Students targeted by rental scams
MAASTRICHT. Two master’s students from Portugal lost two thousand euros to a rental scam. On WhatsApp, a man posing as a landlord had promised them a two-bedroom flat in the centre of Maastricht. It turned out to be nothing but a lie. Although the summer rush on student housing is over, posts about scams are still popping up on Facebook. International students in particular are being targeted. They shared their stories with Observant. “These kinds of things are damaging to the reputation of an international city.”
Friday morning, 28 August. Inês Terêncio and Matilde Machado, two friends and master’s students from Portugal, spent the previous night in a hotel after arriving in Maastricht. They are now waiting in front of a blue door on Sint Nicolaasstraat 35B, as agreed with their landlord. So far, they’ve only spoken to him on WhatsApp. They’ve already transferred two thousand euros to the man. “It was all quite chaotic”, says Terêncio. “He kept giving us different bank account numbers, sometimes French, sometimes Belgian. It went step by step: first a deposit, then monthly rent and then again an additional deposit. We desperately needed the flat, so we didn’t want to be too difficult about it.”
They wait in front of the house on Sint Nicolaasstraat for over an hour. The landlord sends them excuse after excuse on WhatsApp. “First he apologised because the flat hadn’t been cleaned yet, then the caretaker wasn’t around, then he said he was on his way, then he said he wasn’t, and then he stopped responding altogether.”
They ring the doorbell. A girl opens the front door. “No, there’s no flat for rent here.” That’s when the students realise they’ve been scammed.
A few days later, they go to the police to report the crime, “but they didn’t seem all that interested”. Oddly enough, their fake landlord had contacted the students again by then. “He asked us to give him our international bank account number”, says Terêncio. “He said he wanted to give the money back. In the end, he didn’t.” The students spent ten days in a hotel, “not an ideal environment for online tutorials.” They eventually found a studio through a rental agency. “Unfortunately, it has only one bedroom and it’s very expensive, but it’s OK.”
They find it frustrating that the police aren’t doing anything. The municipality also hasn’t replied to their email yet.
Michiel Maes, spokesperson for the local police force, says that a few rental scams were recently reported to the police, but “there isn’t much we can do apart from issuing warnings. It’s often a civil case, as it’s about an agreement between two parties. The scammers also use international bank accounts, which makes these cases difficult to investigate. We tell students not to transfer any money if they haven’t seen the room yet, especially if they don’t trust or know the landlord.”
But international students looking for accommodation are at a serious disadvantage here. They can’t just fly to the Netherlands for an afternoon to view a house. And scammers are cunning; most claim to be abroad themselves, so that potential renters can’t see the house first anyway. They also don’t provide any up-to-date video footage of the house or its surroundings.
German ID card
It was in July when the students from Portugal responded to an advertisement in one of the largest Facebook groups for housing in Maastricht: Rooms/Kamer/Zimmer in Maastricht. They made contact with Andreas Freiherr, a man from Germany. “Well, he sent us a copy of a German ID card on WhatsApp.” Pictures of the flat followed. They signed a contract. “Sure, every now and then we felt like something was off, but he was going out of his way to prove that we could trust him. He even showed us the deed to the property.” Both students are 24 years old, work as pharmacists in Portugal, and had applied to the master’s degree in European Public Health at Maastricht University. “We had to work, look for housing and prepare for the admission procedure. It was stressful. We were happy to have found a place.”
“The Maastricht housing market is crazy, especially in the summer months”, says Laura Meyer, a German master’s student in the School of Business and Economics who also looked for accommodation on Facebook. “On average, fifty to sixty people reply to an advertisement for a room. You don’t even get a reply most of the time.” But she got lucky. Or so she thought. She almost fell for a scam three times. One of those was a very elaborate scam. “I communicated with the landlady on WhatsApp. It was about a three-bedroom flat. One of the rooms was occupied by the owner, but ‘she wasn’t there because she was studying Medicine in London’, one would be mine and one would be occupied by a student from Greece who wouldn’t arrive until October.”
Alarm bells went off in Meyer’s head several times: the landlady refused to Skype with her, the pictures she sent seemed to be of different rooms, and Meyer felt like the photo (of a blond woman) on the ID card didn’t match her voice. “She had an African accent. But she always responded quickly to my questions; she even gave me the phone number of the Greek student who was also going to live there. The student picked up immediately and she was nice, too!” It was too good to be true. “I suspected it was a set-up.” For Meyer, it was the last straw. “Unbelievable”, she says. “Those scammers are so cunning. I hope that my story will raise awareness for the problem and help people to not fall for this.”
Google Street View
Sandra Formen, a first-year student of Biomedical Sciences from Germany, also had doubts about a story of a so called Charlotte, a ‘landlady’, but she gave her the benefits – although for a while. “I’d asked this landlady to take a picture of herself holding her passport, so that I could verify her identity. And I did the same thing which I regret now, it’s a mistake and I’ve learned from it.” Formen saw that the landlady’s nationality was German, so she sent her a message in German. Oddly enough, the woman replied that she hadn’t grown up in Germany and didn’t really speak the language: Ich bin nicht in Deutschland aufgewachsen, also spreche ich wenig.
“I thought it was weird. The pictures of the flat also didn’t seem to match its location on Google Street View.” Still, Formen felt pressured, fearing that the room would go to someone else.
Just when she was about to transfer a hundred euros to ‘Charlotte’, her sister came across a story about rental scams on Facebook. Charlotte’s name was mentioned in the post. Formen intended to report the scam to the police, “but in the end I didn’t, I was so busy. I had limited time to move into a new room and UM didn’t accept my diploma (which was a mistake on their side), which of course worried me a lot.”
As it turns out, Google Street View is a good way to verify pictures. Emma Gachon, a first-year University College Maastricht student from France, could tell by the view that she was being scammed. “It was all wrong.” By now, Gachon has learnt that scammers want you to pay in advance, “but I said I wasn’t going to do that. I would make my decision once I’d arrived in Maastricht and had seen the room.” She almost fell victim to a scam twice, but realised it just in time both times.
Rick Blezer of Huurteam Zuid-Limburg (formerly Housing Helpdesk) would like students to always report scams and attempted scams. “Over the past months, we’ve had ten rental scam cases. Most questions are asked in July and August, when the housing market is very busy. For some people, we prevented worse consequences by advising them not to pay.”
Huurteam Zuid-Limburg has compiled a list of warning signs to identify a scam, the way scammers tend to work, and so on. Rick Blezer can’t talk about it, as scammers would be able to use it to their advantage. Does he have any tips for students then? “Scammers often ask you to pay a lot of money up front: a deposit and sometimes several months’ rent. That’s the moment when you should begin to doubt their story. And whenever you think ‘This is too good to be true’, it usually is.”