Then her phone went off. A message warned her about suspect activities involving her citizen service number (BSN). She took the call and talked to someone claiming to work for the Ministry of Justice and Security.

She was shocked, because the person on the phone told her that there was an ongoing police inquiry. During a drug raid in Amsterdam, a car in her name had been found. Having explained that she didn’t have a car, she was told that she was also suspected of money laundering. The police had called on her that week, but she hadn’t been home. Which was probably true because she’d spent most of the week in the ISS building.

Stay in The Netherlands

If she didn’t cooperate with the investigation, the man on the phone threatened that her BSN would be blocked. She panicked: how would that affect her stay in the Netherlands? The man put her through to someone else, who told her what the inquiry involved. ‘Justice’ wanted to investigate her account, so she needed to transfer her money temporarily into a ‘safe account’.

The best way to do that was via Coinbase, said the ‘justice employee’. When she was unable to create an account on the crypto platform, the man persuaded her to install AnyDesk, software that can control devices remotely. She installed it on her phone and laptop, so that the Ministry could do its investigation. The screens went black, and she couldn’t see what was happening.

Scammed

Golden ended up spending three and a half hours on the phone to different people claiming to be employees of the Ministry or the Public Prosecutor. They kept telling her that she needed to cooperate with the judicial enquiry. She was frightened because she thought failure to do so might jeopardise her stay in the Netherlands.

That night, she lay awake worrying. They had insisted that she must not tell anyone about this for the next 24 hours. The next morning, however, she called a friend and asked him to come over. She didn’t dare explain the situation on the phone, afraid that the Ministry of Justice would be listening, and only told him when he arrived. He immediately realised that she had been scammed.

For Tanya Wijngaarde from the FraudeHelpdesk, Golden’s story sounds familiar. Since the autumn 2021, the helpdesk has received over 16,000 reports from students about this phone scam. “And that’s a lot for a specific form of fraud.” In two hundred of these cases, someone had transferred money or disclosed their details.

These reports are all very similar: a phone call from the ‘National Police’, the ‘Ministry of Justice’ or ‘the Dutch Supreme Court’ claiming that suspect activities have been reported involving your citizen service number of that you are suspected of drug dealing or money laundering. Under the guise of the inquiry, the scammers try to convince you to transfer money or install software which gives them access to your laptop. “The extent suggests that it’s a kind of dragnet, but there are also cases whereby the scammer knew the last three digits of someone’s bsn. Whatever else, it is intensive, coordinated work.”

“We see that non-Dutch people are vulnerable,” says Wijngaarde. They don’t always know what is normal. “In the past, we have also had reports of phone calls in which the scammer pretended to be an IND employee.” In this way they put pressure or create anxiety.

9,000 euros gone

She immediately went to the police. They didn’t help at that moment, so she had to return the next day to report it. Meanwhile she had discovered that she only had a little over 100 euros in her ABN account, 9,000 euros had been transferred to an ING account. Being Saturday, it was difficult to contact her bank and ING. But eventually, she managed to get her account blocked and was told by ING that the 9,000 euros had gone – invested in cryptos. That week, the ICT department at ISS helped her format her phone and laptop.

The scam has had a huge impact: Golden has not only suffered financially but also emotionally, and her studies have been delayed. There are days when she can’t concentrate for longer than ten minutes.

She doesn’t dare tell her parents that she’s been scammed. They live in India and 9,000 euros is more than their annual income. She had saved the money through scholarships, NGOs, and private support. Her mother would react as hysterically as most mothers in Bollywood films, she says with a smile.

Suspect

Later, Golden remembers what she had mistrusted about the phone call. The fact that accents and names didn’t correspond, for example. One of the people she had spoken to on the phone had an Indian accent and an English name. But some people come from a diverse background, so she wasn’t sure. And of course, there were other moments when she didn’t trust the situation, but she was emotional during the conversation, had deadline stress and above all was afraid: what if it was all true and not cooperating would affect her stay in the Netherlands?

She is sharing her story mainly to warn others. In the same week, other ISS students received the same phone call. She thinks that Dutch students will quickly realise that it’s a scam. But as an international student, you don’t know. She is very disillusioned. Things like this don’t happen in a western country like the Netherlands, she thought when she arrived. She has never heard or seen any warnings.

She doesn’t expect any further action from the police or the bank. The money has gone. There was some talk of her being eligible for compensation from the bank, but nearly three months later, that is still unclear. She is looking for a job, and fortunately ISS is temporarily helping her pay her rent. She is trying not to think about the incident too much, because it is so stressful. Her main hope is that the positivity that she always had will return.

What should you do if you experience the same scam as Golden did?

  • Call your bank as soon as possible.
  • Report it to the police, via politie.nl or 0900 8844.
  • Have your laptop or phone checked and formatted if you’ve installed software, but only do that after you have reported it so that you don’t delete evidence.
  • Change your usernames and passwords.
  • Be aware of phone calls in the future because it is very likely that someone will try again. Scammers often use call lists of people they have scammed previously. In the following days, you may often receive more suspect phone calls.
  • Report fraud and scams to the FraudeHelpdesk. This is a national organisation that supports victims of scams, drafts warnings and reports to the Ministry of Justice and Security.
  • Don’t underestimate the emotional impact. Contact your study advisor or a student psychologist if you need mental support.
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