Crooks are taking advantage of the housing shortage by offering non-existent accommodation. “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
There are some three thousand students looking for a place to live in Leiden this September. Hundreds of auditions for room, selections based on bra size or attitude, dirty kitchens, small stuffy rooms - it is not really anybody’s idea of fun.
And then there it is: a marvellous apartment, affordable, in the centre, private kitchen with dishwasher and all mod cons, AC, washing machine, fully furnished and complete with 34-inch LCD television with DVD player; smoking is permitted, pets are welcome – all for 400 Euros a month.
“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is”, remarks Celeste Overbeek (21). This Medical student discovered, in advertisement on Kamertje.nl, an amazing apartment on Groenesteeg for 475 Euros per month. When she tried to make arrangements to view it, the owner turned out to be in England. “The apartment was locked and he had taken the key with him, because, he said, he didn’t trust housing agencies and he preferred direct contract with the tenant. He looked after the house very carefully, and didn’t trust everybody. If the apartment proved to be disappointing compared to the pictures, he would refund my money. After all, he didn’t want to misrepresent the facts. That’s how he manipulated me.”
Overbeek was filled with misgivings after the first email. “The man kept on saying how honest and reliable he was. That made me suspicious.” When she stopped responding, he kept on pressing her. “He wrote: ‘So you are going to send me the money without viewing the flat?’ - that’s when I was sure it was a scam.”
Leonie Winkhardt (21) is reading German, and also ran into “a man from England”. “The man, Brett Dahoe, said that his 25-year old daughter Lisa had been to university in Leiden and that they had bought this flat for her. She was back in England now. The email contained plenty of details, like, he proudly told me that he was about to become a grandfather. I thought it was rather sweet.” Because he couldn’t come to the Netherlands to hand over the key, everything was to be settled via TNT who would act as a third party and give her the key after the transaction. They would also look after the tenant’s money until the tenant had the key. Just to be safe, Winkhardt went round to the TNT office, where she was told that TNT did not offer any such service. “I was really disappointed: I had already arranged my housewarming party.”
Winkhardt discovered other students with similar experiences on the Internet. “We had all received the same email. Sometimes the man was called Brett Dahoe, or else Tony Thomson or John Smith, and Lisa was sometimes Sabrina or Wendy, but the rest of the story was exactly the same.” Besides Leiden, the flats were offered in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven and Groningen. The blacklists on the Internet are endless; Winkhardt even found the emails on Swiss forums.
Nisse Benhaddaoui (24), who is doing Master’s degree in Journalism and New Media, can concur that the fraudsters also operate outside Leiden: she missed out on her ideal apartment in Amsterdam’s “Nine Streets”. “Such a good location, and it was relatively cheap too. The owner said I could have the flat if I transferred the money in advance. The emails were written in poor English and were full of errors. I soon realised that it was bullshit.” After Googling for only a few moments, Benhaddaoui found a blacklist that mentioned the email address that had been used.
Kamernet confirms that there are crooks operating throughout the country at the moment and recently sent an email to its members with a warning and a few examples and tips. Winkhardt adds: “If someone reports a fake advertisement, Kamernet removes it from the site, but new ones are added just as quickly. I saw two online only this morning, and I’m certain it’s the same crook.” Overbeek explains: “They are taking advantage of the fact that everyone urgently needs somewhere to live. I feel especially bad for first-years.”
According to Marco Leeuwerink, Hollands Midden Police Force’ communications manager, it is quite difficult to assess the scale of the fraud. “If the students haven’t transferred any money, they don’t report anything to the police. And if they do, they often report it in their former town, which makes it hard to get a complete picture. So we don’t actually know what the scope of the problem is.”
According to police spokesman, Yvette Verboon, in Leiden, three instances of fraud have been reported to the police in recent months, including a report of the “landlord” in England. She does not consider that a large number. “Housing scams are always rife in September.” She had not heard of blacklists on the Internet. The police do not see any significance in the fact that for every reported scam, there are probably dozens of victims who didn’t transfer the money. “It’s not a punishable act - you can’t do anything until you have actually lost your money. You can’t accuse everyone who has a cheap flat to let of fraud.”