Eighteen-year-old Emma Gallacher arrived in Rotterdam last Friday, together with her father. On Sunday she was supposed to move into the room she had hired from London over the course of the summer, since she is embarking on her degree at the Willem de Kooning Academie (WdKA) next week. When she and her father were visiting a DIY shop on Saturday, they found themselves near the room Emma had hired in Wijnhaven, and on a hunch, they decided to ring the doorbell.
“When no one came to open the door, I didn’t realise at once that I’d been swindled,” says Emma. Facebook messages and attempts to call her ‘flatmate’ went unanswered. “This made us a little nervous, but we didn’t really realise what was happening until my father had a look later that night and the door wasn’t opened on Sunday, either.”
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'April' does not exist
A few months ago, Emma posted a message on Facebook, indicating that she was looking for a room in Rotterdam. In her message she mentioned that she would be attending WdKA. She was contacted by a person who called herself April Lindsay and said she had found a flat near WdKA. She was going to live there with her younger sister and was looking for a third flatmate. However, it has since transpired that April Lindsay does not exist, and that Emma has lost the €1,000 advance payment she made.
“I feel so stupid,” Emma tells us a few days later. “All the money I earned over the summer is gone. I’ve burst into tears on the tram a few times. And I’m having a hard time trusting people.” Although she knew such scams existed, she had never expected to fall victim to one herself. “I had complete faith in April Lindsay. Her English was perfect. I asked her all sorts of personal questions, and she provided good answers to every single one of them. I was so glad to have my room sorted out that I never once had any misgivings.”
When James Persée (19) woke up on Monday morning, the first thing he saw was Emma’s warning message on Facebook. The French student flew into a bit of a panic, because when he had found out he would be doing a one-year student exchange at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), he had got himself a room in Rotterdam at once. From Cambodia, where he was volunteering at the time, he had first tried to get a room through SSH (which only has unfurnished rooms), then through Housing Anywhere and Kamernet (in vain). After that he had posted messages to several Facebook groups geared towards students looking for rooms.
Like Emma, James had received a message from April Lindsay, who had told him she had a room for him, close to RSM (like Emma, James had mentioned in his original message which school he was going to attend). This time the scammer offered a room at De Lairesselaan, but in all other respects, James was fed the same story that Emma had been told, as well: April Lindsay and her sister were looking for a flatmate. James made an advance payment of €1,100 and embarked on his summer without a worry in the world.
Like Emma, James asked all sorts of detailed questions about the house and about his future flatmates. “I had complete faith in her, because ‘she sounded so different from the other responders, who were clearly out to scam me’. To this day, he has no idea how he was supposed to be able to tell that he was being scammed. “I absolutely pored over every detail of the contract. It all seemed completely above board,” says James. “The only thing I found a little strange is that she once insisted I pay the advance.”
Emma does not feel the same way. “Now that I know, I can see the inconsistencies in the story. While we were communicating, I once suggested we do a video call, but she told me the camera on her phone had broken. I was told to transfer the money into an Irish bank account. She said she preferred that one because her Dutch account was a bit of a hassle. And when we used Google Streetview, my mother wondered where the trees were that could be seen behind the windows in the pictures. I should have noticed those details, but when you’re 18, you have no idea how these things work, and I simply overlooked it.”
‘Even Airbnbs are fully booked’
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Now, the two students are desperately looking for a place to live. “It’s so stressful and frustrating,” says James. “I’ve been working on this full time since Monday, and I’m not coming up with anything. I’m lying awake most of the night.” He cannot understand why it is so hard to find housing in Rotterdam. “I’ve never come across anything like this. Last year in Singapore I was able to find something very quickly, and you’d expect it to be harder there than here.”
In France, students who run into trouble can turn to their universities for help. “A few per cent of rooms at universities are permanently vacant, so that you can always turn to your university for help. It’s a disgrace that the Rotterdam municipal authorities and the university can’t properly arrange this.”
James is planning to make his way to Rotterdam on Tuesday. He has packed his suitcase and has already got his train tickets. “But I will be more or less homeless once I arrive. Even all the Airbnbs are fully booked. My only option appears to be a hostel that costs 120 euros per week, but I’ll be sharing a room with seven strangers there. I don’t think I’ll be able to do that for long.” Meanwhile, he found a temporary room through a friend for the coming weeks.
Back to London
For her part, too, Emma is about to give up. “I feel as though everyone is out to exploit me.” She has viewed several properties this week, but to no avail. “And I’m not particularly fussy. I only have two requirements: a roof above my head and a legal arrangement. But those things don’t seem to exist in Rotterdam at the moment. Yesterday I asked someone if I could inspect the contract, only to be told, ‘We don’t do contracts.’”
By now her mother and sister have arrived in Rotterdam, as well, to help her find a room. “I worked on my admission to Willem de Kooning for two years – portfolios, letters of motivation. But if I haven’t found anything by the end of the week, I will probably have to return to London with my family.”