promise to refund the money if the apartment doesn’t look like the one in the pictures they have sent. ↩︎
  2. Payment services such as MoneyGram and Western Union are commonly used by these types of swindlers. This is because the money you send can be picked up in any place on the globe within a few minutes. In some countries it can even be picked up at a random branch office. All that is needed is a passport (a fake one will do) and the code corresponding to the payment transfer. Recipients can’t be traced and payments cannot be reversed. ↩︎
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