An advert on Facebook: a furnished apartment with two bedrooms on Kraaierstraat, for 500 Euros per month. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. “Fully furnished apartment, city center”, Anselmo Rubio posts in the Facebook group “Leiden Housing”. No pictures.
Rubio has an extensive Facebook profile, but there’s nothing to suggest any connection to the Netherlands. He lives in Los Angeles, works for an American company and has American relatives.
When we let him know that we’re interested, he sends the “landlord’s” (English) number. Then a certain Andrew Taylor texts: “Sorry for late reply”. We ask if it’s possible to view the place and he replies: “Am somehow busy. That is why I won’t be able to make any viewing. Because am in Amsterdam right now executing a huge project.”
Lesson 1: Scammers are always too busy for a viewing
We can’t view the apartment, because con artists are always somewhere else, for work or some other excuse. The reason that mainly international students are duped by scammers is that they are often still abroad when they search for living space and don’t have any opportunity to view the flat anyway.
This happened to the Indian student (25, Human Rights Law) who lost 1,100 Euros to a fraudster last year. She doesn’t want to be named in the paper. “It’s still a nightmare”, she explains. “It’s so much money, especially in Indian terms. I’ve lost half my savings.”
She should have heeded the warning signs, she admits. The landlord had an English bank account, he was in a hurry and always immediately replied to her emails. “But I even asked a friend in Leiden to check the address. It seemed alright.” She sent a copy of her passport too, which she is now regretting. “Never do that”, she advises. “And don’t pay a thing for a house you’ve haven’t seen with your own eyes.”
Unfortunately, that advice does not always hold water, as Ab Hagenaar can tell. Hagenaar lets three apartments himself, and, using an alias, has taken to Facebook to actively warn international students against scammers. In his free time, he checks Facebook groups, looking out for adverts for living accommodation, publishes the names of scammers, answers questions from international students and hands out tips for recognising a con. This has made a few people angry with him, which is why he uses a pseudonym.
He calls Andrew a real “middle of the road scammer”, a classic example of someone out for easy cash. But the tactics are getting more and more devious. “Some scammers rent something through AirBnB, so victims can actually view a place. They think it’s the real deal and pay up. If you hold viewings every day for a few weeks, you can rake in the cash.” Others agree to meet students in a restaurant, buy them coffee and once the student has paid, hand over a false set of keys. “Of course, the keys don’t fit.” His tip: “Find out who owns the building. The Kadaster (the land registry office) has the details.”
Lesson 2: Photographs and videos could have been made anywhere
The curtains are drawn on the photographs and a video Andrew sends us, so there’s no view to confirm that the flat is in Leiden. If you look more closely, there are some un-Dutch details, including a water cooler and an air con. Sometimes con artists use pictures of hotels, or houses for sale. If you want to exclude that possibility, do a reverse image search on Google. However, we can’t find Andrew’s photographs anywhere on the Internet.
In the meantime, he has sent the full address, Kraaierstraat 8, because he thinks we’re in Germany and can’t check. Kraaierstraat 8 turns out to be a garage. There is an apartment above the garage, number 8a, but we can tell straight away, by looking through the windows, that it’s not the apartment in the pictures.
Andrew is now getting impatient.
11.45: “Let me know if you receive it or not. Waiting for your reply.”
11.46: “Are you there?”
11.50: missed call.
11.55: “Do you receive it. Waiting for your reply.”
He stresses that he needs the money as soon as possible – he can only promise us the apartment when he has confirmation of payment.
We ring him back. Andrew has a strange accent for someone who was born and bred in England (as evident from the passport his sent – probably stolen from a previous victim). His response sounds annoyed: “You told me you were in Germany.” He tries to get out of it by claiming that the apartment is on the non-existent second floor.
Suddenly, he takes a different approach. Of course we can see inside, but there are lots more people who are interested. If they don’t want it, he’ll let us know. After this talk, he blocks us on WhatsApp and won’t answer our emails.
Lesson 3: Scammers are always in a hurry
Once Andrew has dumped us, we get in touch with Oluwasanmi Ajasa. He has an apartment to let in the centre of Leiden. If you look for his name on Facebook, you’ll see that he also lets the same apartment in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
He asks for an email address so that the landlord can contact us. A little later, we get an email from a Mr George Smith. He has an apartment: Houtstraat 3. He has used this address more than once: someone else who has been in contact with him was given the same address. Houtstraat 3 is Duwo student housing. Its residents have never heard of him.
After waiting half a day for our reply, he sends a reminder. “Did you see my last messages I sent to you?” George is in a hurry, like the “landlord” who conned Maari Hinsberg (24, East Asian art history) at the beginning of the year. She had replied to an ad from an Italian girl looking for a housemate who then put her in touch with the landlord. Like the Indian student, she transferred 1,100 Euros.
It was only when the landlord claimed that the council had introduced a new rule obliging her to pay three months’ rent that her suspicions were raised. “I tried to get in touch with the Italian girl again, but her Facebook profile had vanished. That’s when I knew it was trouble.”
Lesson 4: Scammers are hazy on details
Andrew was supposed to be English, but his grasp of that language was precarious. According to George’s driver’s licence, he is an American from Mississippi, but he has an English phone number and uses his “lawyer” Pierre Magnusson’s Swedish bank account number.
Besides, he emails questions a normal landlord would never ask. “Did you take drugs? Did you have car? Did you have pet?”
After that, he sends us a kind of registration form, which asks for not just our address and phone number but also: “Do you drink?” When asked whether he drinks, he replies in the negative. “I don’t drink and the lease agreement you will have it tonight.”
For Dutch students, it’s easy to avoid such tricks. Hagenaar reckons that 80 per cent of the messages he gets come from international students and 20 per cent from Dutch ones. “People are more trusting in countries where the housing shortage isn’t that bad”, he says. “Crooks don’t operate in that area over there, so they’re not aware of it.”
“Dutch people might see through it sooner”, Hinsberg agrees. “But if you live abroad, you have no idea. It’s very stressful trying to find somewhere to live here. You’re desperate and in a hurry.”
This summer, the Law Faculty hired a student assistant for a month to help international students. She went to the viewings, checked out websites that offered places to live, spoke to estate agents and checked leases.
University spokesman Caroline van Overbeeke says that this service was extremely popular and appreciated by the target group. But whether other faculties will follow suit, “we don’t know yet, of course, it’s too early to say. First, the faculty will review this service and relate its findings to Housing, and, in general, with the university.”
Hagenaar believes that it is the universities’ and municipal authorities’ moral obligation to warn students against scammers. “Financially, we do well from international students. I do this voluntarily, alongside my day job, but you could hire people to do it for small amount and that would make it much safer.”
He has one more tip: housingcheck.nl will check whether you are dealing with a scammer for 59 Euros. “I’m in two minds about it, because it’s a commercial agency, but they do a good job.”
Con artist Andrew has a bank account with ABN Amro in his own name. We reported the account number to ABN Amro; the bank recommends anyone who has dealt with a scammer to do the same. “We can investigate with the help of these reports”, spokesman Jarco de Swart informs us. “But it is even more important that the victims report it to the police. It creates the necessary legal possibilities – for the bank, too – to take even more intensive measures against fraudsters.