A few months ago, Saskia was introduced to the phenomenon of student room scams. A Slovak acquaintance of hers was going to get a degree in The Hague and was looking for a bedsit. “She told me that she had found a room through a Facebook group. She had not yet seen the room because the landlord was in Kiev, but she had already paid an advance on the rent.” Saskia suspected something might be amiss and traced the landlord, which is how she discovered that her acquaintance had been swindled.
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With her acquaintance’s permission, Saskia blew the scammer’s cover in the Facebook group. “And then something happened that I hadn’t expected at all. I received a ton of messages from people who had fallen victim to the same scammer, but also from people who asked me if I could check out certain ads and landlords for them,” says Saskia. “I was completely flabbergasted. I knew there were scammers out there, but the extent of the scam is unbelievable.”
Since then, Saskia has been actively hunting for scam adverts. “Unfortunately, nine out of ten ads really are scams.”
19-year-old Zuza from Poland is seated at Saskia’s kitchen table. Zuza began looking for housing in Rotterdam last April. The rooms reserved for international students were fully booked, and although she sent more than forty messages to landlords posting on housing websites and to Facebook groups, her efforts were all in vain. “So you can imagine how glad I was when I finally received a reply from a girl who was looking for a flatmate.”
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“We exchanged dozens of messages. She referred me to the landlord and sent me detailed information about the house. She struck me as the perfect flatmate. We have the same interests, and she is a vegetarian, like myself,” Zuza tells us.
She e-mailed the landlord and was sent a contract, along with a request to pay a €1,000 bond. Everything seemed to be in order. “I trusted that it was all above board. In addition to his bank account number, the landlord sent me a scan of his ID.” At the time, Zuza overlooked the fact that she was asked to transfer the bond money into an English bank account, rather than a Dutch one.
After Zuza had transferred the money, her future flatmate wrote to her, saying that she was not going to be living at the house after all. Thinking she was now going to have an empty room in her apartment, Zuza began to look for a new flatmate herself. “I saw a message on Facebook from a Spanish guy who was looking for a room. So I left him a message saying I had some room left in my future apartment, and that he was welcome to come and live with me.”
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At that point, Saskia had already learned from another victim that the address Zuza had been given, Kromme Elleboog 85 (an address EM also encountered in its hunt for swindlers), was being used by scammers. “So Saskia thought I was a scammer,” says Zuza. “She told me to stop scamming people and also mentioned that she had my ID. Which confused the hell out of me.”
Says Saskia: “I actually thought at first that her Facebook account had been hacked by scammers, because her profile seemed so normal.”
The two of them talked to each other on the phone and cleared up the misunderstanding. “I could tell from Zuza’s voice that she was freaking out,” says Saskia. Zuza nods. “Of course I was freaking out! This happened three days before I was supposed to leave for the Netherlands, along with my parents and my brother. We were going to drive, and we had booked an Airbnb for the first few days. When we arrived, we were all completely stressed out. My mother was worried sick that I would be homeless.”
In the end, Saskia offered Zuza her own daughter’s empty room. “At first Zuza refused to take the offer, but I told her: ‘I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for your mother.’”
Saskia is doing her utmost to tackle the problem. She warned Erasmus University and the Rotterdam universities of applied sciences, called the Fraud Helpdesk and even e-mailed Interpol. “Just posting warnings on Facebook will not suffice. The scale of this scam is such that an international effort is warranted. Municipalities must make more houses available, and a new housing policy for students must be drawn up. The Dutch government definitely needs to do something about this.”
Saskia feels it is a disgrace that the university itself is not taking steps to help victims such as Zuza. “How can they recruit thousands of foreign students with no concern for where they are going to live?”
Contact the police
By now Zuza and Saskia have together reported the scam to the police. The police officers took their story seriously and confirmed that these types of scams are extremely common at present. “They will definitely take up the case,” says Saskia. “We must now make sure that the police get as many reports as possible, so if you are a victim, be sure to report the case to the police.” Saskia herself intends to report several moderators of Dutch Facebook groups who are enabling scammers.
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It has been three weeks since Zuza moved in with Saskia. The student sleeps in between boxes containing her own belongings and Saskia’s daughter’s. Her search for a room continues, even though she seems to be no nearer to finding one than she was a few weeks ago. For instance, she was just told that she will be up against 256 other students for an SHH room. “I really have no idea how to win this room lottery,” she says, sounding almost despondent.
Her lectures will start this week. Zuza hopes she will get lucky soon. “I really want to be able to focus on my studies.”
“It’s a good thing I was able to help Zuza out,” says Saskia. “But we both know this is not a permanent solution.”