Undercover with the student housing swindlers

A 1.200 euro deposit for a house that doesn’t exist. Swindlers cheat international…

Sophie van der Zee, assistant professor at Erasmus School of Economics, conducted research in England into rental scams. When she relocated from Lancaster to Cambridge for a post-doc position at the Computer Lab in 2013, she came across all kinds of fake advertisements for accommodation on websites such as Craigslist and Gumtree (the English equivalents of Marktplaats). “The university arranged accommodation for students and PhD students, but not for post-docs. At the start of the academic year, there were hundreds of post-docs all searching for a place to live. And as Cambridge is rather expensive, everything was two or three times over my budget.”

So she responded to various advertisements that seemed too good to be true. When the ‘landlords’ asked her to transfer money via MoneyGram or Western Union, she was wise enough to back off and go through an estate agent.

On her first working day in Cambridge, Van der Zee told her co-workers about these scam attempts. “One of my colleagues, Richard Clayton, had conducted a lot of research into internet fraud and said that, as yet, no scientific research had been conducted into these types of rental scams. So we set up an experimental study to research how you can recognise these scams and whether the scammers are actually good at what they do.”

Her paper is yet to be published, but she told us about the most important conclusions.

Second-hand car salesmen

Sophie van der Zee Image credit: Rafaël Philippen

Together with her colleagues, Van der Zee identified 44 fake advertisements for rental apartments on the British Craiglist site. She used unique false identities and accompanying email addresses to correspond with all these scammers. “We discovered that the scammers often used familiar persuasive strategies. What did we find? They use the same tactics as a second-hand car salesmen.” For example, scammers almost invariably appeal to authority, they try to appear sympathetic, or emphasize scarcity or urgency by indicating that others are interested in the living space.

“But if you look more closely as to how they use these principles, you see that almost all of them use these incorrectly. They are often unfamiliar with local rental procedures or don’t understand the cultural differences,” explained Van der Zee.

Take, for instance, using authority as a persuasion strategy, one of the methods that EM also regularly came across among scammers. For example, the scammers state that they need to consult ‘their lawyer’ about the contract. “But in the Netherlands or England, no lawyer is involved in renting an apartment,” stated Van der Zee. “Scammers also e-mailed us regularly to say such things as ‘I’m a god-fearing woman’. That is certainly not a comment that will impress an 18-year-old in Western Europe.”


Van der Zee also discovered two unique strategies that many rental scammers use. “Scammers often try to present proof to enhance their credibility. I’ve even had someone warning me for scammers on the internet. They also regularly offered reference letters or e-mail addresses of previous tenants. I noticed that you were also sent proofs of identity.”

In addition to the fact that a genuine landlord would never try to convince you that they are legitimate, it’s also a signal that someone is lying. “From deception literature, we know that when someone speaks the truth, they assume that the listener believes them and doesn’t feel the need to try to persuade you. However, we saw that some liars are actually very active in trying to convince you that they’re speaking the truth.”

Rental scammers also try to remove any obstacles. “I found that really intriguing: scammers try to make you feel as comfortable as possible. You don’t want to rent the whole apartment, but just one of the rooms? No problem. The room is available either furnished or unfurnished. You can decide yourself when you want to rent the apartment. You only want the room for five months? That’s fine. You want to live there for five years? That’s also fine. And, of course, you never see this in the real world. So, if the conditions are flexible, it is probably a scam.”

How do you recognise a scammer?

Van der Zee worked with EM in our undercover search for scammers. We asked for her comments on various obvious tactics that we came across multiple times during our investigation. Click on the image to read her comments.

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Nigerian Prince

“This form of scamming started in Nigeria in the 1970s and is known in literature as an advance-fee scam or 419 scam (‘419’ refers to the article in the Nigerian Criminal Code about this type of scam, TF),” explained Van der Zee. “With the rise of the internet this has really taken off. It’s always treated as a laughing matter: the e-mail from a Nigerian Prince in your inbox who promises a huge sum of money if you first just transfer a couple of hundred euros.”

If you know what to look out for, rental scams are rather transparent. For instance, there may be typing errors in the address, the scammers’ English is poor, or the procedure is just that bit different than usual when renting accommodation. For example, scammers often try to refuse a viewing with feeble excuses.

But becoming a victim is certainly not a case of you’ve only got yourself to blame, stated Van der Zee. “I think the huge amount of victim blaming and shaming related to cybercrime in general and these types of scams in particular is really problematic. Official authorities often don’t take reports seriously and the victim or those close to the victim say: ‘How can you have been so stupid?’” While, according to Van der Zee, the scams, and certainly the rental scams, are designed to target those people who are already in a vulnerable position to fall for such scams.


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The Housing Scam Epidemic

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Time wasters

Van der Zee suspects that the fake advertisements and communication from the scammers is consciously transparent. “For scammers, these scams are a kind of job: the more time they spend on communication with a potential victim, the faster they can filter out the time wasters, as the scammers call them.”

For some types of cybercrime, sending one e-mail is sufficient, explained Van der Zee. Phishing e-mails that contain an appendix or weblink, for instance. As soon as a potential victim clicks, the damage is often already done. “This means that the more believable these phishing e-mails are, the more effective the scam and the higher the returns.”


In a romance scam, the extreme end of the spectrum, a scammer pretends to be a potential partner and there will be several months of communication before the first payment. “As a scammer, you’re not going to do that with someone who isn’t going to pay. The more time and effort the scammer needs to invest, the more transparent the attempt will be, so the people who are already sceptical will drop out quickly.”

According to Van der Zee, rental scams are somewhere between a one-off phishing e-mail and a romance scam of several months. As rental scammer you also need to filter out the people who are not inclined to pay, because you need multiple Facebook messages, e-mails or intercontinental telephone calls before a potential victim pays.

“What is unique about these rental scams is that they respond to a need,” continued Van der Zee. The scammers are taking advantage of the scarcity in the housing market. “They target people who need something in the short term. Students searching for accommodation respond to scammer advertisements, or a scammer responds directly to a request from an accommodation-seeking student. They often come across as people who offer accommodation in a way that is a little bit more appealing than would be the case in reality: a bit cheaper or nicer than the standard accommodation offered. But on the current Dutch housing market, with students who have to live in expensive hostels or sleep in tents, it seems to be enough simply to offer anything. This need makes you more vulnerable.”